It should have been a pure moment of triumph for James Franco. He collected one of Hollywood’s top prizes at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, validating an untraditional career in which he’s been a bankable leading man, Ivy League academic and eccentric auteur.
But as he stood on the ballroom stage, some were paying more attention to the Time’s Up pin on his lapel than the gold statue he picked up for his turn in “The Disaster Artist.”
It “was like a slap in my face,” said Sarah Tither-Kaplan, a former acting student at the film school Franco founded who went on to appear in several of his productions.
Tither-Kaplan is one of five women who, in interviews with The Times, accused Franco, 39, of behavior they found to be inappropriate or sexually exploitative. Four were his students, and another said he was her mentor.
In some cases, they said they believed Franco could offer them career advancement, and acquiesced to his wishes even when they were uncomfortable.
“I feel there was an abuse of power, and there was a culture of exploiting non-celebrity women, and a culture of women being replaceable,” said Tither-Kaplan, who was one of many women who took to Twitter on Sunday night to vent anger over Franco’s win.
She told The Times that in a nude orgy scene she filmed with Franco and several women three years ago, he removed protective plastic guards covering other actresses’ vaginas while simulating oral sex on them.
Two other student actresses also recounted negative on-set experiences. Both said Franco became angry when no women, while at the shoot, would agree to be topless.
Franco’s attorney, Michael Plonsker, disputed all of the women’s allegations and directed The Times to Franco’s comments Tuesday night on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“Look, in my life I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done,” he told Colbert. “I have to do that to maintain my well being. The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long. So I don’t want to shut them down in any way.”
“If I have done something wrong,” he added, “I will fix it — I have to.”
Look, in my life I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done. ... If I have done something wrong, I will fix it — I have to.
A creative force in Hollywood with a reputation for being indefatigable, Franco has acted in several notable films and TV shows over his 20-year career. They include “Freaks and Geeks,” “Pineapple Express” and “127 Hours,” which netted him an Oscar nomination for lead actor. He’s directed episodes of HBO’s “The Deuce” — on which he currently stars in two leading roles, playing twins — and served as a producer on films and TV shows including the “The Interview” and the Hulu series "11.22.63.”
His affinity for tackling unexpected projects, coupled with a prolific work ethic, have become part of his Hollywood mystique. Over the last decade, he’s directed more than two-dozen low-budget indie features and shorts, written books and even turned his experience co-starring on soap opera “General Hospital” into an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2014, he launched a film school — Studio 4 in Los Angeles and New York — where he taught and mentored hundreds of aspiring actors and filmmakers; both locations abruptly closed last fall.
James Franco appears at the Golden Globe Awards wearing a Time's Up pin. Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Franco has also attracted attention for controversial behavior on social media. In 2014, he used Instagram to ask a 17-year-old British girl he’d met outside a New York theater if she had a boyfriend and whether she was 18. Even after learning her age, he asked for the name of her hotel and if he should rent a room.
After that episode became public, Franco apologized on ABC’s “Live! With Kelly and Michael.” “I’m embarrassed, and I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky,” he said. “I used bad judgment and I learned my lesson.”
Before opening Studio 4, Franco taught at Playhouse West in North Hollywood — a school where he’d received training as an actor.
Two of his former students there said he put female students in uncomfortable situations beyond the normal parameters of acting class.
Hilary Dusome, 33, who took a class from Franco in 2012, said that at first, she found him to be "a really generous spirit" eager to help aspiring actors.
Her feelings shifted after being selected to appear, with a handful of other female students, in what she thought was one of Franco’s “art films.” Natalie Chmiel, the other student, said she was told the footage would be used in a 7 For All Mankind jeans commercial.
Both women described what they considered to be an unprofessional and hostile shoot at a strip club.
Midway through filming, Dusome said Franco approached the actresses — who wore masks and lingerie — and asked, "So, who wants to take your shirt off?"
When no actresses volunteered, Franco stormed off, Dusome recalled.
"I felt like I was selected for something based on my hard work and my merit, and when I realized it was because I have nice [breasts], it was pretty clear that was not the case," Dusome said. "I don't think he started teaching with bad intentions, but he went down a bad path and damaged a lot of people in the process."
I don't think he started teaching with bad intentions, but he went down a bad path and damaged a lot of people in the process.
Hilary Dusome, former student
Chmiel, 33, also recalled Franco asking the women if any of them wanted to take their top off, and that he was “visibly angry” when they declined.
“He just took advantage of our eagerness to work and be a part of something bigger,” Chmiel said. “We were all these up-and-coming actors who were so hopeful.”
Franco did not make the request the women alleged, his attorney said.
Funny...........I thought he would be harassing men.