Ever since Matthew McConaughey capped his professional resurgence–affectionately dubbed “The McConnaissance”–with his Oscar-winning turn as a man diagnosed with AIDS in Dallas Buyer’s Club, we’ve been eager to anoint his successor. Everyone loves a good comeback story and McConaughey’s redemption arc–which saw him go from Hollywood’s go-to dopey beach bum love interest to prestigious leading man in the span of three years–was especially enticing.
For a while, it looked as if Vince Vaughn was next in line, but the second season of True Detective failed to deliver. Colin Farrell was a decent candidate too, but as Lorgos Lanthimos’ new muse, Farrell no longer seems interested in the trappings of traditional movie stardom. The success of Deadpool helped helped Ryan Reynolds get his career off life support, though he’s yet to achieve the right amount of critical praise and Oscar heat that’s required for a full-blown revival.
That brings us to this year’s consensus choice, James Franco. The actor-turned-director-turned-painter-turned-novelist-turned-scholar-turned-actor-again is having something of a rebirth, netting his fourth Golden Globe nomination and potentially securing his place among this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Actor for his role in The Disaster Artist. It begs the question: Is James Franco back?
To be fair, Franco never really went anywhere, as his crammed IMDB page suggests. But it’s been a while since his work, both behind and in front of the camera, inspired this much enthusiasm from someone other than James Franco himself.
Whether it was his brief stint on General Hospital, his deep dive into Academia—which included the pursuit of five separate degrees while simultaneously making dozens of student films that no one actually saw—ambitious directorial efforts like As I Lay Dying and Interior. Leather. Bar., his role as Playboy contributor or his ill-fated gig as Oscars co-host (we still weep for you, Anne Hathaway), Franco seemed preoccupied with cultivating his performance art prankster persona. Of course, there was the odd occasion in which his most daring creative larks yielded terrific results–his performance as the seedy gangster in 2012’s Spring Breakers is Franco at his best–but those were the exceptions, not the rule.
Franco’s antics felt like a calculated rejection of a handsome actor’s traditional career trajectory. His love of self-parody peaked in projects like This is The End and his Comedy Central roast. Franco was in on the joke and he wanted everyone to know it.
Well, not anymore. 2017 saw Franco deliver two of the most focused and remarkable performances of his career. When it was announced that Franco would be playing twin brothers Frankie and Vince in HBO’s gritty New York crime saga, The Deuce, his critics dismissed it as another one of his artistic larks. But Franco delivered a nuanced and rangy performance that stood out as one of the show’s best. It brought us back to 2001, when Franco burst onto the scene with a charming turn as the lovable stoner in Judd Apatow’s gone-too-soon series, Freaks and Geeks and followed that up with a Golden Globe-winning performance as James Dean in the eponymous TV biopic. He was thrilling again.
The Deuce also helped set the table for The Disaster Artist, the film Franco directs and stars in about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult oddity The Room. What could have easily descended into parody is elevated thanks to Franco’s winning, unrecognizable performance as Wiseau, the inscrutable eccentric with the jet black mane and elusive accent who wrote, directed and funded what many consider to be the worst movie ever made.
In Wiseau, Franco found something of a kindred spirit. They’re both artists who stopped at nothing to achieve their artistic visions despite the naysayers. The film is a hilarious and moving ode to the creative process, and has thrust Franco into awards contention for the first time since his 2010 performance as a mountaineer in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours.
So far, Franco has taken home the Gotham Award for Best Actor, beating out the likes of Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Robert Pattinson (Good Time) and Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and should be in the mix has awards season marches along. So to what can we attribute Franco suddenly being, you know, good again? According to the man himself, it all comes down to a newfound sense of focus, which the 39-year-old polymath attributes to the added wisdom that comes with getting older. In an interview with Variety, Franco admits that his hyperactive career was a way of avoiding the holes he felt in his personal life and that his new goal is to do things that he really loves while giving them “the attention they deserve.”
Where does that leave Franco once the awards season hysteria dies down? After the 12 (yes, 12) projects he has in the works, the actor will throw himself into the world of comic books for the first time since his three-movie run as Harry Osborne in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy. Franco has confirmed that he’s working with X-Men mastermind Simon Kinberg on developing an unnamed property that will be “a hard R” and “take this superhero thing and really just push it into a new genre.” Previous reports suggest that the film will center on the lesser known mutant, Multiple Man, whose special power is his ability clone himself over and over again. Maybe the days of James Franco doing everything at once aren’t over just yet. As long as he keeps delivering big screen gold like The Disaster Artist, we don’t mind.