It’s kind of strange that one of the only so-called celebrities to respond to Shia LaBeouf’s #IAMSORRY art exhibit in Los Angeles is Jerry O’Connell, whose #IAMNOTSORRY ripoff was just a sad cry for attention. But then, at least we knew what O’Connell’s purpose was behind his stupid, almost annoying decision to wear a paper bag over his head, because we still don’t have any clue why LaBeouf is wearing his own bag, other than he refuses to offer a simple apology for ripping off someone else’s work.
Since we’re talking about a young guy who isn’t just an actor but also an artist, it’s time for James Franco, AKA Mr. Hollywood Multitasker, to weigh in and offer his own insight as a guy who has done everything, from Academy Award caliber films to a supporting role on General Hospital, all in the name of his artistic right to break Hollywood’s rules. Franco opened up about LaBeouf in an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “Why Actors Act Out,” and he kind of thinks that we should be appreciating and not player hating.
THE recent erratic behavior of Shia LaBeouf, the 27-year-old actor best known as the star of the “Transformers” movies, has sent the press into a feeding frenzy. Though the wisdom of some of his actions may seem questionable, as an actor and artist I’m inclined to take an empathetic view of his conduct.
It’s okay, normal people, there’s an artist here to break everything down for us. Go back to drooling on your Hot Pockets while you watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Let’s review the facts. First, in December, Mr. LaBeouf was accused of plagiarism after critics noted similarities between “Howard Cantour.com,” a short film he created, and a story by the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes. Though Mr. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter, conceding that he had “neglected to follow proper accreditation,” it turned out that the apology itself appropriated someone else’s writing. Was that clever or pathological?
If we only have those two choices, it’s the latter. There’s nothing clever about stealing from Daniel Clowes and then acting like an asshole and pretending that it was all performance art. That’s not art. It’s being an asshole. He stole from Clowes and owes him an apology and possibly financial restitution.
Then, earlier this month, with these actions focusing the tabloid gaze on him, he wore a paper bag over his head that read “I am not famous anymore” at the red-carpet premiere of his latest movie, “Nymphomaniac.” And last week he staged an art show called “#IAmSorry” that involved having him sit opposite visitors to a Los Angeles gallery while he wore a similar bag over his head and stared at them through cutout eye holes.
This behavior could be a sign of many things, from a nervous breakdown to mere youthful recklessness. For Mr. LaBeouf’s sake I hope it is nothing serious. Indeed I hope — and, yes, I know that this idea has pretentious or just plain ridiculous overtones — that his actions are intended as a piece of performance art, one in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.
It always strikes me as funny how celebrities wag their fingers at us normal losers for watching other celebrities go through meltdowns, and yet none of them really ever step in and try to help the celebrities. Like, if this is really a meltdown, why hasn’t Steven Spielberg pulled up in his flying Bentley and said, “Enough already, Shia” and then zapped him with his “act normal” beam? Why does nobody seem to give a shit about this guy who might be having a meltdown? Maybe it’s because he stole from someone and is destroying the solid career that was gifted to him by Spielberg and Michael Bay. Or maybe it’s because everyone thinks he’s annoying and nobody feels sorry for him.
Actors have been lashing out against their profession and its grip on their public images since at least Marlon Brando. Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be “performing,” in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being. Off-screen he defied the studio system’s control over his image, allowing his weight to fluctuate, choosing roles that were considered beneath him and turning down the Oscar for best actor in 1973. These were acts of rebellion against an industry that practically forces an actor to identify with his persona while at the same time repeatedly wresting it from him.
Brando would have weighed 9,000-pounds in this TMZ era, but the dude was The Godfather. LaBeouf was Sam Witwicky.
At times I have felt the need to dissociate myself from my work and public image. In 2009, when I joined the soap opera “General Hospital” at the same time as I was working on films that would receive Oscar nominations and other critical acclaim, my decision was in part an effort to jar expectations of what a film actor does and to undermine the tacit — or not so tacit — hierarchy of entertainment.
But Franco doesn’t run around acting like a huge A-hole, so we don’t really care what he does, because he just comes off as a goofball. I don’t look at Franco’s face and want to throw a pee balloon at it.
As an actor, you are often in the uncomfortable position of being the most visible part of a project while having the least amount of say over its final form. In one of the most striking scenes in “I’m Still Here,” a 2010 film co-written by Joaquin Phoenix that purported to document his life as he retired from acting and became a hip-hop artist, Mr. Phoenix paced around his yard at night, ranting about the submissiveness of being an actor. Even if the conceit was ultimately a joke (and initially it wasn’t clear that it was, for Mr. Phoenix stayed in character in public throughout the filming), the movie was nonetheless earnest about an actor’s need to take back a little bit of power over his image by making such a film.
So many actors have been able to have their Oscar cake and eat it, too. The difference is they don’t steal from other people and act like complete jackasses about it. If Tom Hanks produced a short film that turned out to be a ripoff of my White House Down storyboards and then refused to apologize for it and instead let Chet Haze Tweet Coolio lyrics at me for three months, I’d be like, “Tom Hanks is a dick, you guys.” But I guess Tom Hanks isn’t an artist like Joaquin Phoenix and LaBeouf, because he doesn’t sit around demanding that people pay attention to his “art” and shower him with awards and praise for it.
Any artist, regardless of his field, can experience distance between his true self and his public persona. But because film actors typically experience fame in greater measure, our personas can feel at the mercy of forces far beyond our control. Our rebellion against the hand that feeds us can instigate a frenzy of commentary that sets in motion a feedback loop: acting out, followed by negative publicity, followed by acting out in response to that publicity, followed by more publicity, and so on.
I don’t feel bad for the people who fall into this category at all. Especially those who steal from other artists.
Participating in this call and response is a kind of critique, a way to show up the media by allowing their oversize responses to essentially trivial actions to reveal the emptiness of their raison d’être. Believe me, this game of peek-a-boo can be very addictive.
So stealing from another artist is a trivial action? It seems like a pretty significant action, actually.
Mr. LaBeouf has been acting since he was a child, and often an actor’s need to tear down the public creation that constrains him occurs during the transition from young man to adult. I think Mr. LaBeouf’s project, if it is a project, is a worthy one. I just hope that he is careful not to use up all the good will he has gained as an actor in order to show us that he is an artist.
It’s a worthy one, he writes. This whole “project” – if it is “a project” – is based on theft. LaBeouf stole from Clowes and is an asshole for it. He’s an asshole for refusing to offer a sincere apology. And if we eventually find out that Clowes was in on it the whole time, all in the name of “art,” he’ll be an asshole, too. If this is art, I’ll stick to drawings of Fartzilla.