Perhaps the most common thread in these stars’ adoption of performance/body art rhetoric is the desire to “inauthenticate” a public persona already constructed around fame in one cultural form. For Franco, this largely consists of spreading his celebrity image across a variety of artistic media, both culturally “low” and “high,” beyond cinema alone: from his 2009-12 stint playing the murderous performance artist “Franco” on General Hospital (which coincided with a real-life show of the fictional Franco’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), to his lackadaisical co-hosting of the 2011 Academy Awards, to a variety of smaller (and often more sexually provocative) art projects themed around “James Franco.”[20] [open notes in new window] In one critic’s words,

“As Franco adds layer upon layer, wink upon wink—as he slides further along the continuum from Gyllenhaal to Warhol—his entire career is beginning to look less like an actual career than like some kind of gonzo performance piece: a high-concept parody of cultural ambition.”[21]

For another,

“Franco’s recent image seems to subsume all media and cultural strata…in a perpetual deconstruction of the very possibility of ‘high’ or ‘authentic’ performance. […] [N]ow it is the knowing wink of the meta-celebrity that bears the stamp of quality, rather than the improvisational effects of an actor who is ‘living the part.’”[22]

On some level, a move into other performance media may represent a narcissistic bid for more acclaim—particularly if it must be earned against stronger art-critical opposition—but it may also serve as an earnest attempt to reshape one’s self-identity without sacrificing the idea of oneself as a creative professional. Furthermore, such moves resonate with a longer tradition of male body artists who may “confuse and complicate masculinity” by masochistically opening their displayed bodies to the art-critical gaze.[23] In this case, this may be an especially masochistic move if critics are already predisposed toward skeptical dismissal of these Hollywood actors’ artistic motivations—but the recuperation of masculine identity is also all the easier to recover for white male celebrities with such preexisting social privilege. 

For LaBeouf, for instance, the supposed inability to reconcile Hollywood stardom and creative originality found expression in his series of plagiarized artworks and equally plagiarized apologies.[24] One especially notable example was his plagiarism of Abramović’s famous performance piece Rhythm 0 (1974). In the Abramović original, she presented an audience with 72 objects, from the innocuous to the potentially deadly (e.g., a loaded gun), and invited them to use them on her in whatever way they saw fit over the course of six hours.

A variety of both harmless and dangerous implements on display during Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) performance.

A variety of implements on display (including Hollywood-themed objects) during Shia LaBeouf’s #IAMSORRY (2014) performance, plagiarizing Abramović.

Performance art celebrity Abramović sitting with gallery visitors for The Artist is Present... ...and Hollywood celebrity LaBeouf sitting with gallery visitors for #IAMSORRY.

In the multi-day LaBeouf version, #IAMSORRY (2014), gallery visitors were likewise presented with a variety of objects (including a Transformers toy and an Indiana Jones bullwhip) they could use as they wished on the bag-headed LaBeouf. Created with LaBeouf’s art-world collaborators Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, the piece also recalled Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) in requiring each patron to sit individually before the silent performer during their encounter with the famous artist.[25] His piece thereby literalized not only the public’s potentially sadistic curiosity in spectacles of celebrity self-destruction, but also Hollywood’s reliance on cultural derivativeness (to say nothing of the art world’s own post-postmodern derivativeness, as seen, for example, in the “metamodernist manifesto” that inspired LaBeouf’s performance work).[26]

Abramović’s place as the central touchstone for both LaBeouf’s and Franco’s interest in performance/body art is perhaps little surprise, given her own celebrity within her respective cultural sphere. Between her Guggenheim show Seven Easy Pieces (November 9-15, 2005), in which she re-performed a series of seminal 1960s-70s pieces (including one of her own) by famed performance artists, and her own career retrospective The Artist is Present five years later, Abramović became the public embodiment of “performance art” as a whole (despite her body works still representing only a subset of a much more diverse artistic field). In Seven Easy Pieces, for instance, the physicality of her body concretized the earlier, more ephemeral history of live performance/body art through her re-performances: by funneling the past through a single (heterosexual) person, she effectively became the body art canon. The behind-the-scenes documentary about The Artist is Present, an exhibition that also featured art students recreating her past works, further heightened her public profile.

Although Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are among the other media stars who have capitalized on Abramović’s heightened celebrity through collaborations with her, none have such close associations with A-list movie stardom as Franco, who directly sought out her friendship and mentorship in 2009. (At the time of this writing, Abramović is even making a film about Franco, further suggesting their mutually beneficial relationship.) Yet, as the New York Times notes,

“some performance artists and critics are accusing Ms. Abramović of cultivating something suspiciously like a cult of personality…[becoming] in danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole of her own mythology, betraying not only her own roots but also, perhaps, the true nature of performance art itself.”[27]

Although this sort of backlash potentially attends all manner of artists who have reached a mature stage of critical renown, performance art’s ideology of purported resistance to commodification makes the specter of “sell-out” celebdom all the more acute.

