In Defense of James Franco: A Case for the Ironically Detached School of Oscar Hosting

In the thirty-some-odd hours since "The King’s Speech" came away the big winner at the 2011 Academy Awards, James Franco has been pelted by an unending hail of spitballs by haters from all corners of the media schoolyard.  Franco’s tarring is not particularly surprising: Anyone who thrusts himself into the public eye as much as Franco did in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, with near daily announcements of new creative endeavors (many of which have esteemed literary ancestors), is bound to take an even more savage beating from the media hordes when he stumbles. Franco didn’t stand a chance of surviving that kind of prolonged, unprotected exposure without getting burned.

But Franco was a far cry from the best Oscar host and nowhere near the worst either. That would have to be Ellen. Or perhaps David Letterman deserves that dubious honor. Either way, we’re unafraid to be the first to come forward with the seemingly indefensible position that Franco did his job and added an air of mystery to an otherwise mind-numbingly predictable show.

This is not to say Franco doesn’t bear some responsibility for spreading himself too thin. Minutes before the curtain went up at the Kodak, Franco glibly told Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith that he’d only been available to rehearse for the Oscar broadcast on weekends when he wasn’t attending classes for his day job as PhD candidate at Yale. In the peak months of awards season, Franco traveled to Sundance for his "Three’s Company: A Drama" short film/art project. And then he made time for a whirlwind trip to Berlin to attend the opening of his first European exhibit of his art. With all this serious-minded output, it’s logical to assume the quality of his work is going to suffer somewhere. "General Hospital" stunt aside, Oscar hosting seemed the most expendable of Franco’s endeavors and the one likeliest to get phoned in.

Armed with the suspicion that Franco had bitten off more than he could handle, the armies of live bloggers and tweeters were poised to pounce on Franco from the nanosecond he stormed the stage with his energizer bunny co-host Anne Hathaway. The derisive tweets speculating that Franco was stoned were flying furiously before the first commercial break. The sneering Anti-Franco groupthink was so instantaneously virulent; it was almost as if Franco’s shell-shocked gaze was his way of indicating he knew he never stood a chance at winning over the haters.

But taken on its own merits, without all the background noise of the angry mob who have spent far too long postulating on the run up to the Academy Awards, we’d argue that Franco delivered a solid straight man to Hathaway’s preening let’s-put-on-a-show persona. He was the George Burns to her Gracie Allen, the Chong to her Cheech, the PC to her Mac. They were simply abiding by the ancient laws of performance physics: energy + stasis = prime-time entertainment for all demographics. Franco was not checked out or above it all or blinded by a fog of cannabis. Rather he was doing his job in trying not to get tangled in Anne Hathaway’s endless string of jokes calling attention to their role as bait for younger viewers.

Did Franco squander an opportunity for big laughs by underplaying his cross-dressing gag? Absolutely. But by that time, he’s too plugged in and media savvy not to have gotten a whiff of the acrid feedback being hurled in his direction. In fact, by the show’s end, something in Franco’s demeanor seemed to shift ever so slightly away from good-natured fun. Perhaps this is why he decided to skip the exclusive post-Oscar party he was hosting at The Writer's Room, the L.A. bar he’d recently opened. Or maybe he always planned to blow town shortly after the Best Picture trophy was awarded.

If no one else dares join us in defense of The Franco, isn’t it at least a relief to have someone (anyone) who doesn’t suck up to Hollywood, the media or even his fans?