At current his exhibition at PACE Gallery, the actor James Franco tries his hand at self-portraiture, posing as the legendary photographer Cindy Sherman in replicas of her 1970s student project Untitled Film Stills, a series of silver gelatin prints in which she dressed as iconic women in film. In this strange mimesis of Sherman’s own impersonations, he reflects on an actor’s place, calling into question fixed notions identity, gender, and time.
Sherman, often playing the role of shape-shifting Bacchus and pushing the boundaries of selfhood, questioned the limitations of contemporary femininity, presenting clearly-defined roles for women: the femme fatale, the ingenue, the metropolitan sophisticate. Her film stills represent a sort of painful self-awareness; the film stops mid-reel, and the heroine introspects: who am I, beneath this costume?
The dialogue is complicated by Franco’s series, which in essence, presents an actor playing the role of artist playing the role of actor; what’s more, he’s a man playing at womanhood. Unlike most modern drag, where men seem to flawlessly transform into women, Franco insists on asserting his masculinity; in most of the images, he wears an unconvincing blond wig and facial hair.
Where there is a sort of anxiety in Sherman’s stills, the self-consciousness of being watched as expressed through a downturned lip and upward gaze, a housewife’s mishap in the kitchen, Franco’s New Film Stills project a self-assurance that borders on arrogance. His identity is unchanging, for unlike Sherman, his transformation is incomplete. He knows who he is, remaining forever the actor, who, in Brechtian fashion, refuses to lose himself completely to the character. Take a look. (via BUST, Art in America, and Interview)