James Franco likes to talk about reading on the toilet, and to talk to reporters while relieving himself at a urinal. His performance art includes videos with "close-up shots of a urinating penis and a defecating anus." What gives?
At first, the takeaway from Sam Anderson's profile of James Franco in New York seems to be that Franco is an overachiever without any particularly transcendent achievement. Behind the whole insane apparatus of his career — acting in major films, the four graduate programs, soon to include a fifth (Yale Ph.D) and some Rhode Island School of Design courses, producing student films, a solo art show, General Hospital — is simply a glutton for homework, it seems. He's an Organization Kid who happens to gravitate towards queer theory.
According to everyone I spoke with, Franco has an unusually high metabolism for productivity. He seems to suffer, or to benefit, from the opposite of ADHD: a superhuman ability to focus that allows him to shuttle quickly between projects and to read happily in the midst of chaos. He hates wasting time-a category that includes, for him, sleeping. (He'll get a few hours a night, then survive on catnaps, which he can fall into at any second, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation.)
Even though Anderson, usually a book critic, seems slightly in love with Franco — several commenters call him out on it, and one suggests Franco-Anderson fanfic — he isn't under any illusions that all of this rabid application of his work ethic is actually producing anything remarkable. "He's an excellent writer, for an actor. He's brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that's good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits...He's not a savant or an obvious genius—he's someone of mortal abilities who seems to be working immortally hard."
It's not really clear why Franco is working so hard, except that maybe he doesn't know any other way to function. But there is something endearing, despite the solipsism evident in some of his side projects, about the fact that he is so unentitled. Yes, he's gotten a lot of breaks because of his looks and Hollywood gloss. But he's also a handsome white guy, born into privilege and given more of it, who seems determined to earn something through stolid labor.
Which brings us to the potty stuff. Anderson argues, convincingly, that "Franco's main artistic obsession —the subject that echoes across all of his various media—is adolescence... In fact, you could say that Franco's entire career is suspended, right now, in a kind of artistic adolescence. We're watching him transition, a little awkwardly, from one creature (the Hollywood-dependent star) to another (the self-actualized, multiplatform artist)...Franco is developing all kinds of new strengths, but at the cost of some of his dignity."
But it seems that this strange transparency, in which we see all of Franco's effort, is by design, just like letting the reporter follow him into the bathroom. Franco, of the obscenely beautiful bone structure, is demystifying the face that could have allowed him to coast through life, in the bathroom or when he puts a prosthetic penis on his face for his short film Dicknose In Paris. He isn't a very good writer, but he's trying to make himself better. He isn't afraid to be ridiculous. He has his characters say things like, "Man and woman are impossible ideals... We're all gender-fucked—we're all something in between, floating like angels." And he's trying so hard to mean it.