James Franco scandal: Sexual misconduct allegations spark controversy

January 11, 2018

by Colleen McGregor

James Franco in W’s August 2017 issue (Photo by Alasdair McLellan)

James Franco is on a long and growing list of famous and influential men accused of sexual misconduct. In a Los Angeles Times article published  on January 11, 2018, five women came forward to report that Franco abused his power by pressuring them to get naked and/or perform sexual acts. Franco, 39, is a highly educated actor, filmmaker, TV producer, poet, painter and teacher, with post-graduate degrees from several schools, including New York University, Columbia University and the Rhode Island School of Design. He described the sexual misconduct claims against him as “not accurate” in separate interviews on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (on January 9) and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (on January 10). In the interview with Colbert, Franco said he would refrain from telling his side of the story because he believes in the movement for “under-represented” alleged harassment and abuse victims to tell their stories.

The controversy began during the 2018 Golden Globe Awards ceremony on January 7, when Franco wore black and a Time’s Up pin to show his support for the Time’s Up movement and legal defense fund, which are aimed at helping victims of sexism and sexual misconduct.  At the Golden Globes, Franco won the award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, for his starring role in “The Disaster Artist,” a movie he also directed.

Tommy Wiseau, James Franco, and Dave Franco with award presenters Shirley MacLaine and Emma Stone at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 7, 2018. (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

During the award show, several people (including actress Ally Sheedy, whom he directed in the 2014 off-Broadway play “The Long Shrift”) went on Twitter and other social media to express their outrage at Franco, and accused him of being someone who committed sexual misconduct against women. Sheedy’s comments (which were later taken down) hinted that she left the entertainment business because of Franco. She has not publicly elaborated on went wrong with Franco to cause her to make those statements.

In his interviews with Colbert and Seth Meyers, Franco said that he had a “great time” working with Sheedy, and claimed to have no idea why she is upset with him. When Meyers asked Franco if he had contacted Sheedy to find out why she posted those tweets, Franco said he did not contact her and wanted to let the matter be. In the interview with Colbert, Franco said that he wanted to “fix” any problems he may have caused with anyone accusing him of mistreatment. Some of Franco’s accusers told the Los Angeles Times that Franco had contacted them by phone to make awkward apologies.

Most of the sexual misconduct that Franco is accused of committing has to do with his role as a teacher or mentor for Playhouse West (where Franco was previously a student) and his now-defunct acting school Studio 4, which he co-founded in 2014. Studio 4, which had locations in Los Angeles and New York, abruptly closed in late September 2017, not long before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.

The Los Angeles Times reported that although several of Franco’s former students said that Franco was a helpful teacher and it was a positive experience for them, four of the five women (Sarah Tither-Kaplan, Hilary Dusome, Natalie Chmiel, Katie Ryan) who told their stories to the Los Angeles Times said they had negative experiences with Franco. The four women are former Playhouse West or Studio 4 students who described Franco as someone who frequently pressured young women to get naked and sometimes do sex scenes for student acting projects, with the implied promise that they would get roles in Franco’s movies if they complied with the demands.

The women said that Franco would make an excessive amount of requests for his female students to portray roles as strippers or prostitutes. And on at least one occasion, he got very angry and stormed off when none of the female students volunteered to go topless to film a scene in a student project. One of the classes that Franco taught at Studio 4 was about how to film sex scenes. While filming an orgy scene with several women for a  student project, Franco allegedly removed the required plastic covering over their vaginas, and simulated oral sex on them. He and Studio 4 were also accused of uploading women’s nude scenes on the Internet without their consent. Franco’s attorneys have denied those allegations.

Tither-Kaplan and Violet Paley (an aspiring filmmaker) were among the people who posted anti-Franco comments on Twitter during the Golden Globes ceremony. Paley told the Los Angeles Times that although she had a consensual affair with Franco in 2016, the relationship started off with him pressuring her to perform oral sex on him by pushing her head down toward his exposed penis while they were in a car. Because she also considered Franco to be her mentor, Paley said that “The power dynamic was really off.”

