State of the Arts

James Franco’s ‘apology’ feels late and insincere – but Hollywood will have him back

In his latest interview, writes Alexandra Pollard, the actor finally addressed the sexual misconduct allegations made against him in 2018, but left so many questions unanswered

Thursday 23 December 2021 17:17 GMT
James Franco gave an interview in which he admitted to sleeping with his acting students
James Franco gave an interview in which he admitted to sleeping with his acting students (Getty Images)

James Franco is feeling contrite. I’m just not entirely sure what he’s contrite about. After a few years of silence, the 127 Hours star has finally addressed the myriad sexual misconduct allegations made against him back in 2018. Or, at least, he’s said just enough about them that if you squint, it almost seems like he’s accepted responsibility.

“James Franco admits…” “James Franco says he was wrong…” began most of the headlines this morning, after the actor’s appearance on The Jess Cagle Podcast. But what exactly did he “admit” to? What did he say was “wrong”? Did he discuss the accusation that he had pressured an aspiring filmmaker into giving him oral sex in his car, which his attorney has previously dismissed as “not accurate”? Or the allegations that he had removed protective guards covering actors’ vaginas while simulating oral sex on them; sidestepped nudity agreements by offering up a “bonus scene” to inexperienced acting students; became “angry” when no women would agree, on the spot, to take their tops off for another scene; asked women to leave his class if they refused to partake in sex or nude scenes? No.

“Look, I’ll admit,” he said, “I did sleep with students … I was in a consensual thing with a student.” At this point, he shrugged. “And I shouldn’t have been.” Blaming his conduct on a “sex addiction”, he conceded that he was “completely blind to power dynamics”, before throwing the word “consensual” in there a few more times for good measure.

At almost every turn, he added a caveat: “I wasn’t the person that selected the people to be in the class,” he said with the tone of a schoolboy being told off, “so it wasn’t a masterplan on my part.” He said his sex addiction meant he had “cheated on everyone” he was with before he met his current partner – despite the fact that the allegations had absolutely nothing to do with infidelity – and later claimed, “I’ve been doing a lot of work.” He didn’t specify what that work was, and the male interviewer didn’t ask. In other words, it felt to me like an illusion of remorse – one that ensured Franco didn’t look too bad.

One of Franco’s accusers was Violet Paley. In a viral tweet in 2018 that she later expanded on for the LA Times, she claimed that he had coerced her into giving him oral sex. “I was talking to him, all of a sudden his penis was out,” she alleged. “I got really nervous, and I said, ‘Can we do this later?’ He was kind of nudging my head down, and I just didn’t want him to hate me, so I did it.” According to Paley, she began to perform the sex act, but was uncomfortable, and so to extricate herself from the situation, she told Franco she had spotted someone near the car. Franco denied the allegation. This morning, Paley retweeted the following: “Claiming ‘consensual’ sex w/ students while claiming ignorance of power dynamics & blaming sex addiction is not the accountability some are making it out to be. Waiting 4 yrs & still not admitting to any abuse is gaslighting his survivors.”

In 2019, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal brought a sexual misconduct lawsuit against Franco. It was settled out of court alongside the following statement: “While defendants continue to deny the allegations in the complaint, they acknowledge that plaintiffs have raised important issues; and all parties strongly believe that now is a critical time to focus on addressing the mistreatment of women in Hollywood.” I’m not sure that this latest interview, in which Franco centred himself almost entirely, did much good for that cause.

I suspect Franco was hoping this would all just go away. He had already managed to shake off controversy once before, in 2014, when screenshots were leaked of him asking a 17-year-old girl he’d just met outside a theatre if he could rent a hotel room for the two of them. “I’m embarrassed,” he said at the time, “and I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky.” Since then, he’s starred in a Hulu series, directed his own film, won a Golden Globe and worked with Ridley Scott and the Coen brothers. I am sure he will continue to have an abundance of opportunities.

Meanwhile, women who speak up against powerful men are punished. Violet Paley told a college newspaper that she felt the consequences of saying no to Franco would be that her career would be over – that he would never talk to her again, “like he did to my other friend”. This morning, Tither-Kaplan tweeted: “Apologies are meaningless until active steps towards harm reduction are taken and directed towards survivors specifically. General statements of ‘sorry’ or ‘I was wrong’ or ‘I love women’ etc. do nothing to actually help those who have been harmed.” She added: “Platforming abusers while excluding survivors causes even further harm. Survivor blacklisting is still a very real problem.”

James Franco speaks with SiriusXM about sexual misconduct allegations against him (screengrab)

According to Anita Hill’s Hollywood Commission, which surveyed nearly 10,000 entertainment workers about abuses in Hollywood, 75 per cent of employees who have spoken out against workplace mistreatment have faced some form of retaliation. Sarah Ann Masse, who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct in 2017, told Variety just this week that she had been “largely frozen out of the more mainstream parts of our industry” since she made her allegations. She claimed that she had had roughly half a dozen auditions in the last three and a half years, whereas before she spoke up, she was auditioning at least four times a month. Last month, Oscar-winning actor Mira Sorvino said she was blacklisted from Hollywood for two decades after rebuffing Weinstein’s advances. “I mourn the loss of the two decades of career that I would have had,” she told Vanity Fair.

That’s why Masse created Hire Survivors Hollywood, an organisation working “to end retaliation against survivors of sexual violence in the entertainment industry”. The initiative, which Tither-Kaplan enthusiastically supports, encourages those in positions of power to make a pledge to hire survivors and silence-breakers. Given all the work he says he’s been doing, I’m looking forward to seeing James Franco sign up.

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