Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advising James Franco at Yale

When I read that an NYU professor was allegedly fired for giving James Franco a “D,” I was shocked for several reasons. First, that any college could be so stupid as to fire a professor for not giving a good grade seems ridiculous, so much so that I imagine there will be an enormous burden of proof on the part of the accuser even if it is true. ... Second, I was shocked that James got a “D” for not attending class. ... I’ve been James’ professor, and it struck me as highly uncharacteristic for him to just “blow off class,” as several articles are suggesting.

When I was assigned to be James Franco’s adviser in the English department at Yale, I was not exactly sure what to think. ...

The catch was that this was also the semester that James was going to be in Detroit filming for the new Disney blockbuster Oz, the Great and Powerful, which meant he wasn’t going to be able to meet with Matt and me in New Haven. However, I didn’t feel comfortable carrying on a Ph.D-earning conversation over the phone each week, and so I told him he’d have to agree to take the time away from whatever he was doing (which just happened to be shooting a multimillion dollar film) and at least have a video conference call for several hours each week. ...

He always came prepared, and at one point even followed through on our scheduled meeting from Palo Alto where he was attending his father’s funeral. That’s right—he actually did the reading and scheduled discussion the same week his father suddenly died. "I'd still like to have the discussion," he said when I realized that he was preparing for a funeral and offered to postpone. "My dad was very proud that I was at Yale, so this is what he'd want." Blowing off class? I certainly would have blown it off under similar circumstances. ...

How could he possibly be simultaneously reading for a Yale Ph.D and filming a multimillion-dollar motion picture? ... [W]hen you’re the star, you end up just sitting around a lot. ... So when you see James’s character with his arm trapped under a rock in 127 Hours, what you don’t see is that there was an assigned reading under the rock with it. When he’s playfully wrestling with a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just off to the right of the shot was a stack of books. ...

The truth is, if you’re an A-list Hollywood star like James Franco, and are willing to put the time into earning a Ph.D, you may actually have more time to read than many of your colleagues. Heck, you don’t even have to worry about the grocery shopping, laundry, and other sundry tasks that every other poor graduate student in the country has to worry about. After visiting Detroit, the thing I found myself wondering was not “How does James do it?” but rather “Why aren’t more Hollywood actors earning Ph.Ds?”
--R. John Williams, Slate, on extracurricular advice for Hollywood stars