The Franco controversy led to the New York Times cancelling its TimesTalks “Disaster Artist” interview panel with Franco that would have taken place on January 10. It remains to be seen if Franco will have significant career damage due to the scandal.

Franco also taught classes at the University of Southern California, California Institute of the Arts, New York University, UCLA, Playhouse West and Palo Alto High School. Franco is an alum of the latter four schools. None of the schools has reported any sexual misconduct complaints about Franco. So far, HBO plans to move forward with the second season of “The Deuce,” a TV series about the 1970s rise of the porn industry in New York City. In addition to starring in “The Deuce,” Franco is also one of the show’s executive producers and directors. Representatives for “The Deuce” told the Los Angeles Times that they had not received any complaints about Franco from people involved with the show.

While opinions on the Internet seem to be divided over whether or not Franco is guilty of sexual misconduct, Franco’s famous friends such as Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow (who has been an actively vocal crusader against alleged sexual harassers) have neither publicly defended nor condemned Franco. Their public silence about Franco’s situation could be interpreted in different ways.

This isn’t the first time that Franco has been accused of acting inappropriately with a female. In 2014, he admitted to trying to get a 17-year-old fan named Lucy Clode to meet him for a tryst in a hotel room, even after she told him her age. The incident took place in New York, where the legal age of consent at the time was 17. Clode posted screen shots of the Instagram conversation that she had with Franco, who later went on the talk show “Live” to say he was embarrassed and sorry that the incident happened. Franco quit social media in 2017. He has since proclaimed in several interviews that social media is one of the non-substance-abuse “addictions” that he has worked to overcome in the past year.

James Franco in "The Disaster Artist" (Photo by Justina Mintz)
James Franco in “The Disaster Artist” (Photo by Justina Mintz)

Aside from the possibility that Franco might lose business deals if the scandal gets worse, he is also faced with the humiliation of going from being an award-show darling to being an award-show outcast. Franco previously had a major award-show run for his Oscar-nominated role in the 2010 survival drama “127 Hours,” which garnered him some prizes, such as an Independent Spirit Award. “The Disaster Artist” was expected to be his next big shot at getting nominated for an Oscar. In “The Disaster Artist,” Franco plays Tommy Wiseau, the filmmaker behind the famously bad cult-classic movie “The Room.” Franco has won a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award and Gotham Independent Film Award for his role in the movie.

Nominations for the 2018 Annual Academy Awards will be announced on January 23. The voting to decide who will be nominated ends on January 12. Even if Franco’s name ends up on the nominees list, there seems to enough damage done to his reputation that major influencers might not want to associate with him at an award show or in future projects.

The distancing has apparently started. During the pre-telecast portion of the 2018 Critics’ Choice Awards on January 11, when Franco was announced as the winner of Best Actor in a Comedy, the room reportedly went silent before some people applauded hesitantly. Franco did not attend the ceremony. According to People, he is laying low, has cut off communication with most people in his inner circle, and appears to be showing signs of depression, a condition he has admitted to having in recent interviews.

Franco is nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture at the 2018 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which takes place in Los Angeles on January 21. (It’s the only SAG Award nomination for “The Disaster Artist.”) Most people are not expecting Franco to attend the show. And if he did, it’s highly unlikely that he will be doing interviews there. Several industry insiders have hinted on the Internet that Franco will be hit with more accusations, so the scandal is apparently going to have a long-lasting impact, and will serve as a cautionary tale in the Times Up movement.

January 21, 2018 UPDATE: Franco attended the 2018 Screen Actors Guild Awards. He did not win the prize he was nominated for, and he did not do interviews at the event.

January 25, 2018 UPDATE: Franco did not receive an Oscar nomination for “The Disaster Artist.” In addition, Vanity Fair announced that Franco was removed from the group photo on the cover of the magazine’s March 2018 “Oscar” issue because of the allegations against him.

October 3, 2019 UPDATE: Franco has been hit with a sexual-exploitation lawsuit by former students Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal. Variety’s report on the lawsuit has more detail.

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