Actor James Franco at the Sundance Film Festival. (Genaro Molina )
Back in the days of the Hollywood star system, actors were routinely told by studios what roles they should take, who they should date and even what names they should have. Stars like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland sued for more freedom, but it would be decades before they would fully get their wish. Many of these actors were essentially owned by the studios, and dollar-hungry companies like MGM and Warner Bros. weren’t going to let something as small as a person’s will get in the way of their moneymaking.
In some ways, studios' management of stars has become more involved. Personal publicists and a phalanx of handlers surround celebrities at every turn. Talking points are fed by the people signing the checks. Corporate-owned studios put clauses in contracts dictating what outlets a star must -- and, sometimes, must not -- talk to.
But it turns out that (some of) these stars are independent-minded people, and the shackles Big Hollywood puts on them aren’t necessarily ironclad. With the aid of social media and other digital tools, they're slipping out of these handcuffs more easily than Taylor Swift gets into media spats.
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There's no more striking an example of this at the moment than James Franco. The actor has of course been going his own way for years. Beloved by his fan base as iconoclastic and dismissed by his (not insignificant number of) critics as a poseur and an attention-seeker, Franco has taken an unusual path within the fame maze.
In his career choices, he’s continually switched things up, going between ruminative, quasi-experimental efforts like "Howl," wackily self-indulgent art projects about "Three's Company" and more conventional awards fare like "Milk" and "127 Hours." Sometimes he's an author; sometimes he wants to star in Steinbeck adaptations on Broadway. Sometimes he's playing Hugh Hefner in a Linda Lovelace biopic; sometimes he just feels like starring in General Hospital and making a movie about it.
You'd think some of this wild dilletantishness might recede now that Franco is starring in a film that could make or break the family-oriented Disney, as corporate as studio corporations get. This weekend’s "Oz: The Great and Powerful," in which Franco of course plays the lead, cost $235 million to make and tens of millions more to market. The movie is the great hope of Disney's new-ish chief Alan Horn, who didn't greenlight the movie but needs a homegrown live-action hit the way Rand Paul needs a water break.
Yet Franco keeps right on Franco-ing. At Sundance he was involved with not one but two sex-themed movies, a documentary about the fetish site "Kink" and an outre exploration of a period gay hardcore movie titled "Interior. Leather. Bar." (He produced the former and co-directed the latter.)
This would have been noteworthy for any actor carrying a big Disney release. It was even more noteworthy since the release was coming six weeks later.
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Just two weeks after "Oz" hits theaters, Franco the Rabble-rouser will strike again, playing a rapper in "Spring Breakers," the provocateur Harmony Korine's outlandish look at hotties and crime and other stuff “Oz” moms won’t be taking their kids to. If Joe Francis had some postmodern cred, you can pretty much bet Franco would try a role in one of his videos too.
Franco's strange kaleidoscope was particularly on display earlier in the week. Between giving interviews for "Oz" -- including a thoughtful one to this paper -- the actor took to YouTube to protest the treatment of his "Interior. Leather. Bar" collaborator Travis Mathews by the Australian classification’s board, which has decided to ban Mathew’s film “I Want Your Love,” about a gay relationship, on apparent explicitness grounds. Franco made a video condemning the decision and saying the movie treated sex in a “sophisticated” way, essentially accusing the board of censorship.
It was an amazing contrast. On our TV screens was the face of Disney’s global blockbuster, playing over and over in prime time. On the computer screens was the same face atop a garish shirt talking up the importance of a gay-sex movie.
When I sat down to talk to Franco about “Oz” a few weeks ago, I started with a quick reference to the fact that I’d just talked to him about “Kink” at Sundance and joked that perhaps there were secret thematic similarities between the two. The actor gave a small smile but stayed quiet. Franco is savvy enough to keep his two guises separate. He's not trying to bite the hand that feeds. But in an era when so many studio executives want their stars to keep their mouth shut, it’s refreshing to see someone who bares his teeth once in a while.
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