James Franco Is the 21st Century’s First Great Public Intellectual

It’s true. We can prove it.

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Michael Muller / A24 Films

James Franco as Alien in 'Spring Breakers'

At one point in the instant cult classic Spring Breakers (in limited release March 15), one of the film’s girls gone mega-wild poses a question to their rapper-gangster quasi-chaperone, played by James Franco: Is he being serious? James Franco, festooned with cornrows and teardrop tattoo, answers with another question: “What do you think?”

James Franco seems to put a lot of people in a questioning mood. “Who Does James Franco Think He Is?” asked Macleans. “Is Franco Being Frank?” asked The Columbus Dispatch. “What Does It All Add Up To?” asked Esquire. Performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is making a film about James Franco, recently told Elle, “I’m interested to explain to [people] ‘Who is James Franco?’ and ‘Why is he doing what he’s doing?’”

“What he’s doing” is a lot. At the moment, he’s about to appear not only in Spring Breakers but the 3D Disney extravaganza Oz the Great and Powerful (in theaters March 8). That means that audiences can conceivably plan a James Franco double bill featuring a freaky, gun-fellating thug and a classic storybook character—and this just weeks after he hit the Sundance festival with no less than three films, all of them sex-centric. But James Franco isn’t just an actor (known for Freaks and Geeks, James Dean, Spider-Man, Milk and Pineapple Express, to name just a few). He directs. He’s a published author. He co-hosted the Oscars. (He was nominated for one, too, for 127 Hours.) He paints. He’s in a band. He’s a poet. He was the face of Gucci. He’s making a documentary about Gucci. At the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24, he served as Grand Marshal.

“Who is James Franco,” on the other hand, is simple: James Franco is the 21st century’s first great public intellectual.


These days, public intellectuals don’t get a lot of cred. Or maybe they would, if you could find more of them. Where are the thinkers who have become celebrities by speaking to the general public about the topics of the times? The American breed is identified with the essay-happy New York Intellectuals—Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and the Trillings, among others—who held sway from the 1930s through the ’50s. The decline and near-extinction of this cultural species was charted in the 2001 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, in which author Richard Posner placed some of the blame on a shrinking market for their work and increased specialization within the academy. A few folks have had a go at the “public intellectual” gig in the last decade or so—Christopher Hitchens was often called one—but nobody really pulls it off anymore. At least not well.

Unlike Hitchens, James Franco isn’t known for critical essays. But as Robert Boynton points out in a 1995 Atlantic Monthly piece about the rise of African-American intellectuals, nothing says public intellectualism has to come in one format. The term was invented decades before the New York Intellectuals chose the essay as their preferred medium; today, their analogues—like Cornel West, to take one of Boynton’s examples—are better known for their Daily Show appearances than their writing. James Franco does write commentary (he took to the Wall Street Journal in 2009 in defense of performance art), but the rest of his work fits the bill, too. Though there’s no hard-and-fast definition of a public intellectual, Posner does enumerate a few signature qualities; if you boil down Posner’s terms to a checklist, you discover that just about everything Franco does helps make a case for him as a bona fide public intellectual. Even Pineapple Express. Here’s why:

Because a public intellectual is a generalist. Two years ago, following James Franco’s poorly received stint as Oscars co-host, the Weekly Standard posited that at some point James Franco would have to pick one career and stick with it. Nope. That kind of decision is anathema to the public intellectual, who must be versed in multiple topics, and James Franco shows zero sign of narrowing his focus.

Because a public intellectual has academic credibility but, if possible, isn’t tied to a university. James Franco dropped out of college the first time around. Now, he has or is in the process of earning degrees from a half-dozen institutions, including Yale, Columbia and the Rhode Island School of Design. He’s also a teacher, with credits that include the class “Editing James Franco…with James Franco.” But he’s not linked to a single institution, which could encourage specialization of his knowledge—a no-no for the public intellectual.

Because a public intellectual is a celebrity. James Franco is a celebrity.

Because a public intellectual confronts norms. It’s no coincidence that James Franco’s Sundance hat trick was made up of the near-porn Interior. Leather Bar. (which he co-directed and appears in); the BDSM documentary Kink. (which he produced); and Lovelace, in which he plays Hugh Hefner. James Franco returns again and again to art about sex and sexuality, even and especially when the subject matter makes viewers squeamish. Case in point: his 2010 short film Herbert White, with Michael Shannon, dealt with necrophilia. (It’s possible that the residue of all these adventures may also rub off on the family entertainment Oz the Great and Powerful, at least for the Franco-literate adults in the audience.)

Because a public intellectual examines society rather than merely participating. When James Franco appeared on General Hospital, he played the mysterious, mononymous artist Franco, who had a show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. At the same time, James Franco made a film about his General Hospital experience—and showed it at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. And then explained in his WSJ piece that he went on General Hospital as a performance-art project about the nature of high and low art. “My hope,” he wrote, “was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate.”

Because a public intellectual is motivated by an ideology. James Franco has ideas—ideas that others have suggested are an extension of queer theory, which rejects binaries in sexuality and other areas of life; in fact, James Franco has cited queer theorist Michael Warner as part of the reason he chose Yale for his Ph.D. A 2010 New York magazine profile of the actor smartly proposed that he’s “queering celebrity” by “erasing the border not just between gay and straight but between actor and artist.” As he told the New York Daily News last spring, he sees art as raw material for more art. James Franco twists existing works into new ones: poems into short films, soap operas into contemporary art. He goes beyond queer theory to create mash-up theory. It asks: What is art? What is celebrity? How do I fit into these worlds? How do we create judgments about what entertainment we consume? And why are you just consuming when you could be creating?

So James Franco is asking the same kinds of questions that those headlines do—and he’s answering them. That’s the general, academic, confrontational, ideological work of a public intellectual. Love him or hate him or hate-love him, he does make you think. And sometimes what he makes you think is that he’s fooling you into liking him, cackling evilly behind your back as he uses you without your consent for a grand, life-long art project about celebrity. But fear not: James Franco’s life doesn’t have to be art to be about art. Unlike his wizard of Oz, James Franco shows us what’s going on behind his curtain. Is he being serious? Absolutely. All that’s left is for the rest of us to take him seriously, too.