The XX Factor

James Franco Says His Appearance on General Hospital Is Performance Art. He’s Wrong.

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal , James Franco ‘breaks his silence ” about what on earth he’s been doing on General Hospital for the past few weeks. He confirms that his appearance on the soap is, as was predicted, performance art-or, at least, it was intended to be.

Franco writes:

I signed on to appear on 20 episodes of “General Hospital” as the bad-boy artist “Franco, just Franco.” I disrupted the audience’s suspension of disbelief, because no matter how far I got into the character, I was going to be perceived as something that doesn’t belong to the incredibly stylized world of soap operas. Everyone watching would see an actor they recognized, a real person in a made-up world. In performance art, the outcome is uncertain-and this was no exception. My hope was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate. Whether they did was out of my hands.

I like James Franco and I like soap operas and I have found his entire appearance on General Hospital , thus far, to be an entertaining hoot. But based on Franco’s own, self-identified criteria, I’m not quite sure he gets to call his work performance art. Obviously, the rub with performance art, as Franco points out in his op-ed, is that just saying it is can make it so. But if his appearance on GH is supposed to qualify because “Everyone watching would see an actor they recognized, a real person in a made-up world,” I think he failed. You don’t have to watch soap operas to see an actor you recognize in a made-up world. You can just go to the movies. What was actually jarring and potentially performance-art-esque about Franco appearing on a soap is not that the audience would recognize a “real person,” but that the audience would recognize a famous one.

It seems to me the two questions we would have to be able to answer in the affirmative, by Franco’s own standards, to make his appearance on GH count as performance art are as follows: One, does the presence of a famous person render us incapable of suspending our disbelief, incapable of forgetting the person onscreen is an actor and not a character? Two, does the presence of said famous person make us question whether soaps are a more “critically legitimate” form than we typically think? On both counts, Franco gets a no.

To dispense with the latter first, Franco’s performance has not in any way legitimized soaps, or, more precisely, made us think more of the acting that goes on there. He fit right in, looking and sounding every bit the soap actor without any difficulty whatsoever. He has made soap acting look easy and absurd, exactly as mediocre as we all think it is. It is possible to construe this as a convoluted compliment: Franco’s performance suggests that a good, even semi-believable performance is incredibly hard to pull off on daytime. If all you saw of James Franco was his performance on GH , you would not believe he was capable of his performance in Milk , but you would be wrong. Thus, any actor who is halfway plausible (and there are a few, including Kristen Storm, the actress who Franco bedded on the show, if you’ve been following), would likely be a lot better on film, with the opportunity to do multiple takes in good lighting. The trouble here is that a mediocre Franco is still much better than most of the actors he appears with, and we’re left where we started.

Now, to the next question: Was it impossible for us to forget that this character Franco was, in fact, James Franco the movie star? Well, sort of. All of the non-soap-watchers who have tuned in just to watch Franco are probably unlikely to forget, given that they are watching just to blog/recap/observe this very fact. And yet, he is so much less out of place than we might have supposed. If his performance were amazing, nuanced, better than his colleagues’, it might be hard to forget he’s a famous dude; as it is, it’s sort of hard to remember that he’s a famous dude.

As for all of the people who watch GH , who watched before Franco and will watch after, I suspect they didn’t care that he was a movie star about five seconds after he got on screen.

I said this briefly in a longer piece I wrote on GH , but soap watching requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. To me, this is its redeeming feature. Soaps are storytelling at its purest, by which I do not mean its best, but its most pared-down and essential. People watch soap operas to find out what will happen next to people they have known for many years. That’s it. Plot and familiarity. No acting, production values, or intelligent story arcs are at work here. Soaps are like an old friend who you find frustrating but have learned to accept for who she is-you listen to her tell you really boring stories about the dentist, and, somehow, after all this practice, aren’t even that bored. This-not only sticking with someone mediocre and dull, but being interested in someone mediocre and dull because you have known them forever and sometimes, every so often, they tell you a good story about a hot date-is not necessarily wise, cool or appropriately critical, but it is extremely, touchingly human.

All due respect to James Franco, but he is not nearly famous enough to destabilize this kind of commitment. Franco may have momentarily enlivened the viewing experience for regular watchers, who, sure, recognized him and thought something about him and his performance, but he is just another piece of plot, and another character, in a really, really, really, really long story. One’s man performance art is just stunt casting to most of us, and another minor storyline to the remainder.

Photograph of James Franco by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.