James Franco is, in my honest opinion, one of the most interesting actors working today. I know his thing is “trying to be interesting,” but there are just so many aspects of his work that seem progressively queer. He’s one of the few straight actors I can think of who has made gay films a part of his repertoire. I don’t mean he’ll play a gay character once and the critics will call it “bold and daring” (because they are heterosexist tools; “So daring for a straight actor to play a gay character” oh, fuck you!), I mean he’s taken it upon himself to play a number of gay roles. It seems like he does this as a form of activism. If that’s the case, then a brilliant form of activism it is.
One of the best roles Franco has ever done was Allen Ginsberg in a film that examined the trial of Ginsberg’s wonderful poem “Howl” (appropriately named “Howl”). Franco was a brilliant Ginsberg…I really can’t put it into words how much I loved that performance. It was a little personal to me since Ginsberg and his poetry were both very powerful to me during my hellish puberty years—they still are—so I was very excited to see an artful representation of not just a artful poet but a man who lived like he was a work of art, a man who understood how powerful the body truly is as a political unit.
Franco hasn’t just done one gay role and called it quits, he played one of Harvey Milk’s lovers in “Milk.” He did a great job of that as well. We already know of the dynamics of couples with political agendas, or at least we know those tropes from a straight side. While the movie had many things to do, one thing (among the many) that it did so well was show how difficult political involvement can be for a gay couple and how that dynamic is different from the hetero-family-versus-politics trope. Franco knew what his job was in that film—to help show the difficulties Milk faced on a personal level and how inescapable politics truly are for a gay individual—and he really brought that to life. It was easy to dislike his character, but the herd-mentality that is induced by strong political arguments (not meaning to speak ill of the gay rights movement of that time) and battles would make him seem like a bad guy. But his character, to me, was one of the most touching. The world of Milk’s Castro District made a life of politics easier than a life without it. Franco’s character was trying to love outside of that overwhelming atmosphere. It is probably one of the film’s strongest points of irony: Franco’s character cannot love in an environment that is strongly promoting the right to love.
Franco has also made a biopic about the gay poet Hart Crane. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can only imaging the difficulties. Crane is one of the few poets that I consider truly difficult—not that I am a master of interpreting poetry, it’s just that he seems the most opaque of the poets I’ve read(more so that even the likes of T. S. Eliot, whom I “get,” more or less). I couldn’t begin to imagine playing a character like that. Regardless of how “good” or “bad” this movie is, I really find it important that Franco has continued to approach gay roles without any sense of self-importance. In doing so, I think he is queering what it means to be straight and also trying to show that the queer possibilities of acting can really open up the imaginative power of the medium (i. e. acting).
There is a lot of hatred in the world today (more than I think any of us could have imagined). With the string of suicides and other problems facing the gay community, it seems that we need figures who we can look to for inspiration (especially in America, which—and I say this as an American—is one of the most homophobic places on Earth). Franco is doing that. He’s played two gay, American poets: individuals who gay audiences can look to for support, who can be idolized. I do think it is important to have inspirational figures, even to develop your own pantheon of “gods” who shape you.
Now the second part of this activism lies in who Franco has played. How reductionist are homophobic depictions of the gay community? Besides insulting us, homophobics also don’t allow us the complexity that is a given to heterosexuals (I’ll talk about this more another time). Well, Franco has selected a few of the most complicated homosexual roles that have come his way. While Milk’s first lover in the film certainly doesn’t seem the most heroic, the part has to be played and it can be given a level of depth. Ginsberg and Crane were both profound intellectuals and two of America’s greatest poets. Basically, Franco is also fighting against subliminal notions of the simplicity of homosexuality by playing exceedingly complicated gay characters.
Hats off to you, Mr. Franco.