An open letter to James Franco

Posted by · 4:32 pm · February 28th, 2011

Dear James,

So you don’t think much of the Academy. That’s okay. A lot of us don’t. And after the outcome of last night’s awards — in which capping an inevitable Best Picture Oscar for the safe, stolid stylings of “The King’s Speech” with that extraneous Best Director win for a worried-looking Tom Hooper was roughly akin to dipping Wonderbread in milk for maximum squishiness — I suspect even a lot of movie buffs who don’t make a year-round sport of henpecking the Academy’s choices are on your side.

Your antipathy towards the Academy may be rooted in different disappointments than those of the blogging majority. We know for starters that you don’t much rate “The Social Network,” the 2010 title most clearly destined to fill the blank in many a “How did _______ lose?” whine-fest between awards geeks in years hence.

But Lord knows your own pony was even more cruelly treated by voters: when the film’s artsy death-rattle of a theme song couldn’t even beat a rushed Randy Newman Xerox of a Pixar jingle that everybody forgot he already won for in 2001, it was clear the once-so-buzzy “127 Hours” had been reduced to a phantom presence in this year’s race.

(Now, don’t protest. Admit it, even you forgot about it for a minute there, as “127 Hours” joined “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” on the producers’ reserve bench of Best Picture Nominees We Won’t Bother To Include In The Pretty Lame Opening Skit Since Most Viewers At Home Won’t Even Notice They’re Missing. Don’t think I’m chiding, mind — it is an unreasonably big ask to think up jokes around as many as 10 films, after all, particularly when space obviously has to be made for “Back to the Future.” And that unused “Grease” pastiche wasn’t going to film itself, was it? Time was of the essence.)

Sorry, lost my thread for a minute there. Where was I? Right, the Academy. Yes, they kind of blow more often than not. You won’t hear any disagreement from me there, even we’re mourning the fates of different contenders. Still, I’m sure there’s some common ground to be found: as a man of artistic temperament, perhaps you can share in my mortification that the single ugliest movie of 2010 was rewarded twice over for its design elements last night.

If not that, perhaps you’re also antsy for a film that even halfway matters outside the Oscar bubble to win Best Foreign Language Film one of these days. At the very least, you might have joined my Oscar party’s soaring chorus of groans greeting the revelation that the Academy’s four-year Celine Quarantine had been lifted just in time for the In Memoriam montage.

All of which is a long way of saying that many of us shared your smirking disapproval of last night’s proceedings. But here’s the rub. While it’s perfectly acceptable (indeed, some might say mandatory) to roll your eyes and/or utter sneery asides and/or throw peanuts at the screen and/or get epically blazed while watching this expensively choreographed fiasco unfold from the safety of your living room, it’s considerably more problematic to do so from the Kodak Theater itself — particularly when you’ve been graciously invited to keep the whole lunky show running in the first place.

It’s rather like volunteering to write withering reviews of your own movies for the trade papers, and while the heroic multi-tasker in you probably sees nothing wrong with that, I assure you it represents a slight conflict of interest. You know as well as I do, James, that the Academy Awards are a fundamentally dorky ritual — sometimes lovably so, sometimes not — but you can choose whether or not to be in them. You can also choose whether or not to be above them.

What you can’t choose, however, is to be in both those positions at once, however frantically you hit Twitter in the ad breaks to remind us that you’re still James Franco and not Ryan Seacrest. (Frankly, the increasingly dismayed group assembled in my hotel suite was more concerned at intervals that you’d physically morphed into that noted charisma machine Robert Pattinson. Have a word with your makeup artist.)

Yet that passive-aggressive involvement is exactly what you seemed to be aiming for, whether via your permanent squint and 60-degree head tilt, your flatter-than-needed delivery of one-liners whose generally undercooked quality you weren’t obliged to highlight quite so plainly, or your perverse refusal even to make eye contact with your gamely if flailingly overcompensating compadre Anne Hathaway.

How about that Anne, by the way? Did you have a moment in the wings to look up from your iPhone during those alarmingly frequent interludes when she was required to steer the sinking ship on her own — whether girlishly gushing over presenters, or donning a cocktail-waitress tux before enthusiastically pacing through her audition for a repertory production of “Victor/Victoria” with the wincingly apt song choice of “On My Own” from “Les Miserables?” (Speaking of which, do pass along my congratulations to the musical director, whose selections really underlined that youthful flava producers promised us when Anne and your good self were announced as this year’s emcees.)

If you saw any of that, you’d surely have recognized the yin to your yang: a host no better equipped than you to host the biggest night in showbiz, and one who still lags well behind you in the departments of comic timing (strained) and ad-libbing (pained), but who was heroically giving it everything she had regardless. Opposite approaches sometimes yield harmonious balance, but not in this case: sincere effort and smug indifference mix like oil and water at the best of times, and the warmed-over material you had blamelessly been given to work with (lesbians, Mark Wahlberg and sci-tech nerds aren’t intrinsically funny concepts in themselves, scriptwriters — you need to actually construct jokes around them) emphatically did not amount to the best of times.

