Cruising celebrity: James Franco’s queer stardom, performance art, and Interior. Leather Bar.

by David Church

“How’d you like to disappear?” the fatherly Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) asks aspiring young cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) when offering him the undercover murder assignment that forms the center of William Friedkin’s controversial film Cruising (1980). Chosen due to his physical resemblance to the victims of a serial killer haunting New York’s gay leather scene, Burns soon descends into a queer underworld of SM fetishism, pornography, and recreational sex.

A generation later, the documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, 2012) captures a discussion occurring among the spectators of the famed performance artist’s eponymous retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (March 14–May 31, 2010). A handsome, thirty-something man stands among the other museum attendees, casually chatting and watching from the wings as Abramović performs in the center of the large gallery space. Attempting to explain the difference between “performance art” and “acting,” the young man suggests (with considerable oversimplification) that the only similarity between performance art and traditional stage/screen acting is the physical presence of other viewers during the performance itself. “Are you an actor?” an older museum patron replies—unaware that the younger man is, in fact, movie star James Franco, who responds affirmatively with an amused smirk. In the presence of Abramović’s nearby performance, the white male Hollywood celebrity has himself “disappeared,” much to his apparent delight.

Franco’s star image over the past decade has hinged upon not only his reputation as a creative polymath and career student, but also on his thematic interest in both queerness and performance art. These creative threads unite in his quasi-documentary metafilm Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)—a behind-the-scenes riff on attempting to recreate sexually explicit “lost” footage cut from Cruising’s gay SM club scenes—which he conceived and co-directed with filmmaker Travis Mathews. Franco’s initial interest in revisiting Cruising via a short gallery project featuring unsimulated sex led him to Mathews, whose independent feature I Want Your Love (2012) profiled in sexually explicit detail the personal relationships of a gay performance artist. Meanwhile, Mathews contributed many of Interior’s metafilmic aspects through a loose script that allowed considerable space for on-set improvisation between the cast and crew, negotiating the limits of what they would or would do sexually on camera.[1][open endnotes in new window] Rather than a mockumentary per se (as it has sometimes been deemed), the resulting film more closely resembles a blend of what Bill Nichols terms the “reflexive” and “performative” modes of documentary: a deconstructive metacommentary on the epistemological claims of traditional documentary cinema, achieved via semi-scripted performances, on-camera discussion about the ethics of representation, and depictions of the filmmakers themselves as authoring agents.[2]

Much as Cruising’s Burns agrees to the undercover assignment as an aspirational shortcut from beat cop to full detective, but perhaps also to indulge his ambiguous, repressed (homo)sexuality, Interior depicts aspiring actor Val Lauren (playing himself) struggle with his casting in the Pacino role, worried that his (professional) identity will be compromised by similarly adopting a fictional personality that requires him to inhabit spaces where unsimulated gay sex occurs.[3] Echoing how Franco’s embrace of graduate-level education and multiple creative avenues beyond acting (visual art, poetry, short fiction, screenwriting, directing, etc.) confounds conventional expectations of what a Hollywood celebrity should do, Interior deliberately blurs the boundaries between documentary and scripted fiction through its collaboration between a debatably “straight” movie star and an up-and-coming gay filmmaker. Hence, more than illuminating Cruising per se, Interior becomes a meditation on how actors like Franco might publicly perform beyond the bounds of their private sexual identities through embodied acts that would seemingly transcend mere “acting” and instead aspire to a higher artistic strata distanced from crass Hollywood commercialism. As Mathews notes in the film’s press materials, he and Franco began by “gaug[ing] how willing [Franco] was to acknowledge his celebrity—incorporating how he’s talked about in relation to gay-themed material—in the making of this film.”[4]

Less generous critics have dismissed Franco’s off-Hollywood extracurriculars as the vanity projects of a narcissistic dilettante[5] (and there is perhaps some truth in those claims). But I find such judgments of aesthetic value to be less compelling than asking what the twin axes of queerness and performance art might offer this fan-turned-friend of Abramović as a means of negotiating his own mainstream celebrity status. Indeed, Franco is perhaps the most famous of several white, hetero-male movie stars (also including Joaquin Phoenix and Shia LaBeouf) to have recently adopted the rhetoric of “performance art” as a method for challenging public images that, in their own eyes, seem too closely aligned with banal Hollywood cinema. In other words, Interior is notable as not only a reworking of a much-maligned Hollywood film with a cult following among contemporary gay men. It is also an extension of a larger cultural moment in which two different media, performance art and (Hollywood) acting—both united by a focus on the performer, but separated by their respective aesthetic strata—have converged around the figure of the celebrity.

