A movie still of Alien waving his pistols is the author photo on the dust jacket for Strongest of the Litter, Franco's chapbook of poems. "Alien and that film are having their cake and eating it," he explains. "Engaging with pop culture, but also going deeper. Alien is what happens if we get all our wishes: unrestrained consumerism, ego, id, sex . . ."
"Most people can't get past that gag reflex at the back of the throat," I say.
"Guess I'm a natural," he says with a laugh. "It was my first time."
"So that wasn't you in Broken Tower?"
"Oh shit, you're right!" Franco's eyes light up. "It wasn't my first time."
"You're known for going the extra mile, but that was, what, a good eight inches?"
He gives me a get-real look. "That was a dildo." Then he turns that look back on himself, and I see the real James Franco: "If I'd had the guts, it woulda been real."
"Life for James is either an act of creation or he's sleeping," says Raimi, Oz's director, who's directed Franco on and off since Spider-Man in 2002. "It's not a façade. It's more like, without those things, he simply wouldn't know how to live."
I take his point as my in-box starts filling up after Franco and I part at the Chateau: PDFs of his writing, with hard copies of films and books later arriving by mail. It's a huge body of work, running the gamut from brilliant to unbearable, at times in the same piece. Franco, who remained in acting school long after he'd become a Hollywood star, is a student, and much of what he sends is not only student work but clearly intended as such: He takes critical theory and conceptual art seriously, and both can lead to some very dull art. What keeps you watching is this strangely constant vibrancy, which comes through in radically different pieces and media, regardless of the collaborator.
Among Franco's stronger poems are sonnets about films and actors he loves. In an e-mail, I propose we collaborate on a sonnet about three loves we share: A Place in the Sun and its stars, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Franco comes back with Let's do a six-sonnet series, 3 + 3. After I spend a day on an Elizabethan sonnet, six of his are in my e-mail the next morning, some quite confessional, mentioning the current bed partner he was rewatching the film with in his room at the Chateau.
A lightbulb goes off, and it hits me: Franco is a confessional poet. I rephrase some personal queries as opening quatrains of Petrarchan sonnets, a form that's distinctly "call-and-response." His responses are almost immediate:
From scripts and managers and packed soundstages
To empty canvases and blank pages.
These M.F.A.'s, James Franco, Yale, RISD:
In part to make those solitary arts less lonely?
You're right, I fight loneliness. I want an art posse.
I made friends at art school but also enemies
Mostly at Columbia where the students are brats
And they pay so much money they want results
Instantly, so how can you blame them for hating
A Hollywood boy who gets his book published
Right out the gate, and gets to do movies, and date
Whomever he damn well pleases, like a one ton Pink
Elephant in the room, whom everyone wants to shoot
But no one does, because they're all begging for peanuts.
"I know James very well in a professional sense," says Raimi, who spent a decade working with Franco before he finally got a personal sense of the actor behind the curtain while filming Oz in Detroit. "There's a scene where James opens a door, and he's supposed to be angry. I told James he didn't seem that angry, and he said, 'Oh, I'm plenty angry. I just don't want to show it.' It's like he has this secret, and it's mysterious, but you don't want to know it, because it's so alluring as a secret. That's part of his charisma, and maybe what he's playing with in all this other stuff."
So many masks are worn in Franco's works:
Do you worry that your own good looks
Will ghettoize your films, exhibits, books:
Make you a McClure till proven Ginsberg?
I was just in City Lights and noticed how handsome
McClure was in those old photos of the last Beat
Gathering in 1965. But I don't think of my own looks
In that way. I'm no longer trying to escape. I am me.
I accept what I am, on the inside and out. I love me.
But I also know that me is something other than me;
A figure that is created by forces outside me. That me
Is a me I can fuck with, and in that way I'm new, I step
Aside and rearrange the parts of the old me, the Spiderman-
Ginsberg-Pineapple-Freak into something else: the Fairy King.