In early October, a New York Times report detailed two women’s allegations of sexual exploitation and harassment at the hands of James Franco and his business partners. Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal were students at Franco’s now-defunct acting school Studio 4, and they claim that Franco and his associates “engaged in widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects,” according to the lawsuit.
The New York Times story and the lawsuit followed a Los Angeles Times report from 2018 in which Tither-Kaplan, Gaal, and three other women accused Franco of sexually exploitative behavior, including asking female students to perform topless in scenes as they already began filming. The allegations follow a 2014 incident in which Franco messaged a 17-year-old fan on Instagram and offered to rent a hotel room for the two to meet in. Through a lawyer, Franco has denied the allegations made by his former students but has admitted (perhaps because of the irrefutable screenshots) that he did “make a mistake” when it came to flirting and attempting to sleep with a 17-year-old child.
In an era where the words “Time’s Up” and “Me Too” have been largely understood to mean that sexual predators face consequences, Franco — like many of his contemporaries — has gone largely unaffected. Beyond the lawsuit and answering a few uncomfortable questions on talk shows, Franco is still freely moving about Hollywood, enjoying the benefits of a two-decades-long career.
For two years, Franco starred as twin brothers in HBO’s The Deuce, a drama set in 1970s New York City, revolving around the then-burgeoning pornographic film industry. Many scenes involve depicting the way men would coerce women to perform sexual scenes that they felt uncomfortable with. It’s a parallel to Franco’s own allegations that’s hard to ignore. The show kept Franco on after the 2018 allegations, and co-creator David Simon issued a statement that said he and other producers had never seen Franco behave inappropriately on set. Franco remained on the show for all three seasons and has been credited as a producer and director on several episodes.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Simon was asked about continuing to work with Franco after the allegations published in 2018 and 2019. “Given what the show is about and how it deals with some of these issues of which he’s accused, have you ever felt that it’s cast this unfortunate shadow over the work that you and George Pelecanos and everyone else have done?” interviewer Alan Sepinwall asked Simon.
“I’m absolutely proud that we continued to do the work, that James did it with us, and that we executed it at the level that we did,” Simon replied. “...I thought a lot of people were pretty hyperbolic, because on a very basic level, what James is dealing with — and it’s meaningful — it’s not what we’re seeing in the other cases involving #MeToo. It simply isn’t.”
Simon then went on to challenge Sepinwall about what the “difference” between Franco’s case and other “#MeToo cases” are. “The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone,” Simon said. “There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on.”
Simon continued: “If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.”
He went on to say the LA Times went after the Franco allegations because they were getting scooped by the New Yorker and The New York Times who were reporting on “real offenders who were using their positions to obtain sex, and misusing women in that fundamental way.” For Simon, the kind of behavior that Franco is accused of, and that is often depicted on The Deuce, doesn’t merit the title of “real offender.”
In a follow-up conversation over email, the two men continued to hash out the differences between allegations against Franco and accused rapists like Harvey Weinstein. Simon said he had many conversations with Franco, and that there lacks nuance in society to speak about the issues.
“I think that even the best reading of the complaints about James makes clear that this is a fellow who has been a celebrity for so long and fixed a time that he was either indifferent or oblivious to the entirety of the power dynamic that was in play involving younger actors who took his film course,” Simon said.
The director, whose other credits include The Wire and Treme, repeatedly makes the assumption that Franco was oblivious to the power dynamic between himself and the acting students who made allegations against him, based on his own knowledge of Franco. Simon also pointed to what he has witnessed — Franco on his best behavior as both a man and a creator — as evidence that Franco would never knowingly commit the kind of abuses he was accused of. For a man who creates content centered around studying power dynamics and their abuses, Simon seems to be unaware of a basic concept. As a man, especially as a man with the power to hire and fire Franco, he’d likely never be witness to the bad behavior Franco was accused of. That does not give any sort of value judgment to the allegations themselves, but rather to point out that Simon’s character testimony for Franco has no bearing on whether or not he is capable of being abusive or sexually coercive.
After thousands of words typed and spoken in the Rolling Stone interview, Simon concluded the same way he began: “His work on The Deuce was thoroughly professional and he was entirely committed to delivering a performance that in and of itself stands as an honest critique of male entitlement and the male gaze. He kept at it for two years after he was made the poster boy for these very things. You can call that irony or penance or both. I don’t care. I was proud of him and proud to do this work with him.”