The unlikeliest of A-list Hollywood idols, James Franco has spent the majority of his mainstream career living a double life as an art-world provocateur, probing the recesses of his own fame through a series of increasingly out-there performance art pieces. And more often than not, these pieces veer toward gay themes.
The latest example, detailed in a new piece from Indiewire, sees the star of the upcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful working with Travis Mathews, an erotic art-film director. Franco approached Mathews to oversee a project that would attempt to re-create 40 minutes of lost footage from Cruising — a 1980 William Friedkin film starring Al Pacino as an NYPD officer who goes deep undercover into the gay leather scene to catch a serial killer. (Friedkin tweeted today that Franco had called him “about this 2 days ago,” adding, “I have no idea what he has in mind, but he has no remake rights,” which is true. The “lost footage” angle is an attempt at exploiting a legal loophole.)
The notorious movie, which featured real S&M participants as extras and explicit depictions of public gay sex, is considered shockingly graphic even by today’s standards. The result of this latest collaboration — James Franco’s Cruising — was filmed over a period of two days. The first cut features “real gay sex in it,” Travis says, just as Franco, who plays himself in the film, had instructed.
James Franco’s Cruising may mark a significant leap ahead in just how far its star is looking to push the envelope. Here then are five efforts of a similar vein that led to its inception:
1. “Unfinished” – 2011
A collaboration with openly gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant — who directed Franco in the Oscar-winning gay film Milk — this installation featured two films, Endless Idaho and My Own Private River, which were pieced together by Franco using dailies and other rejected footage from Van Sant’s breakthrough 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho. Mounted by the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, the 12-hour presentation mainly focused on the film’s late star, River Phoenix, hard at work on crafting his character, a gay street hustler named Mike.
2. The Feast of Stephen – 2009
A student short directed by Franco while he attended New York University’s film school, this mostly silent, black-and-white meditation is based on a homoerotic poem by Anthony Hecht and features a slim, bespectacled boy (the Stephen of the title) observing a pickup basketball game on the streets of New York — only to have the young men playing suddenly appear naked to him in a fantasy. The film ends in Stephen having feces rubbed in his face by the boys, who discover his intentions — but Stephen appears to enjoy the act. Watch a clip here (contains frontal male nudity):
3. Kalup Linzy on General Hospital – 2009
Franco met openly gay performance artist Kalup Linzy at Art Basel Miami Beach in late 2009, and the two immediately embarked upon a series of collaborations. First up: getting the fringe artist a gig on General Hospital, the long-running ABC soap opera on which Franco was already starring as “Franco” — an insane artist character. (What was a major marquee movie star doing on a daytime soap? Franco called his run on the show a work of “performance art” itself.) Linzy played a character named Kalup Ishmael, in a dizzying hodgepodge of high- and low-culture.
4. The Broken Tower – 2011
Franco directed, wrote and starred in this feature-length film. It was his NYU masters thesis, itself an adaptation of a biography by Paul Mariani of Hart Crane, a bisexual poet who lived at the turn of the century. The movie, in which Michael Shannon appears as one of Mariani’s sexual conquests, earned mixed reviews. The Village Voice deemed it “sincered, amateurish and misguided,” while Entertainment Weekly called it a “pensive and heartfelt movie.” Watch the trailer below:
5. Howl – 2010
Franco’s ongoing fascination with gay poets reached its critical mass — if not critical agreement — with Howl, the most accessible of these biographical films. An experimental take on Allen Ginsberg‘s counterculture-defining verse from documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl featured Franco as the celebrated and gay beat poet. Buzz out of its Sundance premiere was that the film was a failure, but the film was later lauded by some critics, including The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, who called it “an exemplary work of literary criticism on film, explaining and contextualizing its source without deadening it.”