This article was supposed to be different.
Originally, I was going to do a piece that explored what I saw as a strange connection between James Franco and Ashton Kutcher that makes them some sort of inversion of each other, two sides of the Hollywood success story. And why not? The two actors began their careers at nearly the same time, both played somewhat dim stoner characters set in nostalgic versions of 1960’s and 1970’s America, and at one point were in the same place at the same time and going for the same role, one that would pretty much dictate the courses that their careers would take.
While doing the normal promotional blitz for Oz The Great And Powerful, Franco revealed in Interview magazine that he had auditioned for a role in That 70’s Show. He obviously didn’t get it, but in a strange twist he would go on to make the pilot for a series meant to rival his counterpart’s big claim to fame. The series, called 1973, didn’t get picked up but luckily superstar casting director Allison Jones worked on the project and was able to get him an audition with Judd Apatow for HIS ode to the 70’s/80’s cusp-year high school life, Freaks And Geeks.
As Danny Desario, Franco joined the likes of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and the rest of the crew destined to gain fame for other Apatow hit films like Knocked Up, and The 40 Year Old Virgin (and also roasting Franco on Comedy Central on Labor Day at 10pm). While technically a flop by all accounts and measures, it did well critically (a story all too familiar). Retrospectively, Danny Desario would be his breakthrough role. The lead in a TV biopic about James Dean would follow (a Golden Globe for his performance as well) and also a part in the Robert Deniro flick City By The Sea. Franco was on to getting bigger roles in bigger productions, finally gaining mainstream attention as Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (after losing out on the part of Peter Parker, one which Tobey Maguire would aptly portray).
Like Franco, Kutcher also dropped out of college to pursue a career, first modeling, and then Hollywood. Unlike Franco, his career trajectory was a little smoother. He was discovered while in college by a talent scout and in the same year won Iowa’s Fresh Faces modeling contest which would lead him to New York to pursue modeling full time. Within a year he had locked up the role of Michael Kelso on That 70’s Show, the immature, good looking (he’s a model, DUH!), dimwitted, possibly perpetually-stoned yet somewhat earnest and loveable character that melted female viewers’ hearts and panties. His onscreen relationship with Mila Kunis’ Jackie provided many of the early season’s laughs, and even when his actions strayed into duplicitous territory such as the trysts with Lori Forman (RIP) and Pam Macy, his intellectual dullness cushioned the blow allowing viewers to forgive such treachery, or at least give him a pass.
Kutcher’s rapid ascension in Hollywood would lead to big budget, marquee roles much like Franco, although Kutcher’s exposure was arguably greater in comparison. That 70’s Show wasn’t winning any awards, but he WAS being pumped into American homes at an increasing rate, a presence exacerbated once it entered syndication. Kutcher would be quite savvy when it came to building on his popularity and got his hands in a variety of projects. He and friend Jason Goldberg would develop a production company. He would go on to invest in the LA restaurant Dolce with co-stars Danny Masterson, Wilmer Valderrama and Laura Prepon in addition to Jamie Kennedy, Dule Hill, and Masterson’s brother Chris. He would also go onto invest in, own, or co-own other LA spots including Geisha House and Ketchup (the former also having locations in Atlanta and New York City), and also invested early in technology startups Skype, Foursquare , and of course a production company called Katalyst Films. The latter would eventually spawn off into a studio for interactive media, appropriately named Katalyst Media. He even travelled to Russia as part of a delegation that included state department officials, the CEO of eBay, and co-founder of Twitter, the goal being to help foster entrepreneurship and reach remote populations as well use technology to curb child trafficking and corruption.
One of his earliest production ventures was a show in which he has become synonymous with, Punk’d. In the vein of Candid Camera and other hidden camera prank shows, Punk’d turned its sights on celebrities who were put in the position of having to grin and bear it or else be seen as sore sports. In the Jackass days of MTV, Punk’d was a pretty big hit, and any given day Kutcher could be seen in hours upon hours of repeats whether it was playing a dumbed down version of the pretty faced Midwestern farm boy that he was, or the swarmy, slickly calculating, prankster that he had become: smirking, wearing a trucker hat and surrounded by celebrities.
