Image Credit: Phil BrayThough it might have seemed boundary-breaking just a few years ago for a handsome young heartthrob to talk about his preference for gay roles, James Franco’s interview with The Advocate has a pleasantly unfussy feeling. The A-lister has spent the past year remaking himself as a meta-celebrity: appearing on General Hospital, debuting an art exhibit, writing fiction, making movies about TV shows. He’s also enrolled in about a billion grad school programs and is available to do yard work at competitive rates. In his Advocate interview, Franco talks about the way he approaches gay roles with that same sense of frank curiosity, like it’s just one more feather in his actor’s cap. “In this history of cinema, there are so many heterosexual love stories,” says Franco, who played Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk and will play a young Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming Howl. “It’s more interesting to me to play roles and relationships that haven’t been portrayed as often.”

It’s no secret that right now is a somewhat firebreathing moment in the history of gay rights — and given today’s ruling about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the gasbaggery is probably just beginning — but there’s something incredibly hopeful in Franco’s nonchalant exploration of male sexuality. Of course, it’s probably easy to feel secure in your masculinity when you’re rich, famous, and devastatingly handsome. And it’s not as if Franco is reinventing gender norms with brilliant Ginsberg-level artistry: The Advocate article’s description of his short film sounds like a bad parody of a student film. But true progress doesn’t always come from broad, decisive strokes. Sometimes, even the silliest parts of pop culture reverberate through the generations.

Consider: A teenager just starting his freshman year of high school this year was nine years old when Brokeback Mountain came out. That kid doesn’t remember what a gamble it was for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to play gay cowboys. He or she doesn’t remember how Ellen DeGeneres shook up pop culture by coming out both in real life and on her sitcom Ellen. To him or her, Ellen is just a fancy-footed, forgetful-fish-voicing national treasure. And Lady Gaga’s gender-bending probably seems no stranger to that kid than John Lennon’s long hair seemed to ’70s America. Today’s high schoolers have grown up with Will & Grace in perpetual reruns, with reality TV shows, with NPH. (If they have especially cool parents, they’ve maybe caught a glimpse of Omar on The Wire.) And now, they have James Franco, the Hollywood hunk who wants nothing more than to play the man who wrote, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Maybe today we can hope that kids can grow up without all the old hang-ups about sexual orientation. Maybe when they take over the world, the battlefields of today will be largely in the past. And maybe James Franco, in his own way, is a true pioneer. What do you think, PopWatchers? Is Franco just an eccentric outlier, or is he the future of Hollywood stardom?

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