I could have hosted the Oscars in my sleep. Apparently, that's what James Franco tried to do. Call this my "Michelle McGee/Tiger Woods Mistress moment." I'd like to reveal that I too, Kristina Wong, am a woman scorned by a celebrity. I've held this secret from the paparazzi for a couple years but what better time than the week after the Oscars for my personal celebrity exposé? I didn't watch the Oscars. I've been on a bit of a James Franco boycott for the last two years while the rest of America has been all over his nutsack.
Why am I on a James Franco fast? Flashback to April 2008. I am at the peak of touring Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (my show about depression and suicide among Asian American women that I have been touring since 2006). In a hotel room in Amherst, Massachusetts, I get an email from UCLA (my alma mater) inviting me to give the commencement speech at the English Department Graduation. Franco, one of the more famous graduates of the class of 2008, would be in the audience.
Of course this was a huge surprise as I barely remember being an English major. College was like a washing machine of post-traumatic stress, dry humping opportunities that just fell out of reach, and drunken nights/months that all became fodder for the shows I make today. Apparently, UCLA found my awkwardness/achievements noteworthy enough to share with the graduating class of 2008 and their loved ones.
I accepted the invitation enthusiastically even though I was scheduled to be at the Hermitage Retreat in Florida that same time. The residency was on the Manasota Key, two hours from the Sarasota airport. It was quite the endeavor to get off the island and to the airport to fly back to L.A. to give this speech—but this was a huge honor, and I was going to take it, even if it meant a precious week at my artist retreat would be spent tearing my hair out to write said speech and zig-zagging back and forth across the country to deliver it.
Writing that commencement speech was no easy task. I deliver goofiness, self-deprecation, and cynicism for a living, so trying to parlay that into a "here's some inspiration as you embark into the world" motivational mastery is completely counter to my style. My old tricks would not be welcome. I couldn't plug in my overhead projector at the lectern or whip objects out of my metaphorical vagina. I contemplated plagiarizing my speech from the internet but unlike fellow commencement speakers JK Rowling, Conan O'Brien, and Ali G—I didn't have a well known celebrity persona to subvert. I couldn't self-deprecate to a crowd that had no context for me. I couldn't even grab their attention with a superficial list of IMDb credits.
This was public speaking straight up. Twelve drafts, several frantic cross-country phone calls and five bottles of wine later, I penned my speech. I fly 6 hours to L.A., slip on the mortarboard and gown they rented for me, and sit among my old professors where we look like a chamber meeting of Harry Potter wizards.
They introduce me to a crowd of thousands and it's speech time! I approach the podium like a hip-hop star as Eminem's "Lose Yourself" blasts through Pauley Pavillion. I get everyone cheering and screaming for themselves, their lovers and fathers (graduation fell on Father's Day). I introduce myself as an independent artist who while not wealthy or well known, believes that I am helping people's lives by provoking dialogue on social issues mainstream media doesn't touch. I describe how like so many protagonists of American literature, I broke through the expectations of a robotic overachieving life. I make the connection between the Bard and how I freelanced for a porn magazine (Playgirl) for a year. I got life-coachy like Marianne Williamson, pumped everyone up to vote for Obama, and then gave out my phone number at the end. I was awesome.
After the speech, nobody throws me the finger. There were cheers and laughs—lots of them. There were kudos from old professors. And as the kids file out into the world, a few of them shake my hand to tell me I did a great job. Some even take pictures with me. My parents had come down from San Francisco and were proud too. It was that defining moment where my Chinese parents acknowledged that this crazy "artist life" thing I chose was the right choice.
As the students and their families disperse into the rest of their lives, my father insists I take a picture with James Franco, who was standing only a few feet away. I didn't even know who James Franco was more than "the evil guy from Spiderman." High from the speech I gave and its reception, I comply with my father to take a picture with Franco.
My father and I walk toward Franco. He is mid-conversation with the woman who invited me to speak.
THE CONVERSATION I OVERHEAR:
FRANCO: Next year, I want to give the commencement speech.
MY HOST: Maybe in a few years. Not the year after you graduate. Next year is too soon.
FRANCO: The speaker this year…she was OK. I wasn't that impressed by it. It wasn't very good.
(I don't have verbatim what he said, but I KNOW he says something in this ballpark of my speech not being good.)
My father, oblivious to what Franco is saying, taps Franco's shoulder.
FATHER: Can my daughter take a photo with you?
Franco turns and sees me, right there in earshot, he keeps his cool like he wasn't just smacktalking me. I'm horrified, and kind of embarrassed that I'm standing in front of someone who is famous and doesn't even respect me.
He throws his arm around me. I'm thinking: "Did I just hear that?"
KRISTINA: Hi. Um…You are more famous than the Bruin Bear apparently.
FRANCO: Nice speech!
(There is a tinge of patronization in his voice.)
We take the photo. leave the campus still high from the experience, but really stunned and slightly soured by what I think I just heard.
END JAMES FRANCO ENCOUNTER.
Fast forward through the next year. Friends ask me how my speech went but the memory is forever dampened by how the one celebrity in attendance put my speech down—IN FRONT OF THE WOMAN WHO INVITED ME—IN FRONT OF ME. I find it sad that it should have been a great day of celebration and triumph for James Franco, yet he had no family around him, and instead of enjoying and embracing the accomplishment of finishing college, he is already nominating himself to be next year's speaker. Could it not wait until we at least left the pavilion? Could he at least take a second to enjoy seeing off his colleagues? Could he at least wait for an invitation to speak? No. He was pushy and arrogant. And maybe that's how he gets ahead.
For the next year, I was the woman scorned by the celebrity who I didn't even know. At social settings, in the newspaper, on TV—it was like the whole world couldn't stop fawning over James Franco: "Oh he's so smart. Oh he wrote a book. Oh he's so cute! Oh he's in movies…. oh oh oh!"
I wanted to scream and tear down the news stands! "He's also two-faced and arrogant! And he hurt my feelings!!"
As a performer, I know that you can't please everyone. I especially know that my work sometimes finds more enemies than friends and I wouldn't be in the field I'm in if my goal was to make every person happy all of the time. But I'd be lying if I said it was easy to brush off the James Franco incident. It got to me into a year of negative self talk: If someone would go as far as to badmouth me to my host, minutes after the ceremony, then I must really have been that bad? If a famous person didn't like the speech then maybe I don't ever deserve success?
It was all the making of crazy talk. What did keep me going was that a few of the students who graduated did contact me during the year by email and offered compliments. Thank you to those of you who sent me unsolicited notes throughout the year.
In June 2009, I read an article about how James Franco "bowed out" of doing the UCLA's Letters and Science Commencement speech because of "conflicts with a shooting schedule." Somehow, he was able to leapfrog past speaking at the "lowly" English Department graduation, straight to Letters and Science graduation in the football field.
I guess the hassle of getting across the world to accept an "invitation" paled in comparison to having a big fancy movie to rehearse for. What really seems to be the reason he bowed out is that the students (many who were his classmates the year before) didn't feel that he had much of the world under him (post-degree) to really offer any insight as a "former UCLA graduate." Students even created a Facebook campaign for him to not speak. They rallied against him speaking at their graduation and won. It confirmed to me that I did overhear Franco talking smack. And that he was the kind of guy that would bully his way to the top.
And that's it. That's the story of how my hard work as a community worker and artist got badmouthed by an A-list celebrity that people love so inexplicably. The reviews he got for his performance hosting the Oscars? Sweet Justice.
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