And if that level of exposure wasn’t enough with all the mogul-ing and endlessly repeating episodes of both of his television shows (Punk’d itself inevitably made syndication), Kutcher’s love life was garnering a lot of attention from the celebrity gossip hounds. He was linked to a pre-Mad Men January Jones, the late Just Married co-star Brittany Murphy, and is the former spouse of Demi Moore. As much as he was on TV, he was also in the tabloids (even more TV when you include E! news and its ilk.). He was even the first person on Twitter to reach a million followers, beating CNN to the punch. His popularity was astounding even if he has yet to produce anything of merit artistically speaking, which of course is the reason he was in the public eye to begin with.
James Franco dealt with his newfound fame and the thrust into ever brighter spotlights the same way as Kutcher at first: doing bigger movies that weren’t really spectacular or even that good. Franco, however would realize that films like Annapolis and Flyboys were not the output that he wanted to have and that he didn’t want to be the actor who took roles solely for a paycheck. So he went back to school, something he left 10 years prior to pursue acting in the first place.
His educational pursuits gained attention from the Hollywood press corps as well national entertainment reporters for one reason: while it was not unusual for an established Hollywood actor to make it a priority to continue their education, no one has done it with such veracity and taken it to extremes like Franco has. Taking up to 62 credits a quarter, he finished his undergraduate studies at UCLA in 2 years with a 3.5 GPA. He then set his sights on grad school, enrolling in four at the same time. His studies were all in the in the creative arts: two different programs for fiction writing, filmmaking, and poetry. Before finishing those he would enter Yale for a Ph.d and the Rhode Island School of Design for a Masters in Fine Arts.
Pursuing his education this way would force Franco to act less than someone at his age and with his clout , but it wouldn’t matter: some of his more impressive roles would come while in school. Milk, Howl, 127 Hours. All powerful movie biopics, and all done while spreading himself as thin as one possibly can.
In some ways he even turned himself to a work of art. In a literal sense, much of his art centered on his own adolescence, with installations culling artifacts from his family home in Palo Alto, California. In a broader sense though his celebrity status and peculiar career choices like appearing as an eccentric version of himself on General Hospital even played with the notions of low and high brow, mass art versus high art and where the intersection of those binary concepts lies.
When I first conceived this I imagined that that intersection would be Kutcher and Franco and their mutual adulation. I figured it would be here where I would make a sprawling attempt to define “success” and compare the different forms that it takes, careful to note that the characteristics of what looks like success doesn’t fit one shape or size. I thought I would make a good case as to how in that audition for Kelso, two men walked out and embarked on two very different paths to stardom, one finding success and recognition immediately and the other earning through his craft….and I think I illustrated my points reasonably well. Like many actors before them, both Kutcher and Franco parlayed their success as actors (one popular and the other critical) into success outside of the craft. Ashton became a business man who was really good at making money and capitalizing on opportunity and his own popularity, his replacement of an off the rails Charlie Sheen on a popular but critically derided show like Two And A Half Men seemed like a perfect marriage: it was the him of shows. On the other hand James Franco has successfully become a better actor, earning an Oscar nod for 127 Hours the same year he co-hosted the awards ceremony, while at the same time becoming highly educated and proving that he has an artistic voice that goes beyond (while probably helping to sculpt and sharpen) his ability to craft a diverse set of characters. His success as an artist specifically may be far greater than Kutcher’s and spread across a broader swath of media, but to compare overall success is nearly impossible because of how different their achievements are.
But then something happened that took me by surprise, like a birthday gift from the universe covered in albatross wrapping paper.
You see, Ashton Kutcher gave a speech to a bunch of young people at the Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards while accepting his lifetime achievement award (the setting itself inducing thoughts of Maeby Fünke), and it was pretty inspiring. I remember seeing it on cable news and thinking “Back to the drawing board,” because what does it matter what Ashton Kutcher does or if the entire pantheon of roles that make up his acting career are at best just “mehhhh.”? This man just said what kids today NEED to hear, truths that someone in his position SHOULD be saying. It IS important to work hard and to stay committed to one’s job, and opportunity is facilitated sometimes by working hard. Intelligence SHOULD be sexy. These are values that today’s teens need to learn and society doesn’t do that great of a job making sure that they do. I’m a pretty cynical guy, but it would now be a lot harder for me to disparage the guy after he said something so undeniably wholesome,
Within days the wheels of the Internet turned the way they always do when a celebrity (or child) does such a thing, both video and text of his speech going viral. I found myself in agreement with a sector of people that I normally wouldn’t including Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, two people that I generally loathe. I didn’t care though, even it meant that I had spent a couple of weeks mulling over how to shape the story of these two sides of the same coin and researching to build an argument that I couldn’t really. It just felt good to hear something so right and to feel in concordance with almost everyone, something infrequent in my daily life.
