A few weeks ago, James Franco seemingly had it all -- a critically adored performance in “127 Hours,” a reputation as a bookworm devoted to his post-graduate work at Yale and a slew of tentpole pictures waiting in the wings.
But then he had to go and host the Academy Awards.
Did “Your Highness” suffer because of it?
In the wake of the raunchy stoner comedy’s tepid $9.4 million opening last weekend, it wasn’t clear if withering reviews or James Franco’s Hindenburg of a hosting performance were to blame.
“I think we’d be looking at ‘Your Highness’ totally differently if he didn’t do the Oscars,” Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com, told TheWrap. “Usually there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but this is the rare case where there is.”
The backlash to his lethargic Oscar performance was scathing and it arrived at a critical juncture in the actor’s career.
“Dull, slow, witless,” wrote Roger Ebert.
“Spectacularly bad,” railed the Hollywood Reporter.
“Disaster,” declared the Orlando Sentinel.
The bad notices hit at a moment when, armed with a Best Actor nomination for “127 Hours,” Franco seemed uniquely positioned to break into the big-time.
His performances in a series of highly regarded independent films including “Milk” and “Howl,” and clever turns in “Pineapple Express” and “Date Night” had marked him as a star on the rise -- a position that, by his own admission, was difficult to achieve following a series of early career disappointments such as “Annapolis” and “Flyboys.”
The only thing missing in Franco’s career resurgence was a hit that he could truly call his own. Franco’s films have grossed more than $1.5 billion domestically, but that number is skewed by his supporting role in the “Spider-Man” films.
“James Franco has never really opened a movie," Vincent Bruzzese, president of The Worldwide Motion Picture Group at Ipsos OTX, told TheWrap. “Whether the Oscar hosting gig has permanently slowed or muted what was clearly a man on a meteoric rise remains to be seen.”
“The question is why do you have him hosting the Oscars to begin with? It’s one of the toughest gigs in Hollywood, and it’s a no-win even if he did do a good job,” he added.
Franco’s team insists that Hollywood’s attraction for the young actor is still going strong, pointing to his upcoming starring role in Sam Raimi’s big-budget film “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”
“There has been no fall out,” publicist Robin Baum said in an email to TheWrap. “He continues to get studio movie offers.”
Still, Franco’s hosting whiff certainly didn’t help drum up enthusiasm for “Your Highness.” A bizarre Twitter feud with Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch and a strained explanation to David Letterman about why his performance was so lackadaisical proved distracting; instead of hawking his comedy, Franco spent the bulk of the time offering up mea culpas.
“It’s always rough when a public persona takes hold and overshadows a project,” Contrino told TheWrap. “Franco may have a hundred percent crossed that line into over-saturation.”
But some studio insiders insist that Franco may have been too idiosyncratic for mainstream stardom even if he had hit his stride as an Oscar host. After all, critical raves couldn’t make “127 Hours” a hit, and the box office success of “Pineapple Express” is equally attributable to co-star Seth Rogen and producer Judd Apatow as it is to Franco’s scene-stealing role as a lovable pothead.
“In Hollywood we tend to anoint people stars, and sometimes we can’t force the public to like them no matter how hard we try,” a prominent film producer told TheWrap. “He’s a good actor, but I can’t figure out whoever thought he was a star.”
In the case of “Your Highness,” many studio and marketing executives say the blame lies less with Franco than with the film itself.
His Oscar performance "doesn't play outside L.A. and New York -- and not even in New York for very long. A momentary, 'Oooh, the Oscars weren't great,' but the rest of the world forgot about it." a rival studio marketing executive told TheWrap. "Frat boys in, I don’t know, Cleveland, all they know is that he was the host. They don't care that he was the worst host in 25 years.”
One veteran marketing executive told TheWrap that Franco was fortunate in that the older-skewing Oscar audience is not the same younger male demographic that forms the actor’s fan base. Had the roles been reversed and co-host Anne Hathaway drawn the brunt of the criticism, the backlash might have been more intense.
“Maybe it would be different if he was in a romantic comedy or something dependent on his charisma or personality, but he doesn’t do those sort of films,” the marketing veteran said.
The real test of any Franco fatigue may lie on the horizon. The “Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Fox's reboot of the sci-fi classic, represents Franco’s first attempt to carry a tentpole picture on his shoulders; it arrives in theaters on August 5, 2011. “Oz” hits theaters next year.
“The do-or-die for Franco is going to be ‘Rise of the Apes,’” a studio executive told TheWrap. “I’m sure he is still getting very, very, very good offers, but his stock could get even higher if proves himself in ‘Apes.’”
Just don’t hold your breath for a return stint as Oscar host.