Actor James Franco has won critical raves for his performances in films such as the 2008 stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" and the Oscar-nominated drama "Milk." But this spring, when he agreed to deliver a commencement speech at UCLA, Franco received a thumbs-down from many members of the student body.
"[We] don't feel he is as esteemed as a commencement speaker of UCLA's caliber should be," said an editorial in the Daily Bruin.
Earlier this week, and just days before the ceremony, the actor announced he was dropping out as keynote speaker. "I deeply regret not being able to keep my commitment to giving the commencement speech at UCLA's graduation this year," the actor said in a statement issued by the university, adding that the June 12 graduation date "conflicts" with pre-production demands for his next film.
But in Westwood, many wondered if Franco's decision was based more on external pressure than scheduling conflicts. Had a months-long effort involving more than 600 protesters clamoring for the actor's ouster -- the Facebook group "UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker" -- finally eroded his will to address the College of Letters and Science's graduating class?
Both Franco and UCLA officials declined to comment for this article. But messages on the Facebook page speak to the emotion surrounding his selection.
"I am writing to ask you to please not have James Franco be our keynote speaker this year at graduation," petitioner Sana Soni wrote on the page's discussion board. "He is a fine actor . . . and a very good-looking guy, but it should take more than that to be keynote speaker at such a prestigious university's graduation ceremony."
A Golden Globe-winning actor, Franco, 31, is best known for his supporting role in the globally popular "Spider-Man" film franchise. He is also a UCLA alumnus who first enrolled at the university in 1996. He went back in 2006 and graduated last year with a degree in creative writing. The actor would have ascended the podium as the youngest person and most recent graduate ever selected to deliver a commencement speech at UCLA, a university spokeswoman said.
Soon after the commencement announcement in March, UCLA senior Erin Moore put up the Facebook page with humble intentions, hoping to enlist a few classmates to petition for a more experienced speaker. But within months, the number of Facebook friends of "Students Against James Franco" swelled into the hundreds. Moore estimates that about 80% are UCLA students.
"The problem with him as a speaker comes down to the fact he was a peer for so many of us," she said. "He was in our class. He's not a role model. And he hasn't had time to accomplish anything with his degree."
The actor is the first to admit that his attendance record at UCLA was spotty. In an interview with The Times last year, Franco explained how he was able to balance his school work with his day job. "I missed classes either because I was working on 'Pineapple' or traveling around the world promoting 'Spider-Man,' " Franco said. "I had people in my classes record my lectures for me. I gave everyone digital recorders. So I heard every lecture. I just wasn't there."
Franco's publicist, Robin Baum, said Franco is preparing for the comedy "Your Highness," which is set to begin filming next month. Amanda Lundberg, a spokeswoman for the producer of that film, said the production schedule requires that Franco be on set in Ireland on June 12 -- UCLA's graduation day.
"This was the only window Franco was available to do prep for the movie," Lundberg said. "Stunt training, sword-fighting training and wardrobe fittings -- that's what they need him to do."
UCLA officials have not yet announced the actor's replacement. That uncertainty diminished the sense of accomplishment Moore said she might have felt at achieving the goal of her Facebook group. "I have mixed feelings about it," Moore said. "It's only a week before graduation. It's not clear whether there will be time to find someone else."
But with Franco no longer the scheduled speaker, some students turned their attention to procuring a guest they feel is worthy: the new host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien. The medium the students have used to entreat the late-night talk show host? Another Facebook page, which is already boasting more than 2,000 friends.
Reached Friday, however, O'Brien said he wouldn't be speaking to the cap-and-gown crowd.
"I am honored to be asked, but I am so busy launching 'The Tonight Show' there just is not enough time to give this speech the preparation it deserves," he said in a statement to The Times. "I wish everyone in the class of 2009 the best, and I am honored that they thought of me."