The more people shared it or retweeted, and the with each subsequent viewing, the cynical part of me (cynicism making up the very fabric of my being) began to hear it. I shook it off at first, but like a stain on a white cashmere sweater, once you see something, it’s hard NOT to see it each time you look. I kept repeating to myself that it must be a coincidence, but I couldn’t turn off my skepticism much longer and I had to finally accept it: Ashton Kutcher is an underhanded douche!
What I heard over and over again, was Kutcher say the word “Job” or a variation of it TEN times in that short speech. IN case you missed it in the beginning, he was at the Teen Choice Awards for the purpose of promoting the biopic that Kutcher starred in depicting the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Yes, I know he was technically there to accept the aforementioned “Lifetime Achievement Award, but let’s not kid ourselves that that award shows like the Teen Choice Awards, or the VMA’s or The MTV Movie Awards are anything but excuses for those attending to promote whatever project they have hitting the streets around that time. This was so more brazen, though, than just showing his face and having the announcer say “From the film “Jobs,” Ashton Kutcher!,” this was Kutcher almost asking for someone to notice. Yet, digging around the internet produced nothing. Some saw that the appearance itself as self- promotion plain and simple, but for some reason I couldn’t find any evidence of anyone thinking it weird that he said THAT one word…the ONE WORD THAT MADE UP THE TITLE OF HIS NEW MOVIE 10 TIMES IN LESS THAN A MINUTE.
Its not that I have a problem with self-promotion, in fact this whole foray into the illustrious world of Internet publishing has made me see how crucial it is to getting yourself and what you create to people who can enjoy it. I’ll even promote this very article on every social media available to me and in any way that I can.
What I do have a problem is hiding one’s intentions. Even James Franco promotes himself heavily, his art career a prime example of that. It was also recently announced that he has a reality show on Ovation that has been green-lighted that will have him “exploring his many personal artistic pursuits and passions.” He is still trying to hype himself (and in this case the product truly is the James Franco), but the hype isn’t cloaked in a message that makes the underlying aim bulletproof.
Now i know a lot of you might think that I am being overly skeptical and I will be the first to admit that I have a tendency to be more skeptical than most other people (that I know anyway), but I don’t think that is the case this time. It just looks all too familiar. Him standing up there in today’s version of the trucker hat with that smile on his face, surrounded by celebrities and talking to an age group that while too young to have originally watched Punk’d, have no doubt watch the celeb-hosted reboot (which Katalyst still produces).
It isn’t even that he famously created and hosted a show built on and celebrating deceit, he also has had a history of shrewd business decisions that bordered on unscrupulous.
Before Punk’d, there was Harrassment which was identical to Punk’d, but instead of celebrities, it targeted regular folks. One couple didn’t go for the “wanton, malicious and oppressive” behavior of Kutcher, the hotel or the network. They sued as most people in America would do. Kutcher then changed Harrassment into Punk’d because it worked better and tried to get the suit dismissed on accounts of Harrassment never airing, and that Punk’d was a different show altogether.
Then, after just two seasons of being the number one rated show on MTV, Kutcher announced that Punk’d was being canceled. The timing raised a few eyebrows even if Kutcher claimed that he decided to ” leave them wanting more.” It’s hard not to describe this behavior as “sleazy”, or “ethically challenged” at the very least. Kind of like the stereotypically slick players that make up the Hollywoods of our imaginations; the Ari Golds, if you will.
In this way, Franco is posed even more as his opposite, the quintessential typical “artistic type” who wants to DO as much as he can and can’t be bothered with things like “business”; he just wants to CREATE! This isn’t entirely true, but in some ways it is. It is certainly true when it comes to acting. If Franco had given that speech it would have seemed more heartfelt, because sadly, I don’t know if I can believe anything Ashton Kutcher says anymore.
Ashton Kutcher’s approach is to make as much money as possible, and it ends up polluting the incredible message of an inspirational speech.