It's a mixed blessing to be "the next James Dean." On the one hand, the name suggests intensity, panty-dropping charisma, a certain way with Camel Unfiltereds. It suggests an actor who has achieved artistry at a young age, whose talent and abilities outpace his short résumé. At the same time, it suggests volatility, booze and drugs, Lee Strasberg Method pretensions. More than anything, it suggests someone stuck in amber -- hair shellacked into a '60s bouffant, pouty mouth in a permanent half-grin -- someone fated to live long in teen girls' fantasies but to not actually live long.
James Franco is not "the next James Dean."
That's not what we believed back in 2001, when the striking young Franco -- plucked from his breakout role as burner Daniel Desario on the short-lived classic "Freaks and Geeks" -- literally became the next James Dean, starring in Mark Rydell's TV biopic. Media hyperbole and a Golden Globe ensued. But the next few years were not exactly the stuff of "Giant" and "East of Eden." Remember him as Robert De Niro's estranged son in "City by the Sea"? As the delicately beautiful, romantically doomed heir to the British throne in "Tristan + Isolde"? No, we didn't think so. If you saw James Franco in the first seven years of this decade, chances are it was in one of the "Spider-Man" movies, playing the rich, villainous Harry Osborn. No shame in that. But you'd be forgiven for forgetting the kid had more than a strong, clenched jaw and killer cheekbones.
"Pineapple Express" was a sea change for Franco. As the drug dealer with a heart of gold, Franco was the best part of Judd Apatow's 2008 bromance; for us, it was love at first bong hit. Gone was the self-serious Actor, the one preening for his interview with James Lipton, and in its place was a hilarious, risk-taking, sweetly vulnerable heartthrob.
These days, Franco is anything but classic Hollywood: He's enrolled in the MFA fiction-writing program at Columbia, and he studies filmmaking at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He played the romantic lead in "Milk" opposite Sean Penn, making one of the most compelling arguments for non-ironic mustache hotness in some time. We know everyone coos and claps a little too loudly when a straight actor dares to tangle tongues with another dude on-screen, but Franco played gay in a manner that felt neither self-congratulatory nor sensationalist. What went through his head while making out with Sean Penn? "Well, here I am, kissing Spiccoli," he told Terry Gross of "Fresh Air."
Turns out, James Franco is far more interesting than we ever expected. He's a painter and an aspiring writer who also happens to be a stoner icon. He's starring as Allen Ginsberg in the "Howl" biopic. He bought the rights to Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower." (Hart Crane!) But he's also a straight-up goof, set to guest star later this season on "30 Rock." His lengthy story arc on "General Hospital" (premiering Nov. 20) is the WTF celebrity side project of the year.
This kid isn't the next James Dean. He's not the next Johnny Depp. Nor is he the next Heath Ledger.
He's the next James Franco. And he's Salon's sexiest man living.