First off, I should say I’ve been a fan of James Franco‘s film work. I shied away from reading Palo Alto, his not-very-well-received collection of short stories, and I think I did so because I was afraid I would be disappointed. The thing about writing is (unlike acting), you can’t hide. The psyche of the writer comes through. And in this book, which is misleadingly termed a novel, James Franco does reveal himself in the guise of multiple “fictional” characters.
So this is categorized by Kindle in the memoir section, and in my view it’s creative nonfiction. The point being, Franco isn’t a good enough writer yet to craft a novel. And this would be OK if the vignettes in Actors Anonymous really added up to something. Franco takes a hard line when it comes to acting teachers, acting classes, and other actors. But some of his insights are valuable. Here’s one: “To have an inside, there always needs to be an outside. The more elite the inside, the more people are on the outside. Get in there, but don’t live in there. Be on both sides.”
This is the Franco I’ve liked—the benign, seemingly self-confident, subversive, funny guy. But that guy is pretty much a mask, Franco reveals in this book. After one description of a character who resembles himself called “the Actor,” he concludes, “In actuality, he probably wasn’t charming at all.”
At some level I think Franco wants to be known rather than loved. (He’s had the love and adulation for years, and it doesn’t seem to have helped him much.) And I think Franco hates his persona, too, and this book is an attempt to lift the lid.
The book AA most reminded me of was Last Exit to Brooklyn, oddly enough. As I read the book, with its selection of unpleasant male characters who are all addicts or dead-end people in some way, I thought about Hubert Selby, Jr. I read Last Exit while in college and hated it. I didn’t hate its hapless characters. I hated the inner ugliness of the author, which came across on the page. I never read any other of his books.
Franco’s inner ugliness also comes across—which is, frankly, distressing. He boasts about all the sex actors get. He seems incredibly immature and insecure. There is one section, about “his” exploits in France with a couple of young women he calls Diarrhea and Cunty (!), that probably is the most fictional section of the book, but is just utterly repellent.
Franco has yet to learn that while Hollywood is a toxic place, there are different rules for the writing game. You have to have a scintilla of hard-won wisdom and at least show a tiny bit of interest in personal growth. Franco thinks it’s fine to dub all older women ugly and to make clear that he only pursues much younger, pretty women. His attitude toward sex is blithely disconnected and I am not sure how aware he is of his predatory attitudes. (I would say “nature,” but that seems too cruel, doesn’t it?) At one point he criticizes Marilyn Monroe for her cottage-cheese thighs!
I wish Franco would look at his attitude towards women. He likes women as sexual objects but he clearly doesn’t “like” them. Maybe that’s why he does so many gay roles, not out of some wonderful, life-embracing bisexuality, but because he just doesn’t like his female co-stars. Do they bore him at this point? Or is he compelled to sleep with them and finds this irritating? Who knows…
What worked best in the book for me was the segment where a former heroin addict called Sean is working at a fast food restaurant and ends up having sex in the filthy bathroom with an odd-looking Latino co-worker for money, all the while attending AA meetings and pretending to be “in recovery.” There was a real desperation here, and I liked the intensity and detail that Franco brought to it.
Then toward the end, Franco gets to the subject of his father, who has died suddenly. Again, there’s a compelling quality to these parts and an Oedipal intensity. It’s thinly disguised autobiography. But he basically throws his father under the bus. I’m sure the older Mr. Franco was a piece of work, but the younger Mr. Franco clearly is, too.
The book made me muse about a young man escaping a narcissistic father who doesn’t understand, support, or love him. He goes to Hollywood to reinvent himself. Surely he must have served under a number of narcissistic fathers there, since the power structure is pretty much all male. I can understand his need to escape and transcend acting at this point. He basically admits he’s coasting in his film work. I can see that writing would offer more freedom, more of an escape. Plus, it’s an “upgrade,” and intelligent people take you seriously.
But I don’t know, judging by this book, if Franco really can keep a foot in both worlds. If this book gets Franco laid less often… hey, it might be a good thing. Writers need insight and solitude; they need to have self-discipline. Franco still seems to have the mentality of a young, immature actor. All the same, there is a bravery in revealing that he’s not a nice guy (antisocial personality disorder came to mind). It’s just that doing that is not the same thing as writing a good book.