James Franco: Today’s Leading Man, An Explanation

by Radheyan Simonpillai SOURCE AskMen / YouTube

"Let’s summarize the average man today: He would be highly educated, confident and single." Modern leading men aren’t what they used to be. There are no longer the Clark Gables, Cary Grants or Humphrey Bogarts of yesteryear -- and we haven’t yet found another George Clooney. We want to know: What does it mean to be a leading man today, and who is he?

What You Need To Know

  • Clark Gable was married twice by the time he reached James Franco’s age.
  • Franco is iconic of a new generation of grown-up children.
  • Franco paints, produces art installations, composes poetry, pens short stories, and is in school.

Leading Men: Then and Now  

Clark Gable was married twice by the time he reached the very single James Franco’s age. That stark contrast speaks volumes about the difference between the generations each of these iconic leading men entertained. Franco, who at the not-so-tender age of 33 remains uncommitted to any one woman  -- or even any career -- is but a product of society today. If a leading man is meant to embody his generation, as Clark Gable did for his, then Franco is certainly represents ours.  

Today's Man

With his boyish charms and freewheeling career choices, Franco is iconic of a new generation of “boomerang kids” who make up current audiences. These are the men who suffer from a “failure to launch,” as Robin Marantz Henig wrote in her article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” They move back home with their parents after completing PhDs, and they take much longer to enter adulthood, which means owning a home, getting married and having kids. They are the men we see around us, often in ourselves and frequently in contemporary movies like Knocked Up, The Hangover and even 127 Hours.

We are a culture of grown-up children, according to recent studies. Consider the American men in 1960, 65% of whom had become financially independent, found their own home, got married and had children by the time they were 30. In the new generation of 30-year-olds, less than one-third of the men had achieved all those milestones.  

One of the factors that hinders our generation of men from growing up is a new cultural expectation of a dream job as a prerequisite to adulthood, which simply isn’t practical. Despite the fact that our generation is comparatively intellectual due to the availability of higher education (not to mention information online) we are also overly optimistic -- a condition nurtured by our upbringing by baby boomers and their “anything is possible” mantra. This optimism hinders practical decision making, as we often turn down lackluster jobs in order to hold out for the dream job we are certain our higher education should afford, regardless of whether it exists or not.  

According to Judith Warner's New York Times magazine article that calls us the “why-worry generation,” 41% of those looking for jobs last year turned down offers. That’s the exact same percentage as before the pre-recession, when the economy was booming and the unemployment among college grads was only half of the 5.5% it is now.  

“Almost universally they want to find a job that’s not just a job but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment,” says Clark University psychology professor and PhD Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who contends that the rest of adulthood is put on hold by men who want to satisfy their career goals first.  

Professor Arnett argues that today’s culture accommodates this new era of childlike men who are stuck in what he calls “emerging adulthood.” The factors Arnett cites are not only the fewer entry-level positions on the market and the need for further education, but also the acceptance of premarital sex made easy with birth control (why rush to get married if you can already get laid?), the employment options for women and the ability to put off childbirth beyond the fertile years through recent reproductive technology. These are reasons that make it easy for boys to be patient about becoming men.

So let’s summarize the average man today: He would be highly educated, confident and single. Plans of having kids or committing to a relationship are the furthest from his mind, as he still wants to find himself through his pursuit for a career that expresses his personality. He is a man-child. And it is James Franco -- with both his on-screen persona and his off-screen activities -- that we can relate to today.

Despite the fact that James Franco tanked as a cohost at the last Oscar ceremony, no one can deny the fundamental reason as to why he was given the job. The Academy gambled on a young star who is without a doubt an icon for a new generation of boyish movie audiences.  

Maybe it was meant to be that James Franco would become a leading man with his brooding eyes and feline smile. After all, the young actor caught his big Hollywood break playing another iconic leading man in the cable television biopic James Dean.  

Before playing the "Rebel Without a Cause,” Franco caught a niche audience with the short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks, where he cavorted with executive producer Judd Apatow and his minions Seth Rogen and Jason Segel (suitable company, considering the topic). But it was the role as James Dean that signaled a movie star in the making. Robert De Niro personally cast James Franco as his son in City by the Sea after seeing Franco’s award-winning performance as the tragic ‘50s heartthrob James Dean. After that, Franco was most popular for his role as Harry Osborn in the lucrative Spider-Man series.  

But it was only in the last few years that Franco really came into his own as a star, beginning with a supporting role as Sean Penn’s gay hippie lover in Milk, which earned him the Independent Spirit Award that year.  

Franco proved his versatility as an actor by dabbling in stoner comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness, headlining indie fare like Howl, in which he played Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and even taking on a guest-starring role on the soap opera General Hospital. He’s now at the crest of his movie career after being nominated for Best Actor at the same Oscar ceremony he cohosted alongside the fully-clothed Anne Hathaway. Franco’s one-man show in 127 Hours was a tour-de-force performance, and signaled that he is a serious thespian.  

But Franco’s versatility is not limited to his film roles. He writes and directs indie films. He works on art projects. His work surfaced in a gallery in Berlin earlier this year. He composes poetry and pens short stories, all while going to grad school for multiple degrees. He’s currently working on a PhD at Yale, among other things. He’s a multi-platform, intellectual character actor with a surplus of confidence and a can-do attitude. If James Franco is an iconic leading man for the new generation, it is as much for these extracurricular activities as for his on-screen roles.  

Everything about Franco’s career, attitude, hobbies, and academic choices signals a young man who hasn’t quite decided what he wants to be when he grows up. He’s back in school at 33 because he isn’t quite satisfied with his movie career. Like most men of our generation, Franco’s committed to finding himself first. Finding a woman to begin that road to adulthood seems like the last thing on his mind.  

If you look at Franco’s personality during interviews and even his movie roles -- an immature mountain climber who probably has ADD in 127 Hours or a stoner in Pineapple Express -- you will notice that just like most men of his generation, he’s an overly confident man-child, more prone to goofing than taking life seriously.  

Unlike the much-married Clark Gable and his other cinematic predecessors, Franco entertains a new breed of audience, a generation of men who see their own refusal to grow up in their new iconic leading man.