gay for play

Does James Franco’s Girlfriend Know He’s The Queerest Straight Man Around?

Five years ago, the actor James Franco met Ahna O’Reilly, a fellow thesbian, and they’ve been together ever since. But what does she think about him queering his career?

Whether Franco is gay or straight or somewhere in between is your (and Ahna’s) call to make. But he appears to be having plenty of fun keeping everybody guessing, whether it’s through his career moves (Milk, Howl) or her own personal projects (writing a short story in Esquire where the narrator asks, “Don’t you ever get jealous of those girls in pornos that get to be on their knees in the middle of all those dicks?”). New York‘s Sam Anderson writes in a lengthy profile of Franco:

Although Franco has been silent on this subject, he seems to enjoy stoking the controversy. His art, across the spectrum, revels in gay culture. His student film The Feast of Stephen involves an extended fantasy scene in which a group of teenage boys gang-rape another boy—who then smiles meaningfully at the camera as the screen goes dark. (An intimate screening of the film was sponsored, last summer, by Butt magazine.) The narrator of Franco’s Esquire short story asks a friend: “Don’t you ever get jealous of those girls in pornos that get to be on their knees in the middle of all those dicks?” Franco researched his role for the 2002 film Sonny by hanging out at gay strip clubs in New Orleans, and even tagged along with a stripper as he serviced a male client in a hotel room. In a guest spot on 30 Rock, he played a version of himself whose sexual obsession with a Japanese body pillow is an open public secret—a perfect allegory for his alleged homosexuality.

When Franco mentioned to me, via e-mail, that he was leaning toward going to Yale for his Ph.D., the faculty member he singled out was Michael Warner. Warner happens to be one of the pioneers of queer theory, a school of thought born in the early nineties (just as Franco was hitting adolescence) that argues that sexuality is not a trivial, personal matter but fundamental to how we all experience the world. “Queer,” in this sense, transcends the simplistic binary of gay versus straight. As Warner puts it in his canonical anthology Fear of a Queer Planet, queer defines itself “against the normal rather than the heterosexual.” Thinking about sexuality—particularly exposing the assumptions embedded in heteronormative culture—is a form of radical social critique, a way to challenge arbitrary boundaries and institutions.

Which is, of course, basically a description of Franco’s current career: He’s systematically challenging mass-cultural norms. Franco, you might say, is queering celebrity: erasing the border not just between gay and straight but between actor and artist, heartthrob and intellectual, junk TV and art museum. His obvious relish for gay roles challenges the default heterosexuality of Hollywood leading men like Clooney or Pitt. He seems more interested in fluidity, in every sense, than in a fixed identity. As a commenter on the website Queerty put it: “He’s the World’s Gayest Heterosexual!” But he’s also the world’s most heterosexual gay, the world’s highest lowbrow, and the world’s most ironic earnest guy. It is also possible that he’s just engaged in the world’s most public, and confused, coming-out process.

(Look at that, giving a shout out to Queerty commenters.)

What we’re seeing in Franco, then, is one of the first, if not the first instance where an ostensibly straight actor is so boldly toying with the public perception of his sexuality — for cool points. To build buzz. To make him more interesting. Ten years ago, no star of Franco’s caliber would risk even remotely being seen as gay for risk of losing fans and a career. Not him. Instead, it seems to be doing to opposite: He remains well-employed and much talked about. In essence, what every celebrity wants.

And as for the girlfriend, Ahna? “You do a movie where you’re gay,” she says, “or, in James’s case, more than one, it’s going to happen. I know that a lot of people wish he were gay, or think I’m not his real girlfriend. But there’s nothing you can do about that.”

[New York; photo via New York]