Sunday, August 22, 2010

Take Three: James Franco

Craig here with another Take Three.

Well hell, if I didn’t feature James Franco on Take Three now I never will. His largely supporting career is likely to spill over into full-time leading man status any day now. I’d bet my Spider-Man box-set that in seven months he’ll have either a Best Actor Oscar sat on his desk or at least a well-deserved nomination as consolation; his lead role in Danny Boyle’s freshly-completed true-life tale 127 Hours will surely see him shunted up a few rungs on both the awards and career ladder.

<-- Franco in the true story 127 Hours

Either way, this time next year Franco may very well be beating off his peers for bigger, meatier roles in even more substantial fare (The Rise of Franco may coincide with The Rise of the Apes), or he may continue alternating occasional leads with further supporting roles and directing acclaimed - and award-winning, no less - short arthouse films, all whilst chiselling away at his off-screen, one-man Creative Arts Industry (studying, writing, painting, most likely sending out the gallery invites, and all-round general arts appreciation when he’s not in front of the camera).

There has been a sprinkling of leads, mainly in slightly derivative stuff such as Sonny (Nic Cage’s Own Private Gigolo), rote military-boxing drama Annapolis and period snog-a-thon Tristan + Isolde. (These sit just above the near-lead performances to be filed under Quickly Forgotten: did anyone who's not a Franco completist see Camille, Blind Spot or Mother Ghost?)

But it feels like Franco’s on the verge of the Big Time, doesn’t it? The 127 Hours role, and other recent work, feel neatly positioned to bring home the gold: working with hot-off-Slumdog Danny Boyle on real-life source material; a well-praised turn in Ginsberg biopic Howl; more Appatow-ing the line in Your Highness out soon. He’s currently making good on the adulation from 2008’s Pineapple Express and Milk (see below for both) by grafting away in solid roles in the currently-on-release Eat Pray Love and the incoming indie William Vincent. So what better time to look at his (mostly) supporting career so far: back to the here and now with three Franco takes.

Take One: With great Goblins come not-so-great costumes

It was the ‘01-‘02 double of the James Dean TV biopic (snagging him a Golden Globe win and Emmy nom) and his role as Willem Dafoe’s Goblin son Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002)* that lifted Franco out of relative anonymity and stretched his acting chops on screens big and small. He played Osborn as a privileged and ultimately petulant second-tier villain caught between friendship with snap-happy flatmate Peter Parker and kinship with Dafoe’s angry paterfamilias over the course of three Spidey flicks.

Like-father-like-son he eventually got so wound up with the webslinger that, by the time Spider-Man 3 came swinging onto our screens, he'd ended up dusting off dad’s green helmet to become the New Goblin, adding a fifth to the trilogy’s baddie quartet assault of Dafoe’s original Goblin, Octo-Molina, Sandy-Haden Church and a Venomous Topher Grace.

Franco’s gradual emergence as Goblin Junior ran parallel with Maguire’s evolving path to arachnid superhero. He has to straddle the emotional divide where friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Sozzled by booze and riled for revenge, by the third film he’s taken up his dead father's position as head of Oscorp and vows to avenge his death by being very mean and moody indeed. He doesn’t quite want to destroy best mate Spidey but a magical mirror reflecting Dafoe tells him otherwise: so he gets dolled up in Goblin get-up and zips around New York on a souped-up surfboard. Nice work if you can get it.

The villains were always the better roles in Spider-Man - as they are in most superhero flicks - and Franco gets to loose the more insidious side of Harry's persona, and do it well. Over the course of the trilogy he went from perky nerd to stroppy Goblin novice. He kinda looks like he's having fun (early on at least), but by the end of Spider-Man 2 he looks as though it's all an irksome bother. Harry doesn't take defeat well - he's more green gobshite than green goblin - but Franco ensures we commiserate his comeuppance all the same. The exposure Franco received undoubtedly helped him snag better parts after this, but it was a savvy role to take, key for an actor wanting to further his stardom.

*Take One is about all three Spider-Man flicks. It seems daft to just talk about him in one of them.

Take Two: Got Milk?

It’s ideal to watch Milk (2008) two or more times to really grasp how good Franco is as Scott Smith - Harvey Milk’s lover, companion and first man of the future Mayor of Castro Street. Not because he isn’t immediately noticeably good, but because he imparts so many tiny flickers of variable emotion over many fast-cut, piecemeal scenes (particularly over the film’s first hour) that grasping just how good his performance is can be easily missed with a sole viewing.

The spirited early ‘70s scenes (roughly the 1972-1977 period coinciding with Harvey's relationship with Scott) are some of Milk’s best. Franco lends them an easygoing affability: flared and curly-haired, he fits Gus Van Sant’s favoured era of cinematic exploration like hand in glove. Cinematographer Harris Savides does some of his most stellar work yet, and captures Franco at his most relaxed; he lights him in beamy, radiant fashion. Whenever he and Penn share an intimate moment, the camera closes in on his searching, smiling eyes - once or twice in extreme close-up - or it casually frames how laid back he is in the role.

