Frighteningly, James Franco And I Actually Agree About Something

If you’ve been reading The Frisky, you know that I have a strong disdain for actor/writer/director/perpetual college lecture sleeper James Franco. For me, Franco is the epitome of the kind of dumb dude who thinks he’s really clever. But a recent piece in New York magazine does offer a slight detente between us — you know, if James Franco even knew I existed or something.

You see, New York’s Vulture blog posted an article asking “Why Is James Franco So Interested in Gay Culture?” in which the author recounts all of the gay-themed and homoerotically-tinged projects Franco’s worked on recently, and asks, Seinfeld-like, “What is the deal?”

At this year’s Sundance Film festival, Franco launched his new project, “Interior. Leather Bar,” which is supposed to be a reworking of “lost” footage from the 1980s gaysploitation film “Cruising.” That, coupled with Franco’s role as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” his role as Harvey Milk’s lover in “Milk,” and his direction of a film about allegedly gay Sal Mineo, has writer Kyle Buchanan alluding to whether or not Franco might have gay cooties. Asks Buchanan, “why would a mainstream movie star be so interested in gay sexuality if he were straight?” As if the very idea that a straight person could possibly want to play a gay character must mean they’re harboring a secret gay life.

The very notion that straight people shouldn’t be just as engaged in gay narratives as gay people is tinged with the flavors of marginalization, pathologization and homophobia. Just like the high school football player who asks the male choir singer why he’s into such “sissy” stuff, Buchanan seems all together suspicious of Franco’s motives. He intimates that 1) straight interest in homosexuality is weird, 2) no straight person should ever want to play a gay character or represent gay culture unless, you know, they’ve got something to hide.

Franco’s real-life sexuality is of no interest to me, but the perspective he offers in the new “Interior. Leather Bar” is. In the film, Franco elucidates his philosophy on all this gay stuff: “I don’t like the fact that I feel like I’ve been brought up to think a certain way … and what that is is straight-normative behavior. It’s fucking instilled into my brain.”

He then notes that pop culture is rife with thoughtlessly heteronormative representations, in which it’s presumed that marriage, coupledom, relationships are man plus woman. “Every fucking toilet paper commercial has a man and a woman living in a house together! Every fucking love story is a dude who wants to be with a girl, and the only way they’re gonna end up happy is if they walk off in the sunset together. I’m fucking sick of that shit, so if there’s a way for me to break that up in my own mind, I’m all for it.”

Admittedly, I haven’t seen his latest, “Interior. Leather Bar,” and can’t speak to the representation he’s offering up there. But in the case of both “Howl” and “Milk,” Franco presented a solid, grounded character — not caricature — of gay life. As to his motivations, Franco notes, a bit pretentiously (natch), “I feel like one of my roles as an artist is to ask questions and to help create fissures in accepted, normalized ways of thinking. And not in all cases, but in a lot of the cases … the sexuality of the characters helps me to do that.”

Why can’t people who identify as straight be engaged in representing gay characters — without having their masculinity, sexuality or social identity questioned? The sexuality of an actor should have no bearing on a role — provided the representation is well-conceived and thoughtfully written. And after all, Hollywood would literally not exist if gay men and women didn’t take up heterosexual roles. Gay men and women have been “playing straight” (in quotes, because these notions of heterosexuality are constructions, after all) since the beginning of time, so why shouldn’t there be a bit of respectful quid pro quo? I don’t mean to oversimplify the dialogue — I’m not advocating a re-do of the negative, condescending gaysploitation films of the 1970s and ’80s. But representations that offer the full spectrum of gay experiences and lives? I can get behind that. []