Hollywood Ivies

The Yale Daily News reported yesterday morning that James Franco, whom Salon.com named “the sexiest man living” in 2009, has been accepted into Yale’s Ph.D. program in English. Franco, perhaps best known for his appearances as Harry Osborne in the Spiderman trilogy (what, you didn’t see the Spiderman movies?!) and Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk, also did a series of appearances at Columbia University, picking up an MFA in Writing.

Franco’s recently published story in Esquire has been blasted in the blogs. Salon.com called it a “crush killer”. Judging from lines like “Joe and I sit and stare at the wall of the building. The building is beige, but the shadows made it shadow-color,” perhaps rightfully so (a handpicked list of other groaners at Open Salon)

But I hope the Yale news item gets a lot of publicity. The talented heartthrob’s entry into the rarified world of doctoral studies—at Yale and in English Language and Literature, which is about as lofty as academia can get without skirting entirely out of intellectual orbit—could be welcome news for smart kids in middling schools throughout the hinterland. If the emergence of geek chic in the ‘naughts and the reclamation of geekdom were steps in chipping away at the anti-intellectual ethos of the typical high school in the cultural backwaters of the nation—sh0wing us that smart could be cool—Franco’s move from the Hollywood film set to the New Haven seminar room is almost iconic in its powerful imagery of “smart is cool and sexy”.

While we’re at it, why not add Matt Damon (Harvard) and Edward Norton (Yale) and Wentworth Miller (Prison Break and Princeton and yes, one of People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” ) to the campaign? Or Hill Harper, who plays coroner-turned-detective Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on the Emmy-award winning CSI: NY series. Harper, who was named by People magazine in 2004 as—you were expecting this, weren’t you?—“sexiest man alive”, graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and got his law degree cum laude from Harvard Law School and a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

There’s a curious irony to the fact that Franco got his first big break on the Emmy-nominated but short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks. He played one of the hip freaks, not a geek, of course (this was set in the 80s when it was unthinkable that geek could ever be cool); his character Daniel always seemed to be on the verge of failing a class. In fact, in one episode he tries to pull the fire alarm to get out of a test he’s afraid of failing. He’s caught and is forced to join, yes, you guessed it, the übergeeky audio-visual Club as punishment.

I wasn’t a member of the audio-visual club when I was in high school, but it didn’t matter—I could have been. Kids have a proclivity to sorting out their own, and like all taxonomists they have their behavioral cues and physiological features to classify who belongs where. And there were certain taxa you didn’t really want to be sorted into, at least not back then when I was in school, “faggot” being one, “geek” the other—obviously they were rungs apart on the pecking order— though I don’t think geek was the word that was used.

Maybe there wasn’t any word. There didn’t have to be, of course. Everyone knew who we were. There was Mike Shaughnessy, a tall goose of a kid with big hips and a fat butt who waddled more than he walked, and wispy mathlete Billy Walters with his mop of fine ash-blond hair and Marek Abramowicz, who could speak better French than his French teacher. Dave Nolan ,who ran cross-country, could have been a jock, I guess (even though distance runners weren’t considered hard-core jocks), but he wrote poetry and hung out with us.

I don’t remember how we started hanging out. We just seemed to gravitate to one another, not only because we had things in common but also because we just found one another more interesting than the other guys in school (and there were only guys in this particular school). I’m not entirely sure that given the chance we would trade places and minds with the more popular guys.

We kept in touch after school, not religiously so but enough to keep up on what has happening in one another’s lives. Mike left his medical practice to pursue a career as a cellist. Billy kept the ‘y’ in his name and made obscene amounts of money in some dot com venture. Dave is a district attorney in some Northeast rustbelt city. I don’t know if these guys are truly happy but they ‘re certainly privileged in being able to work at something they like doing. More often not, growing up at the edges steels you to take risks, persevere and not give a flying fuck about what people say. Which, come to think of it, is kinda sexy in itself.


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