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James Franco Directs Rant at NYT Theater Critic

Is his attack on Ben Brantley a star’s bruised ego or something more…artistic?

Rachel Shukert
April 18, 2014
Chris O'Dowd and James Franco take a bow during the first curtain call for Broadway's 'Of Mice And Men' at Longacre Theatre on March 19, 2014 in New York City. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Chris O'Dowd and James Franco take a bow during the first curtain call for Broadway's 'Of Mice And Men' at Longacre Theatre on March 19, 2014 in New York City. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

You guys, social media feuds just got a lot more highbrow. The latest celebrity to call another well-known person out for being “a little bitch” on Instagram (the message was scrawled over a photo, the modern equivalent of Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin) is not your usual breed of Real Housewife or pop star I’ve recently become too old to have heard of, but James Franco, the polyglot actor who is the only person in the history of the universe to actually do everything that artsy boy from Jewish summer camp told you he was planning to.

The subject of his ire is none other than Ben Brantley, the lead theater critic of the New York Times, who recently reviewed the production of Of Mice And Men Franco is currently starring in with Chris O’Dowd, with his patented brand of tepid criticism. Franco, he observed, “is often understated to the point of near invisibility. It’s a tight, internal performance begging for a camera’s close-up.” I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t comment on whether I agree with Brantley on this occasion (for the record, we’re only in accordance about 50 percent of the time; the same as flipping a coin), except to say that it does have the ring of something an enterprising high school drama teacher might dream up for the benefit of the best actors among the graduating seniors, but Franco’s criticism of Brantley’s respectful critique was pulled no punches: “Ben Brantley and the NYT have embarrassed themselves. Brantley is such a little bitch he should be working for instead of the paper of record. The theater community hates him and for good reason, he’s an idiot.” (I have failed to reproduce the eccentric capitalization Franco employs here, to keep myself from going crazy. You can check it out yourself.)

Whether there is any truth to Franco’s accusations is beside the point; the theater community, understandably, tends to hate a critic on a by-review basis; obviously when he loves something, he’s absolutely right! But Franco is known—and has become a viral sensation—for crafting his public persona as though it was an elaborate piece of performance art, and I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something slyer and cannier at play here than an pampered actor’s bruised ego. With newspapers across the country brutally cutting their theater coverage, and arts criticism in general a discipline in death throes, perhaps Franco is merely trying to rustle up some interest, an echo of the good old days when writer and critics got in fistfights at Sardi’s and Elaine’s and decades-long feuds played out in venomous televised bouts of verbal sparring (usually moderated by Dick Cavett) before ending, off-screen, in a fistfight.

If that’s his intention, more power to him. I can’t wait to see him and Brantley duking it out in the ring, and along with whatever actors, directors, and writers see fit to follow his example. Although for the record, my money is always on Isherwood.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.