Honorary Gay Man of the Year: James Franco

Howl was one of several LGBT-themed films that made it onto the big screen in 2010, and much of the credit for this particular movie’s success goes to the actor who appeared in the leading role as gay poet Allen Ginsberg. 

James Franco deserves to be a contender for the title of honorary gay man of the year for doing a terrific job in the film, but what cinched the award for him—at least in my book—is that this is merely the latest of a string of gay characters the A-list straight actor has played.

For most moviegoers, Franco’s previous part that comes first to mind was that of Harvey Milk’s boyfriend in the Rodger Streitmatter2008 blockbuster Milk. The scenes featuring Franco in a skin-tight white T-shirt added some tasty male eye candy to the flick.  

TV viewers with a slightly longer memory might recall that Franco also portrayed the brooding gay icon James Dean in a 2001 film that aired on TNT. Many critics called the role one that Franco was born to play and it won him a Golden Globe for best actor.

It was also in 2001 that Franco played a gay man in the indie film Blind Spot. The low-budget work, which wasn’t widely released, showcased the young heartthrob as an aimless prep school student who goes in search of his missing male lover. 

[A case also could be made for Franco earning even more gay street cred for a 2009 appearance on Saturday Night Live when he French kissed Will Forte. I’m opting not to put that one on my list, though, seeing as how Forte was playing the part of Franco’s grandfather, which moves the scene way too far on the icky incest continuum for my taste.]   

The 32-year-old Franco definitely gets a bunch more gay points for his response when asked, for a cover story in The Advocate, why he’s been attracted to gay roles:

“In this history of cinema, there are so many heterosexual love stories—it’s so hammered, so done. It’s just not that interesting to me. It’s more interesting to me to play roles and relationships that haven’t been portrayed as often.”

Franco’s got it right there, as major motion pictures about same-sex love have been few and far between.

Ginsberg’s love life isn’t at the center of Howl, but the film includes passing references to his affairs with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. It spends a bit more time depicting his 43-year relationship with fellow poet Peter Orlovsky—a same-sex partnership that ended only with Ginsberg’s death.

 One of the publicity shots for the film that I’ve noticed most often is a close-up of Franco and Aaron Tveit, the actor who plays Orlovsky, with their heads leaning against each other.   

The focus of the movie, though, is the obscenity trial that followed the 1956 publication of Ginsberg’s landmark poem “Howl.” Among the lines that officials objected to was about gay men “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the man who published the poem, argued that he was protected by his constitutional right to free speech.  

Howl portrays a youthful Ginsberg who’s struggling with deep shame about his homosexuality, and it also alludes to a period in the poet’s life when he tried to be straight. But mostly the movie celebrates the pursuit of creativity and honesty both in life and in art.

Reviewers for the Washington Post and New York Times praised Franco, in particular, for the scenes in which he recreates Ginsberg reading his poem in public for the first time. That event took place in 1955 in a converted auto-repair shop on Fillmore Street in San Francisco—the film doesn’t mention it, but Orlovsky helped his partner organize and publicize the event.

The Post review called Franco’s reading “deeply moving.” It went on to say that, because of the actor’s portrayal, what could have been “a trivial exercise in nostalgia instead becomes a powerful case for the cathartic power of art.”

There’s one review of the movie, though, that I vehemently disagree with. National Public Radio criticized Howl by saying that “James Franco looks nothing like Allen Ginsberg,” suggesting that the pretty-boy actor was cast in the role merely because he is, well, pretty.

NPR had that wrong. The problem is that the Ginsberg most people are familiar with is the paunchy, balding guy with a scraggly beard that he became late in his life. I’ve seen photos of Ginsberg as a young man, however, and he was quite attractive. This is the period of his life that’s depicted in the film, and so Franco is a perfectly appropriate actor for the role.

Speaking of good looking actors, the defense attorney in the film is played by Jon Hamm. It’s a clever bit of casting that the handsome star of the TV hit Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s, has a major role in Howl, which is set in the 1950s. Hamm does a good job in the movie, but my nod for honorary gay man of the year still goes to the star, James Franco.

By Rodger Streitmatter

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