Before he was selected to address Cornell’s Class of 2016, actor and director James Franco suffered several convocation controversies, marked by student backlash and satirical spoofs.
In 2009, Franco was scheduled to give the UCLA commencement speech but canceled due to movie commitments, according to his publicist Robin Baum. Despite his academic achievements, some students reportedly remained skeptical of the actor’s qualifications. Franco later explained in a Huffington Post article that part of the reason for his cancellation was student backlash.
A UCLA student Facebook group — with approximately 220 members from a class of 6,000 students — protested that Franco was not accomplished enough to give their commencement speech, according to the Huffington Post.
Erin Moore — UCLA student and creator of the Facebook group — told National Public Radio that one of the reasons students were against Franco was because they felt like he was “one of our peers.”
“We feel very close to him and … we feel we should have somebody who’s had a bit more time to do something with their degree,” Moore said.
Franco addressed the issue in his Huffington Post article, saying these students were just using the opportunity to “blow off some steam.”
“I’m sure it must have seemed odd that someone who had been in their classes the previous year was asked to give the speech, but I couldn’t help noticing that not one of the protesters had bothered to sign up for the selection committee that actually chooses the commencement speaker each year,” he said. “Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no one remembers their commencement speaker’s speech.”
Franco made a spoof video with Funny or Die, a comedy website, showcasing what he had planned to say at the commencement. The video went viral and was covered by Time Magazine.
“It’s a very scary time to graduate, but thank goodness that all us college graduates are guaranteed steady and lucrative jobs because of our college degrees,” Franco said in the video.
The parody portrayed Franco giving some questionable advice, emphasizing his own celebrity and even comparing himself to the president.
“Charity and service are very important to me,” Franco said in the video. “And that’s just one of the ways in which I remind myself of Barack Obama.”
In 2012, Franco was asked to give the commencement address at University of Texas at Arlington. He said in his Huffington Post article that he had “a ton of reservations” at first.
Franco said people “didn’t really care who gave their commencement speech” and that he didn’t want to give a “thankless speech to a bunch of ungrateful people” who would “criticize him” and “forget the speech anyway.”
“Commencement speeches are the worst kind of speech, because you need to be enthusiastic and inspiring in your own voice,” he said. “There is nothing cheesier than that. No wonder Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen gave their Harvard speeches in character.”
Franco explained that the famous commencement speeches he knew either contained “excellent advice” or a “good story.”
“I wouldn’t dare to give any concrete advice about how to live, and the only story I had to tell was that I had been a commercially successful actor who wasn’t happy with the work I was doing, so I went back to school to focus on my other interests,” Franco said. “Then again, I suppose that’s not the worst message — the message being, you can change your life.”
Despite his initial hesitation, Franco gave a humorous and well-received speech by many accounts.
“I’m not just a spoiled actor,” Franco said. “I’m also a filmmaker, an author, a teacher, a lover of pets and an organ donor. The point is, I try to be a lot of things. I’ve been fortunate enough to explore various areas of interest in my life, and I hope the same for all of you.”
In addition to his notable career in Hollywood, Franco has also been involved in his own educational pursuits. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2008 and went on to study at Columbia University, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, Yale University, and the Rhode Island School of Design, according to New York Magazine.
Prof. John Williams, Yale University, applauded Franco’s academic streak in an article for Slate Magazine.
“James Franco is becoming a scholar, and I suggest we take him seriously,” Williams said. “Pay attention to that man behind the curtain.”
Franco is set to deliver Cornell’s convocation address on Saturday at noon at Schoellkopf Field.