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The Most Interesting Person Famous for Uninteresting Things: The Clyde Fitch Report

December 20, 2010

The Brown Tweed Society is pleased to welcome new contributing partner Leonard Jacobs, Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, who will routinely weigh in with news from the New York theater scene and ongoing arts issues. The following piece was written by CFR contributor Beck Feibelman.

Right now, James Franco is the most interesting person in America who is famous for not very interesting things. Sure, he’s also famous for being a movie star, and sure, that’s the generative kernel of the attention he gets. But I’m talking about the kind of fame he has accrued for everything else he does. He’s a graduate student, an artist, a pal of performance art legend Marina Abramović and MoMA/PS1’s Klaus Biesenbach, an explicitly slumming soap opera guest star and a published author. None of these endeavors is especially flashy, and he doesn’t seem to have done any of them overly well. Still, he manages to make them exciting to watch, and he genuinely seems game for just about any kooky thing, dignity be damned. Franco has worked hard to transform himself and his whole “real life” into a compelling cultural meme.

Franco is a good celebrity. He produces a sort of value-added quality in his mundane activities in an echo of the kind of public life led by the undisputed master: Kanye West. The hosts of the superlatively delightful podcast “Too Beautiful To Live” have been fascinated with West for years. They love him not just for his talent and influence in the pop music avant-garde, but also for his irrepressible demonstrations of public eccentricity. Franco seems headed down a similar road, and it’s a totally charming episode in contemporary celebrity behavior. Unlike Kanye, however, who can be imperious and disruptive (usually in a good, or at least interesting, way!), Franco is more modest in his eccentric expressions even as he has been explicit about claiming his projects as artworks. As an artist, he’s both somewhat dilettantish yet an excellent ambassador for art. Indeed, if his fame can get people who are otherwise not interested in art to think about art, that in itself a grand success.

Franco is having an incandescent moment right now: he was just announced as a co-host for the Oscars next year, he has a new movie out (127 Hours), he had a solo art show at a legitimate New York gallery this fall and he’s going to Yale. It’s not that any one thing he’s doing is especially outré or inherently gossip-worthy. It’s that he’s leveraging his Hollywood fame into doing so many quirky things, out in public, joyfully and fearlessly. And everything he does feels like a show.

It has been reported, for example that he’s enrolled in five or six graduate school programs simultaneously for filmmaking, creative writing and literature. That kind of excessive overdoing — of graduate school — and making sure everyone knows about it, is nothing if not performative. Gawker and Jezebel, in particular, have been breathless clearinghouses for Francoiana. Sam Anderson’s excellent, epic New York magazine profile of Francofrom this summer is also well worth the read.

Franco has been in three Spiderman movies, MilkHowl and 127 Hours, but the most iconic, albeit amateur, paparazzo photo of Franco of the past few years shows him neither carousing nor canoodling, but asleep in class at Columbia.

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Beck Feibelman is an art historian and cultural critic. A specialist in contemporary art, he is especially interested in art since the 1980s. His writing investigates identity, performance, art and celebrity, and the blurred line between art and “real life.” On Twitter:

Visit Leonard, Beck and The Clyde Fitch Report daily for for more posts on arts, theater and politics. Follow the Clyde Fitch Report on Twitter at @clydefitch.

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