Much as Cruising’s detractors denounced Friedkin as a straight director voyeuristically peering into and exoticizing a gay ghetto from a privileged outsider position,[6] Franco and his hetero-male celebrity peers could be accused of co-opting the label “performance art” to serve their own purposes. This has been accomplished in part by their tendency toward discursively reducing the very large and diverse medium of performance art to a particular subset of gallery-based body art that emerged in the 1960s-70s. Amelia Jones notes how the label “body art” was developed by critics

“who wished to differentiate it from a conception of 'performance art' that was at once broader (in that it reached back to dada and encompassed any kind of theatricalized production on the part of a visual artist) and narrower (in that it implied that a performance must actually take place in front of an audience, most often in an explicitly theatrical, proscenium-based setting).”[7]

As Jones continues, many of performance/body art’s biggest names of the 1960s-70s (e.g., Vito Acconci, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow, Chris Burden) were white, straight-identified men who inherited Abstract Expressionism’s masculinist ethos of virile, normatively male genius.[8] Although performance/body art also became a space for feminist artists (e.g., Abramović, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke) to interrogate gender norms, it has in more recent decades become a privileged space of expression for people of color and sexual minorities.[9] Artist Holly Hughes suggests that “Prior to 1990, few Americans outside of the big-city art ghettoes had even heard of performance art,” but following right-wing attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, “even people who’d never seen a show began to get a sense of what performance art is: ‘queer.’”[10]

If the very label “performance art” has increasingly become associated with both gallery-based body art and queer politics, then white male Hollywood celebrities’ use of that connotation to describe their entry into a different realm of performance surely retains an air of cultural appropriation. And yet, following Cruising’s more recent critical reappraisal, I will argue that Interior may also be compromised by its status as an exploratory vehicle for hetero-male anxieties, but nevertheless retains a queer complexity that cannot be simply written off as cynical cooptation. My reading therefore focuses, for better or worse, on how Interior functions within Franco’s larger interrogation of his own celebrity—even at the risk that I also reproduce the film’s own biases by marginalizing Mathews’s creative role in the following discussion. After all, it is doubtful that without Franco’s prominent involvement in the project—especially a project featuring unsimulated gay sex—it would have garnered as much attention, regardless of whoever actually did the heaviest lifting in the production process. As B. Ruby Rich reported from the film’s Sundance premiere,

“Only the hope of seeing Franco in an X-rated scene could explain a theater packed to the gills for a late-night screening of a one-hour experimental movie.”[11]

If Cruising’s spurious correlation between homosexuality and serial murder has contaminated its latter-day reputation, then Interior. Leather Bar’s yoking together of performance/body art and Hollywood celebrity is another correspondence whose very speciousness reveals the political stakes of performing sexual-cum-professional identities at different moments in LGBTQ history.

Marina and the boys

Mannered eccentricity among Hollywood stars is, of course, virtually as old as the mainstream film industry itself. But when a small cadre of postmillennial movie stars began promoting a series of public stunts in the late 2000s under the imprimatur of “performance art,” the media covered these activities through cross-reference to each other, and some of these stars even began publicly commenting on the artworthiness of each other’s unconventional performances—thus begging the question of what this rhetorical foray into another performance medium might offer these celebrities. Detailing and evaluating these varied efforts is well beyond the scope of this essay, but the following offers a brief précis of notable moments in this recent trend.

Although Marina Abramović’s concurrent celebrity as one of performance/body art’s most visible and venerated faces during these same years was a primary influence upon these movie stars (as I will elaborate shortly), it is also possible to trace a loose genealogy of eccentric-performance-as-Hollywood-rejection back to character actor Crispin Glover. While not commanding the same A-list celebrity status as the more recent crop of stars-turned-performance-artists, Glover’s famous repudiation of his breakthrough role in Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)—including his refusal to appear in its sequels and his successful lawsuit against the producers over their unauthorized use of outtakes and stand-ins to replace him—set the mold for these later stars’ public rejection of Hollywood blockbuster cinema. From Phoenix’s (fake) “retirement” from acting in the wake of his Oscar-winning role in Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005) to LaBeouf’s criticism of his own participation in the Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007- ) franchis eand Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008),[12] the major star’s well-publicized withdrawal toward more “artistic,” less commercial projects owes much to Glover’s lead. It is no coincidence, for example, that Phoenix’s much-mocked January 2009 interview on The Late Show with David Letterman (featuring the bedraggled and recently “retired” star awkwardly mumbling his way through an otherwise standard promotional appearance)[13] mimicked Glover’s notoriously high-kicking 1987 interview with Letterman, in which Glover was similarly (and unbeknownst to Letterman) “in character” as the protagonist from his then-unreleased independent comedy Rubin and Ed (Trent Harris, 1991).

