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James Franco takes divergent paths to ‘Oz’

- - Monday, March 4, 2013

It's a long way from leather bars to Oz.

James Franco is trying to traverse the distance in consecutive movies.

The eclectic actor-director-writer lives dangerously, leading a kind of double life. In one, he is a mainstream star with a resume that includes an Oscar nomination ("127 Hours") and multiple box office hits, including starring roles in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Pineapple Express" and a major role in the blockbuster "Spider-Man" trilogy; in another, he is an edgy experimentalist -- creator and/or star of outre, often sexually graphic, indie fare.

If Mr. Franco's dual worlds are due to collide, expect impact to occur Friday, the release date for the Disney family film "Oz the Great and Powerful," in which he stars in the title role.

Mr. Franco's turn as the simple magician who stumbles into becoming the Wizard of Oz comes less than two months after the actor shocked audiences at the Sundance Film Festival with the debut of "Interior. Leather Bar." In this 60-minute experimental short, which Mr. Franco directed, he and a group of actors discuss how to re-enact footage edited out of a controversial Al Pacino movie called "Cruising" back in 1980. Directed by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist, "The French Connection"), "Cruising" was a hot potato for its studio back in the pre-AIDS era, as it depicted Mr. Pacino as a straight New York City cop who goes undercover in the gay S&M scene to solve a string of murders.

Why the reportedly straight Mr. Franco opted to videotape a discussion and re-enactment of "Cruising's" most sordid scenes -- including hard-core depictions of gay oral sex that weirded out even Entertainment Weekly's critics -- when he has a mainstream career to protect is a juicy question, even in these days when celebrities have less and less concern about coming out as gay.

If it sounds like Mr. Franco is trying to have it both ways in his career -- well, he is.

"I'm attracted to various kinds of projects, but I try to be very responsible about where and when they're released, and I know they're for different kinds of audiences," Mr. Franco, flanked by "Oz" co-stars Mila Kunis and Abigail Spencer, said at a press junket last month at the Langham Hotel in South Pasadena, Calif.

"Interior. Leather Bar" doesn't mark the first time Mr. Franco has depicted gay material in recent years. He earlier starred in the film "Howl" about gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and produced an arts exhibition in Hollywood with heavily homosexual themes and imagery. Not that he plays favorites -- he also appeared in "About Cherry," an indie drama about the straight porn industry, and had another controversial role in the Sundance film "Spring Breakers," in which his character takes part in a threesome with two girls.

Mr. Franco sees no reason he can't continue to oscillate among the divergent artistic worlds he inhabits -- as long as he keeps them compartmentalized.

"When I do a film that's released at Sundance, I feel I'm entitled to do material that pushes boundaries, because that's an audience that can take it and that's the place for them," he said. "When I do a movie like ["Oz"], I know I'm not going to try to break any material that's extreme around the same time. It's my job to align my work to this world. It's just a matter of knowing the kind of project I'm working on and picking the proper times to do them."