 But if Abramović’s blossoming celebrity has inspired some measure of critical backlash for seemingly “selling out” as performance art’s biggest brand name, this reaction pales compared to the vitriol earned by Hollywood celebrities encroaching on the same aesthetic territory.The rote art-critical response writes off these movie stars’ performance works as cynical put-ons by hyper-privileged individuals with neither the training nor the discipline to fully embrace performance art proper:

“While experimenting with performance art might be a nice way for them to deal with their own feelings about celebrity while entertaining their fans, it’s not yet worth examining as art for art’s sake.”[28]

Of course, this criticism downplays the extent to which the art world’s major classes of constitutive subcultures—from artists, dealers, and collectors to critics and museum curators—are all complicit in performing their own highly privileged, micro-celebrity statuses.[29]

Although there is no doubt that these Hollywood stars and the oft-insular world of gallery art mutually benefit from the shared publicity (much to the dismay of some artists and critics), more troublesome are the accusations of cultural appropriation attending such crossover moments between popular celebrity and elitist obfuscation.[30] From LaBeouf’s unattributed copying of Abramović to Franco’s widely-panned 2013 recreation of Cindy Sherman’s iconic series Untitled Film Stills (1977-80),[31] their collapse of cultural distinctions is more specific than contaminating the realm of high art with the allure of celebrity, pop culture, and mass reproduction (à la Warhol). Rather, it seems to bespeak a small group of wealthy, white, heterosexual men’s cultural privilege in “colonizing” a medium that has since the 1980s-90s become associated with embodied minority self-representation. Yet, while I am not so quick to flatly reject all such works as merely “performance art” in heavy quotations, the cultural-appropriation criticism remains worth highlighting since it impinges upon Franco’s use of Cruising in Interior. Leather Bar.

Although some critics have accused Franco himself of “cruising” gay culture for disingenuous reasons, his appropriation of queerness has generally received more critical acceptance than his appropriation of performance/body art. Perhaps this has more to do with a film actor remaining within his chosen medium—and a medium more readily associated with crass commercialism—than venturing into the realm of high art. From his eponymous breakthrough role in the made-for-TV biopic James Dean (Mark Rydell, 2001), to his queerly charged bromances like Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008) and This is the End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan, 2013), to his overtly gay roles in period pieces like Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010), and The Broken Tower (James Franco, 2011), Franco’s stardom has long been tied to queer themes. Rejecting the Franco-as-dilettante criticism, Michael Bronski observes that

“in a little over a decade he has created a larger body of work on gay male themes, and manifested a political sensibility queerer than most other performers or directors, gay or straight, working in the United States today.”[32]

But, again, such praise adheres more to Franco’s cinematic output than his varied efforts at poetry, visual art, and performance pieces.

In a humorously deprecating self-interview between “Gay James” and “Straight James” about his “queer public persona” and the accusations of “exoticizing of gay lifestyles,” Franco posits,

“I like to think that I’m gay in my art and straight in my life. Although, I’m also gay in my life up to the point of intercourse, and then you could say I’m straight. So I guess it depends on how you define gay. If it means whom you have sex with, I guess I’m straight.”

He explains that he seeks to make “queer art that destabilizes engrained ways of being, art that challenges hegemonic thinking.” At the same time, cultivating rampant speculation about his lived sexual identity becomes a “great shield” for protecting the truth of his actual private self from public exposure.[33] In effect, Franco capitalizes on increased LGBTQ political acceptance by highlighting the mutability of both sexuality and celebrity as epistemological barriers to reifying his “true” identity. He thus reverses the old smokescreen that closeted Hollywood stars once used in asserting a stable public heterosexuality to deflect attention away from their private lives. Jameson Fitzpatrick, for example, suggests that Franco’s sincere interest in transcending gender norms—but not participating in gay sex—might qualify him as a “‘heterosexual queer’ by virtue of a non-normative sexual or gender expression that nevertheless fails to transcend the categories of straight and cis.” Yet, Franco’s outsized hetero/cis privilege as a celebrity “demonstrates an obliviousness to why anyone for whom queerness is a central and/or compulsory identification might be bothered” by queer equivocations that sexually tease his gay male audience.[34] As Jane Ward argues, “white male heterosexuality…draws on the resources of white privilege to circumvent homophobic stigma and to assign heterosexual meaning to homosexual activities,”[35] which allows Franco to safely occupy a sexual gray area in his professional (if not personal) life as a Hollywood celebrity.

