Will HBO Give James Franco Yet Another Pass?

Actor and director James Franco, September 5, 2016, at the 42nd Deauville US Film Festival.  (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

He went to the first Women's March. He wore a Time's Up pin to the Golden Globes. And when he won an award that night for Best Lead Actor, Ally Sheedy—who worked with him in an off-Broadway production in 2014—cryptically voiced her objections on Twitter. Shortly afterward, five women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct and on-set exploitation. Scarlett Johansson announced from the stage of the 2018 Women's March that she "wanted [her] pin back." Now, Busy Philipps, in her new memoir, has described the time Franco physically assaulted her on the set of Freaks and Geeks. All of which begs the question: how many passes is James Franco going to get?

Despite all that happened earlier in the year, Franco's presence on HBO's The Deuceas it headed into its second season in September, remained unaffected. In the 1970s-set show, he plays twin brothers hustling their way through a life of bars, gambling and organized crime, on the fringes of the burgeoning porn industry in New York City. Franco is also an executive producer on the show.

HBO justified the move, saying in a statement: “We have verified that no complaints about Mr. Franco have come in on The Deuce production.” David Simon, the show's co-creator, agreed. "We have no complainant or complaint or any awareness of any incident of concern involving Mr. Franco. Nor has HBO been approached with any complaint.”

In light of Busy Philipps' assertion that Franco was "a f**king bully" on set, his Deuce co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal weighed in this week, telling SiriusXM:

"At the time that the accusations against James came out in the LA Times, we read them all, we took them very seriously. We spoke to every woman on the crew and in the cast to find out ... what their experience of working with James was and everyone said that they had been totally respected by him ... [The Deuce is] about misogyny. It’s about transactional sex. It’s about inequality in the entertainment business. You couldn’t be more at the center of that conversation than The Deuce ... I feel like it would've been the wrong consequence to those accusations to shut our show down."

Gyllenhaal is right. Shutting down The Deuce after one (brilliant) season because of one man's bad behavior would indeed be counter-productive. But so is keeping Franco on the team. The most powerful messages in the series are undercut by his presence, especially given that most of the accusations leveled at him concerned violations on film sets, including the removal of plastic vaginal guards without the consent of the actresses wearing them (Franco's attorney denied this), and pressuring up-and-coming actresses to do topless and nude scenes.

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There is a simple solution here, and that's removing Franco's Vincent and Frankie characters from the series. Though the twins were undoubtedly the lynchpin of Season 1, the hookers, pimps, mobsters and punks in their orbit have outgrown them in Season 2. Not only do we no longer need Vincent and Frankie, but with all of their mob entanglements, it wouldn't be a stretch for the show to kill them off. Bobby, Irene and the mob can keep running their parlors, Abby and Paul can take over their bars and Gyllenhaal's Candy can continue being the heart and soul of the show. Problem solved!

James Franco starring as Vincent and Frankie Martino in HBO's 'The Deuce'.
James Franco starring as Vincent and Frankie Martino in HBO's 'The Deuce'. (HBO)

When they appeared on Good Morning America in January, two of his accusers, Sarah Tither-Caplan and Violet Paley, went easy on the actor. "James is absolutely not a Harvey Weinstein. He is not an unfeeling monster," Tither-Caplan said. "He created exploitative environments for non-celebrity women on his sets ... He's not an unforgivable person, at least for me." Paley requested only that he "please just apologize."

In saying this, the women undoubtedly took the pressure off HBO to do something about Franco. The fact that the women's positions were much softer on GMA than during an earlier interview with Inside Edition, and the fact that Tither-Caplan was shaking, tense and clearly in fear for her career during both interviews, was apparently easy to ignore, even as Franco refused to give the women the one thing they asked for: an apology.

In the course of speaking out, Tither-Caplan said she believed that consequences for Franco have been few because he has "the privilege of being young, white and pretty." But it also has to do with his public persona too. In November 2017, The Guardian referred to Franco as "a workaholic arthouse auteur trapped in a Hollywood leading man's body." In all likelihood, it is his image as a hyper-creative writer, artist and independent filmmaker that leaves Franco protected.

Successful and eccentric male auteurs have been excused for their abuse of female talent for decades. Alfred Hitchcock's horrendous treatment of Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds is well-documented. Stanley Kubric's mental and emotional abuse of Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining has been spoken about at length. But both directors remain revered. Björk says she suffered verbal and physical abuse by Lars Von Trier while working on Dancer in the Dark, but his career continues unabated. Quentin Tarantino's new movie is much-anticipated despite the fallout from Uma Thurman releasing that disturbing Kill Bill footage. There is an idea that as long as you're abusing women on-set, and something sufficiently artistic comes out of it, the ends justify the means. Franco, an increasingly dominant figure in independent cinema, is undoubtedly benefiting from this notion.

HBO has always been a pioneer for feminist content. It's the channel that gave us Sex and the City, Big Little Lies, Insecure and, yes, The Deuce. But it doesn't have a good record of shaking itself loose from problematic performers. Bill Maher is 16 seasons into his HBO show, despite spending 15 years making sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic comments. TJ Miller was fired from Silicon Valley, not because he was accused of sexual assault, but because of "frequent tardiness" and "abuse of alcohol."

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Based on its record, HBO is unlikely to cut ties with James Franco, regardless of how many horror stories come out about him. But allowing him to continue starring in a show about the exploitation of actresses on film sets after he was accused of exploiting actresses on film sets, isn't just absurd, it's yet another slap in the face for women, in a year that is starting to feel dominated by them.

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