The performance is complimented and enhanced by the smooth surety of the filmmaking. (It may not be Van Sant’s best film, but it features some of the most guaranteed acting he’s coaxed from his actors.) The editing generously assists in shaping Franco’s often silent, fragmentary moments. In a late dinner scene with Milk, Scott expresses his concerns about the social and political implications of his burgeoning career, and struggles to verbalise what he means coherently. (As the film’s tone darkens, that bright smile flattens, barely hiding his interior worries.)

Editor Elliot Graham abruptly cuts from this moment to a strikingly composed shot of Scott alone, behind the window of Milk’s HQ/camera shop; he’s pensively searching the street outside with a blankly dimmed expression. Castro Street, the site of much political and sexual upheaval, becomes reflected back inside the shop, blurring the frame into a confused clutter denoting Scott's interior state:

The juxtaposition of these two minor-seeming moments/images subtly and crucially reflects some of our own investment in the story, largely thanks to the way Franco quietly expresses Scott’s illimitable anxieties. Here, and indeed elsewhere in the film, Franco creates in Scott a soul mate for Milk - initially carefree, latterly tender - and gives one of his best performances to date in the process.

Take Three: Dude, where’s my carnage?

He had me at “Who is iiit?”

It was Franco’s gleefully amiable, high-pitched way of answering his intercom system - a small, probably ad-libbed vocalisation - which made me chuckle long into the scene it introduced; he playfully riffed and expanded on the cheeky charm of this throwaway moment throughout the remainder of the film, and gave one of 2008’s best male comedy performances. His Saul Silver - a cheeky, unofficial fleshing out of Brad Pitt’s stoner character from True Romance on writer combo Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s part - made Pineapple Express what it was.

They clearly saw the latent potential for further comedic mileage inherent in the Pitt character, and gave him a film of his own to have a riot in - and in the process allowing Franco a gem of a part in which to flex his funny bone. If it were just Saul’s story, without Rogan’s Dale Denton, he’d have carried the film just fine, and would’ve likely blissfully traded quips with nothing but the joint-fumed air around him. But every good supporting slacker needs a leading man to mooch around; the cute, affectionate banter of the film is derived purely through their odd-couple-but-not-so-odd-couple relationship. (Think of a spliffed-up Walter Matthau needling a baffled Jack Lemmon.)

But there’s little need to waste too much time pontificating on all the ins and outs of subtle craftsmanship and intricate soul-bearing performance style (though those things are somewhere surely present and correct) in pondering how good Franco’s extended remix stoner was: it’s simply, to my eyes and ears at least, solid, no-fuss comic acting, refreshingly free of either method or madness. He simply got on with it, and made genially funny look effortless; his role a breeze across the screen. Reaching for depth is unneeded - ingesting the Class-A charm he easefully brought to the film is enough.

By the time the film turns into a carnival of bloody carnage, a Lethal Weapon with laughs, Saul and Dale are firm mates; they end on a best bud love-in. Saul is the kind of guy you may know of (or met during college?), but never became too friendly with - he's 'that drug guy' over there, someone's sidelined sidekick. What Franco, director David Gordon Green and co. did was give a guy like Saul a life beyond the sofa. He was still the sidekick but he took his best sluggish stab at the opportunity to shine for a few days. If it looks like the work is too easy for Franco, that shouldn't fool us into thinking it's lazy acting. Far from it - the character is so well defined and fleshed out it's like we were close with 'that drug guy' all along. Franco's been grafting hard in the movies for quite some - but I feel his best is yet to come.


NicksFlickPicks said...

I don't want your Spider-Man box set, but I'll be very surprised if the Franco buzz for 127 Hours holds. Boyle just doesn't seem like an actor's director, and even if the movie clicks, this seems like a reach.

I liked Franco a lot post-Spider-Man and post-James Dean in Michael Caton-Jones's City by the Sea, made right before it become obvious that starring in a De Niro pic was just as likely to stall your career as advance it. He might have overdone the character just a shade, but his vulnerability and fecklessness were memorable, and I actually liked the whole movie, even though it didn't make a peep.

Best Comedy Movies of All Time said...

He is definitely a very versatile actor. Oddly, one of my favorite roles for him was as the friendly, goofy drug dealer in Pineapple Express. He has definitely got some great comedic talent.

Maeb said...

Well-written article, but the writer comes off a bit over-zealous (that part about Franco's "future Oscar" for 127 Hours seemed a bit feckless, knowing how unpredictable oscar predictions are for movies at this point, especially unreleased ones) Either way, I think Franco is in danger for becoming too famous for being James Franco.

Kurtis O said...

He's so dreamy. I hope "127 Hours" is good, because "Howl" was definitely not.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Wow: "feckless" shows up in two out of four comments! FYC: Best Supporting Adjective.

Mirko said...