Cruising and its discontents

Because Cruising was likewise accused of appropriating gay subcultures for voyeuristic heterosexual entertainment, teasing out the connections between Friedkin’s film and Interior. Leather Bar. helps elucidate how Franco’s film becomes an extension of his performance art about the nature of celebrity. Although Cruising’s tumultuous production and reception history has been detailed elsewhere,[36] a brief overview is necessary for understanding what drew Franco and Mathews to this source material. Friedkin had initially turned down the offer to adapt Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel of the same name, but later signed on after transposing the story into the SM clubs that had subsequently emerged over the post-Stonewall decade. For Friedkin, then, these club scenes were the film—a supposition that more recent critics and fans have reinforced. Nearly all latter-day readings of Cruising have observed the neorealist tenor of these scenes—filmed on location in actual New York City leather bars, with extras who were members of that subculture—as documenting a bygone, pre-AIDS heyday of public sex that a younger generation of gay men did not live through.[37]

Moreover, the story that Friedkin had to remove about forty minutes of unsimulated sex from these club scenes in order to avoid an X rating (and this “lost” footage was, conspicuously, not restored for the film’s 2007 theatrical and home video reissue) has only added to the scenes’ notoriety—as explained in Interior. Leather Bar.’s opening titles. One of Interior’s extras for the club scene recreation, for instance, explains that he loves Cruising because men back then were living a “gay dream” that he himself has not been able to recapture in his own life. This cult repute has allowed the leather bar scenes to become metonymic of Cruising as a whole, overwhelming the police procedural narrative that once generated much of the film’s initial controversy. As D. A. Miller suggests,

“Once we move from the [SM] background to a murder mystery starring Al Pacino, we say a decisive farewell to neo-realism, and hello again to the celluloid closet, with all its strictly epistemological excitements.”[38]

Although Cruising’s police honcho Capt. Edelson explains to Pacino’s Burns that the SM milieu is “not in the mainstream of gay life,” a militant group of gay protestors representing a soon-to-be-mainstream stripe of assimilationist identity politics launched the most vociferous protests against Cruising, whether by picketing theaters, actively disrupting the shooting, or even making bomb threats against theaters playing the film. At issue was not only the thematic linkage between gay cruising and serial killing (though David Greven astutely notes that “the potential for violence that adheres in cruising has to be at least part of its illicit thrill”[39]), but also the film’s suggestion that exposure to homosexuality might breed murderous tendencies. In both the source novel and the film, Burns feels his heterosexuality compromised by his undercover exposure to the gay world; his relationship with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) suffers as a result, for example. But, whereas Walker’s novel ends with Burns discovering the true killer, Friedkin’s film goes further in its “strictly epistemological excitements” by suggesting that Burns may have actually become one of several largely indistinguishable killers stalking the leather scene. Much as we never actually see Burns sexually engaging with any of the men who cruise him while undercover (these implied moments are always elided with fade outs, etc.), the film ends without a clear resolution to the murder mystery.[40] By interchanging the same actors to play both the victims and their killer(s) from one scene to the next, and even post-dubbing a never-seen actor’s voice (James Sutorius) into the killer’s mouth during the murder scenes, Friedkin makes it virtually impossible for the viewer to definitively ascertain who has committed any of the murders.[41]

Burns follows one of the possible killers while cruising, just before the film fades out or cuts to the next scene, eliding the truth of his possible (homo)sexual consummation. “You made me do this”: The same unseen actor provides the post-dubbed voice for multiple murderers (and one murderer’s father), obscuring the truth of who is really responsible for the killings.

The homophobic father brands his gay son with murderous, self-loathing impulses, in an ambiguous flashback intercut with memories of previously seen murders. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know”: Just before he begins his undercover assignment, Burns acts very strangely when Nancy tells him his father called.

Driven by an obsession with his long-dead, homophobic father, the killer (or at least one of them) targets gay men who resemble the killer himself, thereby compelled to externalize and kill the parts of his sexual identity that he cannot openly acknowledge. In one of the film’s few early appreciations, Robin Wood argues that Cruising is fascinating in direct proportion to its ideological incoherence, since the multiplicity of potential killers suggests the endemic violence of internalized homophobia, as decreed by the Law of the Father in a patriarchal society.[42] But whereas Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), one of Cruising’s primary intertexts, offers a notoriously longwinded psychoanalytic explanation for its dead-mother-obsessed killer’s aberrance, Cruising deliberately evades any clear answers about either the killers’ or Burns’ (sexual) identity.[43] For example, Burns reacts strangely when Nancy tells him that his father called, and he ambiguously whispers,

“There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”

Because Burns’ father is never mentioned elsewhere in the film, this seemingly throwaway moment from the opening scenes only retrospectively becomes significant once we later learn more about the killer(s), casting further doubt on Burns’ sexuality and sanity alike. Moreover, Burns is not the only cop who moonlights at gay clubs. We see other cops cruising for inter-male sex in these spaces, seeking erotic contact that might be described as properly queer in the contemporary sense of eluding fixed identity categories like “gay” or “straight.” Indeed, for Guy Davidson, the cruising men’s returned gaze into the camera during these scenes self-reflexively implicates both Burns and the (straight) viewer, creating moments of paranoia where the viewer is suddenly interpellated by queer desire, and thereby “suggest[ing] that the disorder of identification he is undergoing may extend outside the world of the film.”[44]