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“Look, they know we’re not Billy Crystal or Chris Rock,” Franco told Vanity Fair about Oscar hosting with Anne Hathaway. “If it is the worst Oscar show ever, who cares?…I’ll try my best but I don’t see any shame [because] it’s just like a movie…I mean, movies are so collaborative, [my] work is mediated through so many different people…if the movie comes out horrible it’s only partially my fault. It’s the same thing with Oscars.”
So what does Franco care about? His work at the world’s most prestigious art show, the Venice Biennale, which starts in June. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Franco told Tim Hetherington, the Restrepo codirector who was randomly assigned to sit at Franco’s table (as I was) at the Oscar noms’ lunch Feb. 7. Franco was still caked with makeup from guest starring on General Hospital, which is part of his performance-art work. Except for the seldom-seen-in-L.A. Coen brothers, Franco seemed to be the most popular guy at the lunch, but the one he spoke most avidly with was Hetherington, a prizewinning photographer whose superb new book Infidel features the U.S. platoon seen in Restrepo, the Afghanistan doc codirected by Sebastian Junger (pictured below with Hetherington).
Hetherington survived dictator Charles Taylor‘s death sentence in war-torn Liberia, but Oscar’s court intimidated him. “It was my first time meeting Franco. I’m new to all this, the dynamic of Oscars. So I just mentioned I knew his work and we sparked on the conversation.” Like Franco, Hetherington disregards art boundaries: His Afghanistan work spawned the Oscar-nom’d film, the book and an installation, Sleeping Soldiers. “News and entertainment are the two primary ways we accrue images into our visual library,” says Hetherington, who likens Franco’s installations and video work to that of Steve McQueen — the cranky Biennale artist, not the cranky dead movie star — and Biennale artist Sam Taylor-Wood, director of the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.
“We exchanged emails,” says Hetherington, who’d hoped to see Franco at Hetherington’s upcoming lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Franco’s studying art (and where Gus Van Sant counseled his RISD classmate David Byrne not to give up after a singing coach told Byrne he was never going to be able to sing show tunes). But Afghanistan called, so it won’t happen.
Franco is no dilettante. His work is not like Red Skelton‘s clown paintings (which sell for big bucks but suck). “Franco is at the forefront of people blurring the lines between celebrity and fine art performance,” says art dealer Edward Winkleman. As an April Fool’s Day joke, Winkleman blogged that the U.S. State Department had named Franco to represent the country at the Biennale. “Several international art magazine editors who threatened to murder me if I said who they are almost ran the story,” says Winkelman. Some did run it, and it’s a big meme online. “My joke accelerated up the food chain because it’s remotely plausible, though he’s not had a long enough career to have earned that honor. It’s playing off how quickly Franco’s star is rising. He’s taken seriously in the art world because he takes the art world seriously.”
As opposed to the Oscars. But the joke was on Winkleman — Franco really is going to Venice. “James is participating in the Venice Biennale,” says his gallerist Javier Peres, “but he is not representing the USA, as some mistakenly believed. Rather, he is collaborating with various other artists for the general section.”
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