James Franco offered up an insightful take on Shia LaBeouf's recent behavior and career choices in an op-ed for The New York Times, examining what the actor might be trying to accomplish if his acting out is indeed performance art and not, as some have speculated, a nervous breakdown.
The trouble started last year after LaBeouf plagiarized cartoonist Daniel Clowes in the actor's short film HowardCantour.com. The actor's subsequent apology bore a striking resemblance to a response on Yahoo Answers written in February 2010 (LaBeouf then hired out a skywriter to write, "I Am Sorry Daniel Clowes" over Los Angeles).
More recently, LaBeouf offered cryptic answers at a press conference for his new movie Nymphomaniac: Volume I before storming out; at the premiere, he accented his tuxedo with a bag that covered his head and read, "I am not famous anymore." Last week LaBeouf staged an art show called "#IAmSorry" where he donned another bag, sat at a table and stared at visitors who visited him in a Los Angeles gallery.
While Franco acknowledged that LaBeouf's behavior teetered on the line of art and breakdown, he wrote, "Though the wisdom of some of his actions may seem questionable, as an actor and artist I’m inclined to take an empathetic view of his conduct...Indeed I hope – and, yes, I know that this idea has pretentious or just plain ridiculous overtones – that his actions are intended as a piece of performance art, one in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona."
For Franco, LaBeouf's behavior is in line with other performers who have bucked against both the studio system and the way they are portrayed in the media. Marlon Brando, as Franco writes, was one of the first performers to make active attempts to distance himself from these constructed images, whether it was letting his weight fluctuate or declining his Best Actor Oscar in 1973. Franco is one of the more qualified contemporary performers to speak on this matter given his left-field project choices, including a stint on the soap opera General Hospital in 2009.
"[A]t the same time as I was working on films that would receive Oscar nominations and other critical acclaim, my decision was in part an effort to jar expectations of what a film actor does and to undermine the tacit – or not so tacit – hierarchy of entertainment," Franco wrote.
For performers in the spotlight, this kind of rebellion is sometimes a necessary part of the game; a way of reconciling the distance between their personal self and public image. This behavior, as Franco points out, is as intentional as it is trivial, which leads to a "feedback loop" of bad press and more absurdity that can become addictive to performers who are aware of what they're doing, but see their actions as a way of critiquing the "emptiness of [the media's] raison d’être."
Of course, Franco remains uncertain of LaBeouf's true intentions and offers up empathetic, yet cautious, final words: "I think Mr. LaBeouf’s project, if it is a project, is a worthy one. I just hope that he is careful not to use up all the good will he has gained as an actor in order to show us that he is an artist."