James Franco, soap star and Academy Award winner. It has a nice, unlikely ring, doesn’t it? Stranger things have happened, though. In 1998, Helen Hunt won Best Actress for As Good As It Gets, over such bold, beautiful and formidable competition as Judi Dench, Julie Christie, Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet, while starring on the sitcom Mad About You. Cher went from Sonny Bono to “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves” to Oscar. Maybe next February 27 will be Franco’s time to rock the Academy.
Stranger things have happened, right?
I never thought much about James Franco until a little more than two years ago when I first saw him on the poster for the stoner comedy Pineapple Express on the streets of New York City. I hadn’t pegged him as the type to star in a Judd Apatow-produced laugh fest (although he got his start on Apatow’s 1999-2000 TV series Freak and Geeks), but I figured he just wanted to light up — er, lighten up — after all the onscreen brooding and playing the hero’s frenemy in three Spider-Man films. The movie ended up becoming his biggest starring vehicle to date and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
It was his second career citation from the Hollywood Foreign Press. He’d already won a Globe for portraying James Dean in an eponymous 2001 TV biopic. That should have been his major breakout, but Franco’s career explosion didn’t happen right away. Playing an iconic figure so early on makes it harder to shake their identity. (See Gary Busey after The Buddy Holly Story, Tom Hulce after Amadeus, Tammy Blanchard after Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, and every relative unknown who has played Superman on TV or film.) Franco sort of slipped into the background while Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and Ryan Gosling hogged the spotlight.
Then two years ago, when I was least expecting it, Franco blew me away with a kiss. It was during the subway scene early in Milk when he and Sean Penn, as future member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Harvey Milk, met for the first time, on the politician’s 40th birthday. I watched mesmerized as they did the flirting dance before leaning in for the kiss. I’d never seen the sexual dynamic of two gay men meeting for the first time, cautious yet completely overwhelmed by chemistry, filmed with such honesty and accuracy. For me, it was one of the best screen moments of 2008.
Franco was on my Oscar-predictions list all season long, and won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male. I still think he was robbed by the Academy, which didn’t even nominate him. Of all the Milk supporting players, I was least impressed by Josh Brolin, a good actor who probably got his nod because he’d been snubbed the previous year for No Country for Old Men.
Then just as Franco became solidly rootable, he began confounding me, taking small parts in films like Eat Pray Love and Date Night, when, I thought, he should be angling for the lead. (At least In the Valley of Elah and Nights in Rodanthe, two other films in which he appeared, briefly, had Oscar potential.) When he approached the producers of General Hospital late last year, seeking a role on the daytime soap, I was floored by both his casting and his subsequent performance on the show.
But not in a good way. His turn as serial-killing artist Franco was sexy but somewhat cartoonish. If I had a moustache, I would have twirled it. He received mixed reviews and probably couldn’t stand up to the work of GH costar Jonathan Jackson (Lucky Spencer) in a Daytime Emmy showdown. Meanwhile, the is-he-or-isn’t-he speculation about his sexuality (partly fueled perhaps by Milk, aided and abetted by Franco the character’s infatuation with Jason Morgan on GH, and driven home by Franco the actor’s portrayal of gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the recent indie Howl) began threatening to overshadow his work.
At least people were talking about him. Either Franco was brilliant or totally crazy.
I think he might be a little bit of both. This year will go down in history as the year James Franco officially broke. Following his much-improved second stint on GH last summer, he received excellent reviews for his turn as Ginsberg in Howl, with New York magazine calling him “the movie’s perfect center.” But that’s not why Oscar prognosticators are buzzing over Franco again. They’re all but calling him a lock for his first nomination because of his role in 127 Hours(opening November 5), a film I’ll probably have to watch through my fingers because the thought of spending one of those 127 hours with a mountain climber who gets trapped by a fallen boulder, knowing that it’s all leading up to the moment when he amputates his own arm in order to free himself leaves me filled with fear and dread. I can barely make it through the trailer!
But Oscar no doubt won’t be able to take his eyes off Franco, whom the Wall Street Journal called “simply terrific” in the film. Danny Boyle, the movie’s director, recently won Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire; the Academy loves a one-man show (see Tom Hanks in Castaway); and whether or not you hate scenery chewing, one cannot expect an actor to underplay a scene in which he must slice off his own arm. How could Oscar resist?
Despite Franco’s current big-screen heat, I’ve heard that he isn’t done with General Hospital yet. I’m hoping that his eventual return is held off until February sweeps. Though I think Colin Firth is the solid Oscar frontrunner for his stuttering King George VI role in The King’s Speech, should Franco pull an Adrien Brody-style upset while appearing on GH, not only will he make history as the first actor to win an Academy Award while starring in a daytime drama (Tommy Lee Jones’s stint on One Life to Live ended one or two lifetimes before he won his Oscar for The Fugitive, and Elizabeth Taylor checked into General Hospital years after her two wins), but he’ll also prove that sometimes the best road to Oscar is the windiest, filled with stops, starts and heavy boulders.
Firth may have spent longer paying his dues, but one could argue that he’s been playing variations on a theme for much of his career: noble, principled, upper-crust. Franco, however, in 10 years, has displayed a versatility that few actors in his age group can match. And his General Hospital stints show an egalitarian streak and a willingness to try anything, which Oscar might find endearing. In the end, it could give him a slight edge, along with having a second well-received performance in the same year (which worked for 2010 winners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock). And if he does go all the way, maybe it will encourage other accomplished A-listers to follow him into daytime.
Coming soon: Peter O’Toole, Oscar’s most frequent also-ran, on Days of Our Lives? Stranger things have happened.
Well, maybe not.