I realize I’m probably being too hard on you. Even if you didn’t deliberately make hosting the dullest Oscarcast in this viewer’s memory your latest performance art project, the producers gave you more than enough unsolicited assistance to make it seem that way. You didn’t direct that agonizing Autotune montage, after all, or instruct the orchestra to remainly awkwardly silent during lengthy stage/presenter transition stretches. You had no part in the jaw-droppingly tacky decision to overlay the final montage of Best Picture nominees with the climactic lines of “The King’s Speech,” successfully eradicating any pretence of suspense and insulting nine other films in one fell swoop.

And you certainly didn’t invite dentally advantaged hordes of T-shirted preteens to invade the stage at the end of the evening with a glutinous rendition of the so-not-overused “Over the Rainbow,” since you looked about as bewildered by their appearance as we were.

But however much mystification or retroactive embarrassment you may have felt over your presence in the ceremony, it was in your job description to care, or at least pretend to do so. Because as much as we viewers love sending up the show as it unravels, you’d be amazed how cute it isn’t when the host is complicit in the mockery — particularly if you haven’t even the energy or guts to actively satirize the proceedings with Ricky Gervais’s zeal.

Nobody said it was easy to infuse the frequently silly, saccharine pageantry of the Academy Awards with genuine wit, warmth and a welcome splash of vinegar — that’s why it’s known as a tough gig, and why Billy Crystal, whose all-too-brief return to the Oscar stage was applauded more hungrily than it should have been by audiences on site and at home alike, doesn’t want it back.

But he wasn’t the only one last night schooling you in that regard: if you can bear to rewatch the show (I’m not sure I can), fast-forward to Robert Downey Jr.’s delicious bromantic chemistry with an unusually chipper Jude Law, or the unflappable Sandra Bullock’s goofy grace in handling the Best Actor presentations, and take notes. Or don’t — because if next year’s Oscarcast producers know what’s good for them, perhaps they’ll flip past your name in their Rolodex and ask one of those fine folks to host instead.

Anyway, congratulations on your hard-earned Best Actor nomination — which, if history is kind, will hopefully be the principal reason people connect your name with the 2010 Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s telling that all of the most treasurable moments from this year’s wonky ceremony came not from any rehearsed production or staging decisions, but from the award winners themselves — be it Colin Firth’s humble, humane master class in (ahem) speech delivery, the sweet justice of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s semi-surprise victory or the loopy, undisciplined joy of Melissa Fucking Leo.

The Academy Awards will always be first and foremost about the awards — deserved or undeserved, surprising or numblingly predictable — and the hosting will always be of secondary importance. But as any good actor (and we still know you’re that, even if we’re not entirely sure who pitched up in your place last night) knows, a secondary role doesn’t merit secondary effort.

Disrespecting the Academy is one thing; we do it all the time. Disrespecting your audience is quite another — and even as a viewer very nearly as inebriated as you by the night’s end, I’m afraid that didn’t go unnoticed.

Yours sincerely,

Guy Lodge

[Photos: OK!, USA TodayMetro]




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123 responses so far

  • 1 3-02-2011 at 11:03 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    All this talk about the best film winning, now are we talking the best of the nominated films or the best film of the year. Two different stories.

  • 2 3-02-2011 at 11:34 am

    DarkLayers said...

    Matthew Starr, so true. “Blue Velvet”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

    Also worth noting: Many people bring up “ET” and “High Noon” as snubbed, but you could make a case that “Blade Runner” and especially “Singing in the Rain” were the best movies of their year.

  • 3 3-02-2011 at 12:40 pm

    DylanS said...

    I was talking about best film nominated winning, as I would have thrown 2001: A Space Odyseey not even getting nominated in an otherwise shallow year as the Academy’s biggest mistake.

    Draklayers: I think of “There Will Be Blood” as being more of a film with a passionate and devoted fan-base more than a consensus favorite, a lot of people, myself included, can’t stand “There Will Be Blood”. I see “No Country for Old Men” as being a far more “generally agreeable” title than the later. It wouldn’t have been my personal pick, as I love “Juno”, but I still felt like It was a deserving winner.

  • 4 3-02-2011 at 12:54 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Well on the metacritic compilation of “Best of the Decade” lists, “Blood” showed up markedly more frequently than any other movie, including “No Country.”

    http://features.metacritic.com/features/2010/film-critics-pick-the-best-movies-of-the-decade/

    If “No Country” was such a consensus choice, it’s tough to explain 46% of the lists having “Blood” on them. That’s a higher number than any film received on that compilation.
    And it’s higher up on the “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They” list. (7, with No Country in the teens). Film Comment also had “Blood” higher on their poll of the best aughts films. “Gawker’s” compilation also had it #1 for the decade. Finally, in terms of metascores, they’re essentially the same with 91 for No Country compared to 92 for “Blood.”

