James Franco’s Greatest Role May Be Playing Himself

In his new book, <em>Hollywood Ending</em>, it’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the cartoonish public figure begins—which is precisely the point

Remember when James Franco was just another promising actor who was uncommonly vocal about his artistic ambitions? These days, he’s a full-blown media caricature, a role that no one seems to relish more than Franco himself.

When it comes to his public image, 2014 has been quite the feeding frenzy, most of which he seems to have manufactured. Aside from an Instagram scandal with an underage would-be paramour, he published a book of poetry, starred in a movie based on a short story collection he wrote, painted Seth Rogan in the nude, and threatened to remake one of the best bad movies of all-time. This week, he released Hollywood Dreaming: Stories, Pictures, and Poems, his sixth book since 2010.

Sticking to the Southern California themes he explored in his earlier books, it’s a collage of poetry, short stories, and images based on movies that have affected him. The first few pages feature paintings of Franco by Franco as characters in assorted Franco movies. It’s like stepping into a real-life version of Being John Malkovich but with more Spider-Man drawings and self-portraits.

There’s a chapter dedicated to the 2012 Harmony Korine movie Spring Breakers with pictures from the set and poems in the voice of Alien, the silver-grilled rapper that Franco portrayed:
But this one was special, because them girlz
Was doin’ sumptin like this fo’ the first time
And they wanted to be rescued, di’n’ they.

As in his other books he devotes several poems to other actors including his favorite muses, Sean Penn and Lindsay Lohan. Toward the end, after dozens of Polaroids of people wearing masks and dressed in ghost sheets, there are short stories including one where he colors certain words à la Mark Z. Danielewski. In another he introduces a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Hello who live in Palo Alto (Franco’s hometown) and have a son named Shrimp, who loves movies and dabbles in writing. The effect of the book is both peculiar and puzzling. It’s hard to tell where the real James Franco ends and the cartoonish public figure begins—which is precisely the point.

Maybe this is all a vast meta-commentary on the cottage industry in celebrity as product peddler and the product of celebrity itself. Whether it’s diet books and perfume or poetry and paintings, as long as James Franco keeps putting it out there, no matter how bizarre or bad it is, we’ll keep buying (and writing about) it. Maybe Hollywood Dreaming is a clever piece of performance art that digs deeper into Provocative Artist James Franco, the product that Artist and Businessman James Franco is selling us. As Franco so astutely put it in a YouTube video posted last week: “Check it out. It’s new, you know you want it.”