I Am So Over You, James Franco
I've always enjoyed the antics of James Franco. He has shown himself to be interesting and committed to going about his work in different ways, which is all you can really ask for when you're in the profession I'm in. There are only so many studio press releases and "It's an honor just to be here" company lines a person can listen to in a given day without getting bored, and James Franco has never been boring. And to the extent his efforts are calculated to look as much as possible as "doing things his way," at least he was doing them. As Paul Brittain said while parodying him on SNL, "I like doing things!" And that's great! It's cute! At least, it was cute until he decided that he wanted to host the Oscars and waste three and a half hours of my life.
Franco's a smart guy, but somewhere along the line he got cocky. He can claim all that he wants that he didn't care if this particular Oscars telecast turned out to be the worst one in history. It's bullshit. Of course he cares. If he didn't care, he wouldn't have hosted it in the first place. But what he does care about is making you think that he doesn't care. And he thought that acting blasé on stage would somehow translate into entertainment. Why? Because, in his mind, America loves James Franco and his wacky hijinks.
That wasn't reality. The media (and I include myself) might love James Franco's wacky hijinks and have covered them relentlessly, and I guarantee he envisioned the headlines Monday morning to relish his "I'm above this" ambivalence. Instead, Franco quickly discovered that to most others both inside and outside the Kodak Theater, the Oscars aren't another stepping stone in his performance art project. People take this show seriously, and by being "above it" he just took a massive dump on roughly 37 million Americans who looked forward to last night. Viewers don't care if the Oscar host makes fun of the proceedings -- in fact, we appreciate when they do -- but at the very least we want to see an effort made, not someone phoning it in for the artistic sake of phoning it in.
Look at it this way: I don't watch General Hospital, and I have no idea what Franco (both the actor and the character) brought to the actual arc of the story. Maybe it worked? The nature of a show like General Hospital is probably a nice fit for Franco's personality and what he was trying to achieve, publicly, for being on the show, and as a non General Hospital watcher, from afar, I think his guest role is great: "Hey, look a that, a guy who has a strong movie career and is on a soap opera. Hilarious!" In any case, he's taking what we think a movie star's persona should be and standing it on end -- and that's interesting.
But more than ever, I could see the dedicated General Hospital fan being annoyed that Franco ever showed up to turn the soap into his pet project, because Oscars fans sure noticed as soon as Franco's shtick invaded our space. He took what we think an Oscar host should be -- i.e. one who makes an effort -- and also stood it on end. Honestly, what was the point? And is anyone surprised that it turned out this way? Did we expect him to participate in any song and dance numbers? Can we let him get away with an honest-to-God plan like, "Hey, I'll walk out in a dress and everyone will love it. Trust me." (NB: Credit where it's due: I fully expected Anne Hathaway to be a terrible Oscars host, and while she wasn't great, no one can accuse her of not trying. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if she resented her co-host, as rumors suggest.)
If Franco was trying to achieve some sort of meta hosting vibe, it was obliterated the second Billy Crystal showed up on stage. The contrast was stark -- not only in style, but reception. And Franco knew it, too, if only from the Kodak crowd's standing ovation. That feeling of mutiny trickled down to home viewers as well, relieved that the show might finally, finally achieve something like momentum.
Again, Franco advises us he doesn't care. My ass. If he didn't care, why wasn't he at his own after party last night dressed up as Jack Tripper or Balki Bartokomous or whomever he's into this week? Because he had class the next day, because he knew the game was up? He's been so used to everyone (myself included) adoring every move he's made that one bad night sent him reeling into seclusion.
In fairness, on a crisis scale like this, I probably would have done the same thing. But what's Franco's next move? Does he amp up the weird? Does he become an academia-bound recluse for the immediate future? At some point he must seriously reevaluate what he's doing and what it really means to accept a job -- especially one like "master of ceremonies," in which a global viewing audience depends on him for an entertaining evening. I mean, we know the guy can entertain; he totally deserved his Oscar nomination for 127 Hours. But I don't know if his creative headspace allows him to recognize that some institutions -- many institutions, in fact, especially the Oscars -- are bigger than James Franco. Until I get the sense that he does, I think I'm pretty much done with him.
If alienation was his goal, then great! Mission accomplished. But an even bigger accomplishment may prove his ultimate legacy. After all, before Sunday, there were really only two types of contemporary Oscar hosts: Those who gently poked fun and strove to engage us (e.g. Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg) and those whose envelope-pushing went too far, creating an awkward vibe at the theater (e.g. Chris Rock, David Letterman). I'm sure that before this year's ceremonies commenced, Franco was hoping to carve his own niche as host -- to create a third kind of host -- and he succeeded: James Franco, the host who wanted people to believe that he didn't want to be there in the first place. If nothing else, Franco's performance at the Oscars gave me new respect for those who truly mean it when they say, "It's an honor just to be here."
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