    The advantage in lists/polls for “Blood” coupled with comparable reviews makes the idea of “No Country for Old Men” as a consensus favorite in the mold of the other titles somewhat dubious in my mind.

  • 5 3-02-2011 at 1:17 pm

    Jake said...

    @Dennis #34: “After watching Anne last night, I kept wondering what was going through Chris Nolan’s head.

    “Did I make a mistake here?””

    Umm, remember Heath Ledger at the SAG awards a few years ago and how awkward he was on stage with Jake Gyllenhaal? I’m not going to begin to judge Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman until the first full trailer drops.

  • 6 3-02-2011 at 1:21 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    And Anne might not be a great host, but her “Rachel Getting Married” work was awesome.

  • 7 3-02-2011 at 2:33 pm

    DylanS said...

    DarkLayers: I don’t think Critics are the end all, be all of what’s considered the best film in a given year. And the “Best of the Decade” lists statistic I think reinforces my stance of it a passionate fan-base film. Those who loved it felt it was one of, if not the best film of the decade, whereas “No Country” certainly has it’s devoted fans, but not in a strong a way as “Blood”.

    My point was that “Blood” is a vey divisive film that, like many of Anderson’s, is loathed by some, myself included.

    I find Day-Lewis’ performance impressive by his method acting, but lacking in even the slightest subtlety and being emotionally hollow, and I don’t mean just by virtue of the character. I also find Greenwood’s score irritating beyond belief, which I blame more on Anderson’s use of it in the film (heavy-handed), and I don’t think you can deny that I’m not the only person who feels that way.

    Anyway, under your logic of what determines the best film of the year, you certainly have a valid point, but I still contend that “No Country” would be the consensus choice.

  • 8 3-02-2011 at 3:13 pm

    JJ1 said...

    DylanS says, “I find Day-Lewis’ performance impressive by his method acting, but lacking in even the slightest subtlety and being emotionally hollow, and I don’t mean just by virtue of the character. I also find Greenwood’s score irritating beyond belief, which I blame more on Anderson’s use of it in the film (heavy-handed), and I don’t think you can deny that I’m not the only person who feels that way”.

    And that’s a bingo. :)

  • 9 3-02-2011 at 4:14 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    I understand. Dylan. I agree that in a format that favored consensus, “No Country of Old Men” would win.

    But I think the magnitude of some of the plaudits for “Blood” doesn’t make it the slam dunk that the other films cited are, and which would silence people who say the Oscars never reward the best movie of the year.

    I know “Blood” is loathed by many people. I recall the review by Stephanie Zacharek, and Roger Ebert anticipated and questioned the plaudits of greatness coming its way.

    I get that its relentless can be very unappealing, but I think the overacting is just well suited to the character of Plainview and the ideas in the movie. I think the drive for money and success gets across really well because it’s so lacking in nuance. As far as emotionally hollow, I honestly don’t know. I was shocked when his adoptive son weant mute and he was excited about oil.

  • 10 3-02-2011 at 4:27 pm

    DylanS said...

    Though “Boogie Nights” is the only film of his I consider to be a masterpiece, I appreciate Anderson (w/ “Blood” and even more so w/ “Magnolia) for creating challenging films that force people to think about and actually feel one way or another about their worth, as this conversation clearly indicates towards. We need more like him, to say the least, and I just hope that one of these days, I feel the same way about a film of is as I did “Nights”.

  • 11 3-02-2011 at 4:34 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    I agree. I also have to say someone mentioned how Julianne Moore needs Anderson or Haynes to give her a wonderful role so she can get her hardware, and I have to agree. JJ1, Paul Outlaw, and I talked about the momentum she’d have with a great role.

    So, may Anderson continue on, and hopefully with Moore.

  • 12 3-02-2011 at 4:48 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Yes ^. Julianne just needs a knock-out performance in a slightly less competitive year. Sounds lame, but it’s mostly true. She was probably almost-nommed several times (like last year). She came up against Basinger & Gloria Stuart in one of the biggest movies of all time. She couldn’t overcome Kidman’s year. Her nom for End of the Affair – that wasn’t going to get her the win. And this year, she should have been a contender, but Bening was the narrative. I have to believe that it’ll happen for her one day. I hope.

  • 13 3-02-2011 at 5:37 pm

    tina p said...

    I still don’t understand Anne Hathaway’s criticism- no host could have saved the past Oscars. After watching the Oscars, I have more respect for her – the lady repeatedly worked her behind off. Yes, Anne is not a stand up comic, but I found her to be fun , charming, confident, and very enthusiastic ( and yes, over -the-top at times) . This lady did her best to work with the awful writing, no pulse co-host, and a very dreadfully produced & directed Oscar show.