I agree that he's doing very well, expecially after PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and MILK (oscar snub?)

the buzz around 127 HOURS is not absurd, the movie seems a one-man-show, Franco is quite "hot" at the moment and the new Boyle's won't pass unanoticed

Volvagia said...

What's crazy about it is Oscar = 100% line delivery. So an hour without an actor delivering lines is probably not going to play well to them at all. It'll ensure him a nomination in the future, and it may even secure a nomination for Howl, but it won't be for this film that he's noticed.


Nick -- i haven't ever seen that. now i'm curious.

Maeb -- being in danger of being too famous as yourself is always a curious acting problem. But at the same time it's an acting problem most film stars seem to want to have.

Volvagia -- er... tell the line delivery equation to the multiple people nominated for playing mutes. :) BTW Howl isn't going anywhere. People aren't enthused about it. If there's an Oscar future this year, it's 127 HOURS.

Dimitra said...

James Franco is evolving into a very interesting actor. After playing A LOT of soldiers, he's choosing a great variety of projects. I particularly liked him in Milk, better than Josh Brolin and had me laughing to tears in Pineapple Express.
I'm looking forward to Howl and 127 Hours and wish him all the best.

Volvagia said...

Just took a look at the Academy Award for Best Actor list. There has not been a mute nominee in that category in close to 30 years. The closest is Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, which, as I've said, is a non-performance that shouldn't have even touched that specific ballot.

/3rtfu11 said...

Including James Franco in Take Three is like giving George Clooney a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Anonymous said...

I so did not need to see a picture of James Franco on a toilet doing that.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Nick - Maybe the Franco buzz will abate, but it's pointing positively in his direction at this early stage. Oscar sometimes returns to a previously lavished director a year or two after their win, so it may get some technical nods, if not acting.

Maeb - over-zealous perhaps, but all enthusiasm, however eager, builds a little more buzz. I do think he's in with a fair chance though. But yes, maybe it is still early days for solid predictions. (My track record in successfully predicting Oscar is sketchy at best: I said I'd eat my own hat if Julianne Moore didn't get a nod for A Single Man this year - and now I have a cold head.) A true indication will be if Franco remains in Nathaniel's top 5 line-up over the next few months.

/3rtfu11 - as in he shouldn't be here? I do think he's more of a support actor right now, but he's still only bordering on lead. One of the criteria (not that it's all too serious, defined) is to look at an actor's supporting work where possible, which is why I picked those three film roles. But there are many more "typical" character/supporting actors lined up for Take 3. And maybe a few more oddballs/wild cards!

/3rtfu11 said...


I apologize. I assumed Take Three was a place design to highlight Character Actors. Famous ones like Anjelica Huston and forgotten ones like Nancy Allen. James Franco is very attractive and in the early stages of his career. It feels a bit odd to me he would fit the profile – at least the one I perceived previously. I guess I should be excited Leading Men and Women who either haven’t broken through or never did will be featured.

Craig Bloomfield said...

/3rtfu11 - No need to apologise. Take Three is ostensibly a place to highlight character/supporting actors. It's a blurred and tricky area to define who is and who isn't (and in a way it's all just daft categories); sometimes it's obvious (JT Walsh, Celia Weston for example), sometimes not (Don Cheadle, Viggo Mortensen). But an actor who is "on the border" (either between supp/lead or between about to be big/never made it) can be featured as long as the primary concern is looking at the support work where possible. I'd say he was more support than lead - but he's "on the turn". Throwing a Franco or similar into Take 3 once in a while doesn't hurt. I think Anjelica Huston is a "bordering" type actor too though. It's all a bit elastic - and the main focus is the acting of whoever's spotlighted.


anon -- i'm sure he wasn't, you know, doing that. Blame the photo shoot! ;)

/3rtfu11 said...


I can’t help myself from comparing the career trajectory of Anjelica Huston and Kathy Bates. Yes it started at the 63rd Academy Awards but I can’t let go of the fun facts. Both women are currently tied with 3 Oscar nominations, one of those nominations being the female co-star of Jack Nicholson in the same category Supporting Actress, both women won on their first nomination. Both women are currently tied having worked with Woody Allen twice – Bates co-stars in his (2011) Paris movie, she also played a prostitute in Shadows and Fog. Both women co-starred with James Caan. Both women currently have no Emmys between them.

Huston dabbled with television recently with a guest stint on Medium. Bates is the lead of the new David E Kelley show Harry’s Law. Both women are popular with gay men and children. Bates does have the edge though I think more American women identify with her – especially her Fried Green Tomatoes role.

/3rtfu11 said...

I forgot one more thing -- they're both directors!

Simone said...

Of the 14 films I'll be seeing at TIFF, '127 Hours' is one of them as I love James Franco. Some people seriously underestimate this very talented and ambitious actor. He's as talented as he is handsome and he can be brooding and funny, convincingly. Hopefully I can submit a decent review of the film for this blog.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of James Franco - I see him in a biopic about Jeff Buckley. Certainly looks the part and bet he'd be spectacular.