But beyond the realm of gimmicky late-night interviews, Glover’s more recent side career touring in support of his self-directed cult films What Is It? (2005) and It is Fine. Everything is Fine! (2007) evinces more direct affinities with performance art as traditionally understood. In her influential theory on the ontology of live performance, for instance, Peggy Phelan suggests that performance art cannot be wholly considered “somehow ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ the art market,” but its traditional focus on the ephemerality of the performer/ audience interaction marks its political “resistance to the commodity form.”[14] Although we might question such claims, given the various forms of (cultural/ symbolic) capital nevertheless accrued by even those artists who don’t sell copies/ records of their work, the emphasis on live performance’s ephemerality as resistant to capitalist commodification persists as an ideology undergirding much of the medium. Because Glover does not circulate (piratable) screeners, his feature films, filled with “shocking” content in the 1970s midnight-movie tradition of Alejandro Jodorowsky, et al., can only be viewed with Glover present in person, as but one part of live shows that also include Q&A sessions and theatrical readings from his books.[15] By requiring that his films be viewed beside the liveness of the actor/ director’s physical presence—and with his penchant for generously conversing with each night’s audience—Glover’s public performances thus associate liveness with a repudiation of overly mediatized blockbuster entertainments. His overtly independent films attempt to challenge the viewer’s sensibilities with taboo imagery deliberately opposed to mainstream Hollywood cinema, while his onstage presence recalls his Back to the Future lawsuit by actively resisting the very divorcement of the actor’s corporately circulated onscreen image from his lived being.

Indeed, it is notable that the three stars most often linked to performance art discourse—Phoenix, Franco, and LaBeouf—all began acting from a very young age, suggesting a difficulty in separating themselves from their media images. In the early scenes of the mockumentary I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, 2010), for example, we see local news footage of the Phoenix siblings performing as children—and then cut ahead to present-day Joaquin ranting that he doesn’t want to play “the character of Joaquin” anymore.[16] Moreover, both Joaquin and Casey Affleck are linked to a sort of “second-hand celebrity” status as the younger siblings of more famous brothers, River and Ben. Although Phoenix’s supposed “retirement” from acting and turn toward a rap career were all an elaborate fabrication captured for I’m Still Here, this project intentionally used the celebrity media machine against itself, seeding lies into the gossip mill of rumor and speculation surrounding Hollywood stardom.[17] Of course, calling attention to the factual lapses between celebrities’ star images and their actual selves is hardly a groundbreaking insight. Nevertheless, there is a certain pathos in watching celebrities struggle with the inescapability of their own media selves—as attested by the frequent media speculation that such antics are less a deliberate performance than symptoms of psychological meltdown in the face of fame. LaBeouf’s wearing of a paper bag, reading “I Am Not Famous Anymore,” over his head at the Berlinale premiere of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomanic (2013), is a case in point. Even Franco himself penned a New York Times op-ed wondering if this was “a nervous breakdown,” “mere youthful recklessness,” or “a piece of performance art, in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.” For Franco,

“Our rebellion against the hand that feeds us can instigate a frenzy of commentary that sets in motion a feedback loop: acting out, followed by negative publicity, followed by acting out in response to that publicity, followed by more publicity, and so on. Participating in this call and response is a kind of critique, a way to show up the media by allowing their oversize responses to essentially trivial actions to reveal the emptiness of their raison d’être.”[18]

In other words, public expressions of wanting to be “not famous anymore” become, intentionally or not, fodder for still more celebrity media coverage—which is why these stars’ forays into performance art tend to be centrally concerned with interrogating their own celebrity status. After all, performers like Franco have reached the point where celebrity watchers begin wondering whether any tiny public indiscretion might be read as an unannounced attempt at “performance art.”[19]