The Building Is Beige

Ah, the James Franco phenomenon. Franco, in case one or two of you don’t know, is a moderately talented young actor who collects graduate programs. Having recently completed an MFA in writing at Columbia, he remains enrolled at NYU for filmmaking, Brooklyn College for fiction, Warren Wilson for poetry, and the Rhode Island School of Design. (Franco paints as well as writes, acts, makes films, etc.) He also started a PhD program at Yale last year in English literature, my old department, and plans to start another next fall at the University of Houston.

There are several possibilities here. Maybe Franco really is the second coming of Leonardo da Vinci. He would have to be, because if he were merely brilliant, doing even one of those programs properly would take his full energy. When I did my PhD at Columbia, I worked about 70 hours a week. I scarcely had time to see a movie, let alone make one. So maybe Franco’s got a Leonardo-level intellect, but here’s a line from one of his short stories: “The building is beige, but the shadows make it shadow-color.” So maybe not.

Possibility number two is what we might refer to as the Dr. Drew phenomenon. Dr. Drew was the character played by Mad Men heartthrob Jon Hamm on the sitcom 30 Rock a couple of seasons ago. Dr. Drew had an M.D., but he didn’t know the first thing about medicine. He had a motorcycle license, but he couldn’t get to the end of the block without crashing. He was just so attractive that everybody gave him a free pass all the time. I asked someone in my old department how Franco’s thought of by his fellow students, the ones who had to crawl over broken glass to get into the program, which admits about 20 students a year out of the several hundred who apply. (How Franco himself got into the program is a question for the conscience of the admissions committee.) Well, she said, they feel protective of him. In other words, they like him, they’re charmed by him, they’re pleased to have him in their midst, and they want to shield him from the fact that he’s in a million miles over his head. Dr. Drew, indeed.

But then I was watching the Oscars a few months ago. Franco was co-hosting with  Anne Hathaway. She was pretty good–spunky and clever if, as usual, a bit too pleased with herself. He was barely there. Essentially, he just showed up. And that’s when I realized the true significance of the James Franco phenomenon. Franco went to Palo Alto High School, a highly competitive public school in Silicon Valley. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he was allowed to register for 62 credit hours in a single quarter (the usual limit is 19). Franco is unique, but in a totally typical way. He is the reductio ad absurdum of today’s high-achieving young person, the kind who gets into places like Yale and Columbia by doing 15 extracurricular activities and taking 11 AP courses. How can they all be so brilliant, so gifted, so energetic? The answer is, they’re not. No one is. They just show up, and thanks to the miracle of grade inflation, as well as the rhetorical inflation of the modern recommendation letter, showing up is enough. These are the people who are going to be running our country soon. We’d all do well to cultivate a taste for beige.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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