    Ridiculously, the producers didn’t use her properly, when you have a triple threat talent like Hathaway, who was obviously game for anything ( this lady can truly sing, not poor Gwyneth Paltrow or Mandy Moore ) . This was just inexcusable.

    For Anne to be so young, I was in awe of her great stage presence and ease on the Oscar stage for three hours ( plus , Pete Hammond stated she was entertaining the audience during the commercial breaks ) . That is not easy for anyone, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale were uncomfortable and nervous on that Oscar stage.

    I truly believe if Hathaway hosted with a much suitable co-host, like a Hugh Jackman or even Justin Timberlake with fresh and innovative writers & producers it would have been spectacular.

    What I find scary, James Franco is doing a play with Nicole Kidman in the fall. Trust me, that is going to be an epic fail. Sorry, Franco has no stage presence, and he proved he can’t handle a live setting.

  • 14 3-02-2011 at 5:46 pm

    tina p said...

    DylanS, I am with you. I am not a fan of “There Will Be Blood”. The past couple of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have been very self indulgent.

    Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “There Will Be Blood” is unbelievably over- the-top and painful to watch. I just don’t consider that a nuance acting performance. Viggo Mortensen deserved the Oscar that year.

  • 15 3-02-2011 at 7:23 pm

    DylanS said...

    I wish Viggo had won too, but I’m sure he’ll get his due soon enough. Hopefully this year, and when you consider the fact that he’s playing Sigmund Freud in a film directed by Cronenberg, things are looking good.

    JJ1: I’d say her best chance would have been in 2002, where I thought she should have beaten Catherine Zeta-Jones for her work in “The Hours” even if it was clear category fraud, but I’ve never thought that should be held against the performance, especially because she was nominated for “Far From Heaven” in Lead. That’s some of her finest work to date.

  • 16 3-02-2011 at 8:38 pm

    thebizkey said...

    Brilliantly said, Guy. Thanks for writing so eloquently what so many of us were feeling. James Franco lost a lot in my book. And he did most of it on his own.

  • 17 3-03-2011 at 5:39 am

    JJ1 said...

    2002 was just such a wealth of riches. Kidman had to win. It was her year – after almost winning the year before (Colin Firth, anyone?).

    If she hadn’t, she’d be one of the most overdue (today), and she’s one of my favorite actress out there.

    In Supporting, Catherine Zeta-Jones was never going to lose that. Category fraud? Perhaps. But she was a dynamo in the BP winner.

    That said, I think Meryl was 2nd that year in Supporting for Adaptation; a brilliant turn. Like I said, wealth of riches.

    I don’t think Julianne was even close in either category that year. And it was her best overall year! So competitive.

    That’s why I said before, she needs a wow-er in a slightly less competitive year. She’s well-liked. But she needs the narrative. Hate that, but it is what it is.

  • 18 3-03-2011 at 7:06 am

    Stefan said...

    Who is this Guy Lodge? Give the man the Pullitzer Price! Great letter!

  • 19 3-03-2011 at 11:10 am

    Megan said...

    Regarding the TWBB debate:

    I consider Daniel Plainview to be something of a satirical character, so to me, the over-the-top performance fitting, if not incredible.

    Knowing what little I do about Upton Sinclair, who wrote the story on which “Blood” is based, he wrote a lot about Industrialization and how drastically it changed everything. Keeping all that in mind, a nuanced or subtle tone in either acting or directing or scoring just wouldn’t have served this kind of story justice.

  • 20 3-04-2011 at 11:44 am

    Conor said...

    I don’t think it was necessarily over-the-top acting, but an over-the-top character, and if it that were more subdued, the movie wouldn’t quite work.

  • 21 3-06-2011 at 8:26 am

    Nashville fan said...

    I do think you cross the line a bit in this letter. Too many assumptions made. Another perspective that I did not see expressed is that Anne needed a straight man. She was delightfully over the top throughout most of the show. He needed to balance that. I agree that there were times he went too far, but I appreciated the balance.

  • 22 3-11-2011 at 7:14 am

    sam said...

    I think you are being too hard on the guy — you realize that he only rehearsed and did those movie bits on the weekends and had to travel back and forth from the east and west coast.
    Do you also realize that James and Anne were given zero material for an opening monologue — which truly made a difference for steve and Alec and for other hosts — i don’t get why the writers did give them anything to say because I think that set the tone and would have eliminated any question about how charming james is and can be — just watch any of his interviews. They ended so much earlier in more than a decade, so a lot of material could have been used. I feel it’s the producers and writers fault for not giving them time to shine and I don’t think it’s fair to blame james. He is not the worst host — that would be chris rock — who defines disrespect when hosting — and just look at the globes gervais.