Review: James Franco’s “Actor’s Anonymous” is a fascinating, messy creation


I reviewed James Franco’s first novel for the Buffalo News, and it was fascinating — to say the least.

“I wanted to tell the truth all the time. I wanted to use my life as a model for my work. I thought that I was interesting enough that this would translate, truth – interesting stuff that people want to read. I could go around to everyone and say only true things, but would that mean anything? When would it get interesting?”

So ponders James Franco in his first “novel,” “Actor’s Anonymous,” a strange, messy, fascinating creation that highlights everything that is unique and obnoxious about the Oscar-nominated star of “127 Hours.” We know it’s a novel because the cover says so, although there is no straight narrative; the book is a loose collection of stories centered around the acting profession. It is … interesting, to say the least.

When did he have the time to write “Actor’s Anonymous”? It’s hard to say, although one thing is certain: No one multitasks like James Franco. Let’s ponder his recent output.

So far in 2013, he starred in the god-awful, hugely successful “Oz the Great and Powerful”; gave the best performance of his career as cornrow-and-grill-sporting gangsta Alien in Harmony Korine’s luridly masterful “Spring Breakers”; appeared as himself, hilariously, in the hit comedy “This Is the End”; awkwardly played Hugh Hefner in “Lovelace”; served as writer and director of adaptations of Faulkner (“As I Lay Dying”) and McCarthy (“Child of God”); directed and starred in a bold, ambitious “reimagining” of the supposed missing 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s still-controversial gay serial killer thriller “Cruising”; appeared in “Palo Alto,” an adaptation of several of his short stories from first-time-filmmaker and grand-daughter of Francis, Gia Coppola; and guest-starred on TV’s “The Mindy Project.”

Mind you, that is not everything. Not even close. In fact, he’s writing this review. Well, a review, somewhere, I’m sure. Or perhaps he is taking courses on “Franco Theory” at the University of Franco Online, as well as teaching (and auditing) the class.

Somehow, in the midst of all his artpop activities, Franco wrote “Actor’s Anonymous,” and it is, to be sure, utterly Franco. It is a text that both embraces celebrity, and trivializes it, that mocks the concept of the “actor,” and cherishes it, that might be in on the joke … or perhaps is not. Just like James Franco.

Or should I say, “James Franco.” The character “James Franco” is all over “Actor’s Anonymous,” but here, he is identified as “The Actor.” He is present in the book’s first actual chapter, “I Am the Actor,” a collection of thoughts centered, like the rest of the novel, on the concept of performance. His ponderings include:

“I’m like a sophisticated prop. I’ll give you all the feeling you want, all the accents you want, all the hairstyles and wardrobe changes you want, and I’ll say whatever you put in front of me. But don’t ask me to take pride in the work.”

“Did Brando deal with fame by getting fat and bitter?”

“[Steve] McQueen was a sex addict and would have threesomes all the time. He wanted to do Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ for the longest time, and then when he finally did it, no one saw it.”

The latter quote is pure and utter, what-the-Franco i.e. it’s simultaneously concerned with sex, celebrity, cinema history, the struggle for artistic acceptance, the sense that none of it matters — or maybe all of it does. Yes, it’s rather preposterous to read these throughout the novel, acting-class-lite talking points that touch on the Marlboro Man, Jack Nicholson, Kenneth Anger, Perez Hilton.

But they are more effective than much of the novel, which is consistently intriguing and well-written, and consistently unpleasant. Franco the writer has a predilection for characters, scenes, and images that are, well, gross.

There is the sorority girl known as “Diarrhea” for the time she – never mind. There is the epic orgy in a Santa Monica public bathroom, a “horrible cement thing with steel toilets, graffiti, and dirty water on the floor, and rust everywhere.”

There is the tale of a young actor stuck working at McDonald’s, where he is propositioned by Juan, a grill cook “shaped like a soft triangle with a huge bulging groin area and a super small head.” Juan speaks no English, but explains his desire through Dylan, a “slow” coworker:

“He licked his top lip and then let his teeth rest in the flesh of his bottom lip. The teeth were small and sharp like he’d filed them. I flashed both hands with all fingers flushed three times and said, ‘For thirty.’ He let his teeth sink back into his mouth and said in a high voice, ‘Twenty-five.’ The words sounded like a ventriloquist was projecting the voice of a small Mexican girl into his mouth.”

It’s a grim, believable scene, but feels rote, as if Franco the author is as desperate to shock as Franco the celeb is to confuse. (“General Hospital” guest-shot? Why not?)

The aforementioned “Actor” returns periodically, generally as a smart-aleck cad. He takes us back to the premiere of “127 Hours” at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (“a person fainted during the arm amputation scene, then another one fainted before the movie ended”), after which an “OK-looking” girl asked for a picture. The Actor asked her to email it to him.

They were unable to hook up at TIFF, but kept in touch, so to speak:

“[I]n the intervening months she had sent me plenty of photos of her body and especially her [butt], so when she arrived at my Lower East Side apartment, I was ready and she was ready. Not only did she allow me to do everything I wanted to her, she let me film it on my phone.”

Here and elsewhere in the novel, Franco is trying to have it both ways — mocking the prurient nature of Hollywood stardom, while also reveling in it. And occasionally, it works, mainly when it is the Actor spinning these tales.

Or is it always the Actor? Is every chapter, every thought, every character, a different shade of one performer? And is that performer Franco himself? It is a mystery most won’t care to contemplate, but that does not mean readers won’t find the novel an involving experience. I certainly did, even with its faults and absurdities.

What the book hammers home is that James Franco is fascinatingly incomprehensible, an actor-writer-director-whatever who is smart, ambitious, and blazingly silly.

And so it goes: In recent days, the trailer for one of Franco’s next films, “Homefront,” dropped. He plays the villain (!) in this Jason Statham action flick (!) scripted by Sylvester Stallone (!). Around the same time, his most recent directorial effort, a look at the last hours in the life of Sal Mineo, debuted.

That’s Franco: The missing link between Sylvester Stallone and Sal Mineo. May he never change.