Actor, director, producer, and writer James Franco is an enigma. When he’s trying to be funny, you’ll often wonder whether he is being serious or vice versa. That strange quality has given him an ability to seamlessly fill a variety of roles in his career. In honor of his 41st Birthday on April 19, we’re counting down the ten best performances from the Academy Award nominated actor.
Check out the list below:
10James Franco in “This Is The End” (2013)
dir. Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Playing himself in this meta-comedy, Franco is allowed to do something many are too proud to ever try–make fun of himself. As a cartoonish jack-of-all-trades, Franco steals the show next to Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and other comedic heavyweights. Franco holds his own and shows the comedic chops that will appear in a few places on this list.
9Blaine Rawlings in “Flyboys” (2006)
dir. Tony Bill
In “Flyboys,” Franco played a WWI pilot facing down danger in the early days of the war. Franco conveys all of the bravery, fright, and horrors of war in a role that shows another facet of his range. Though it is a lesser-seen performance, it belongs on the list for showing a side of Franco we don’t often get to see.
8Will Rodman in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011)
dir. Rupert Wyatt
By the time “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was to be released in the Summer of 2011, Franco was known as an actor defined by his quirks. It followed an ill-fated turn as Oscar host and a series of events and performances that lead people to wonder where his career was headed. This role, given its understated nature, again showed another side of Franco. His warm scenes opposite John Lithgow are still a highlight in a franchise mostly dedicated to motion capture performances. Like many of the entries on this list, it’s the heart he gave the film that made the performance special.
7Harry Osborn in “Spider-Man” (2002)
dir. Sam Raimi
Franco’s work throughout the original “Spider-Man” franchise is largely responsible for increasing his profile in the early 2000s. He plays Spider-Man’s friend turned rival in a performance that allows Franco to play a range of emotions. The commercial nature of the film might have kept him from doing truly interesting work here, but there was no denying he was a talent after this.
6Laird Mayhew in “Why Him?” (2016)
dir. John Hamburg
Of everything on this list, this is the performance that feels most Franco. If you wrote everything his character was supposed to be, nine times out of ten you would land on Franco as the best option to deliver it. He gets to be inappropriate, boundary-less and the off-beat brand of funny that has come to define him. While the movie itself was no gift to cinema, Franco’s charms are on full display.
5Alien in “Spring Breakers” (2012)
dir. Harmony Korine
In a career filled with bizarre characters, Alien is easily the strangest. The cartoonish mocking of a certain type of hip-hop subculture becomes a playground for Franco’s immense talents. He gets to be equal parts grating, fascinating and confounding. He embodies all of the head scratch-inducing qualities of the role while still not becoming a caricature.
4Saul Silver in “Pineapple Express” (2008)
dir. David Gordon Green
While this is not the last time we would get to see Franco act alongside Seth Rogen, this was definitely the best. Though Franco was a pretty big name by this point, the comedic chops he’d show off here had yet to be seen. He plays Rogen’s permanently stoned friend, Saul, who finds every comedic beat in a performance that would have been so much less in the hand of someone else.
3Scott Smith in “Milk” (2008)
dir. Gus Van Sant
Sean Penn rightfully won his second Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, but it was Franco that gave the film its core. Playing Scott Smith, Milk’s longtime partner, who helps him become the leader he was always meant to be, Franco is playing the definition of a supporting role. In a lot of ways, the magic of the performance is how easy it is to overlook because it’s not flashy–but that in no way diminishes its effectiveness.
2Aron Ralston in “127 Hours” (2010)
dir. Danny Boyle
Every so often, a movie requires an actor to be the only person on-screen for large stretches. Think Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” or Tom Hardy in “Locke.” Such is the case in “127 Hours” and Franco’s work as Ralston, a climber who is forced to survive on his own for five days after getting pinned under a boulder, is just about as good as it gets. He is such a compelling watch that this garners him his first, and thus far only, Oscar nomination.
1Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” (2017)
dir. James Franco
Allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior may have dampened his chances at an Oscar nomination for this one, but it remains the strongest work of his career. Made even more impressive by the fact that he directed himself in the role, Franco perfectly captured Wiseau’s comic lack of self-awareness. But he gives Wiseau a depth that goes beyond the SNL skit this could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. And even ignoring those strengths, it is about as hilarious of a performance as you’ll ever see.