Joseph Gordon-Levitt vs. James Franco: A Smackdown

James Franco and Joseph Gordon-Levitt: actors, directors, renaissance men
James Franco and Joseph Gordon-Levitt: actors, directors, renaissance men
Photo of James Franco by David Shankbone, photo of Joseph Gordon-Levitt by grammarshy/Flickr, adapted by Amanda Lewis

Until two days ago, the James Franco-directed adaptation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was set to go head to head with the release of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon this weekend. Now, As I Lay Dying has been bumped, for a release date TBD. Is Hollywood trying to tell us it has found a newer, smarter, hipper Renaissance man for America to crush on -- and there's only room in town for one of them?

The more we thought about it, the more we realized James and Joe are kind of similar. Serious acting chops, writing and directing gigs, lots of side projects, literary ambitions, mysterious love lives...

But has JGL truly supplanted Franco as the superior jack of all trades?

Let's see how they stack up.


Franco: 35

JGL: 32

Breakout role

Franco: Starred in a critically acclaimed TV show about a group of lovable outsiders attempting to survive in a hilarious yet hostile environment

JGL: Starred in a critically acclaimed TV show about a group of lovable outsiders attempting to survive in a hilarious yet hostile environment

First paid gig

Franco: Pizza Hut commercial

JGL: Sunny Jim peanut butter commercial

Festival where his new movie premiered

Franco: Cannes

JGL: Sundance

Notable early directorial effort

Franco: 2005's The Ape.

JGL: 2010's Morgan and Destiny's Eleventeenth Date: The Zeppelin Zoo, which involves mustaches, Channing Tatum and lots of sepia.

Latest directorial effort


Franco's film, the Faulkner-adapted As I Lay Dying, costars that yokelly guy from O Brother Where Art Thou (#typecasting) and chronicles the death and burial of the Bundren family matriarch in rural Mississippi. How does Franco convey the distinct voices of the book's 15 different narrators? Apparently there are split screens. The film garnered fairly positive reviews from those who saw it at Cannes.


JGL's film, the Jersey Shore-inspired Don Jon, costars ScarJo: He's addicted to porn, she's addicted to romantic comedies. Unrealistic models for relationships, yo!


Comfortable playing gay characters?

Franco: Yes

JGL: Yes

Cheeky, progressive response to rumors he is actually gay



Franco posted this and other Perez Hilton-esque faux-paparazzi photos on his Instagram feed last week.

JGL: "That would be really tacky. They would win if I had to clarify."

Soap opera cred

Franco: General Hospital, 2009-2012

JGL: Dark Shadows, 1991

Ivy League cred

Franco: Ph.D. candidate at Yale; has an MFA from Columbia

JGL: Did a few years at Columbia but never graduated

Sherman Oaks cred

Franco: Lived there when he worked at McDonald's

JGL: Grew up there

Tribe cred

Franco: His mother is Jewish; his maternal grandmother was an active member of the National Council of Jewish Women

JGL: His parents were among the founders of the Progressive Jewish Alliance

Stoner cred

Franco: This night, and this movie.

JGL: This scene, and this story.

Primary career

Franco: "Actor"

JGL: Actor

Second career

Franco: Director

JGL: Director

Third career

Franco: Writer (novels, poetry, short stories, screenplays, rambling blog and HuffPo posts...)

JGL: Writer (screenplays)

Fourth career

Franco: Musician

JGL: Owner of online collaborative production company

Fifth career

Franco: Student (Yale, Columbia, UCLA, NYU, Brooklyn College, RISD, North Carolina's Warren Wilson College)

JGL: Variety show host

Sixth career

Franco: Artist (performance, painting, drawing, video, sculpture, etc.)

JGL: Broadway show producer

Seventh career

Franco: Teacher (USC, UCLA, CalArts, NYU, Yale, Columbia)

JGL: --

Eighth career

Franco: Dance theater show director and narrator

JGL: --


Role in his latest directorial effort, distilled in a GIF



Neighborhood in L.A. where you're most likely to run into him

Franco: Sunset Strip

JGL: Silver Lake

Highest awards-show honor

Franco: Nominated for an Oscar for 127 Hours

JGL: Nominated for a Golden Globe for (500) Days of Summer and again for 50/50

Approach to acting

Franco: Plays himself in everything, even when he isn't trying to

JGL: "That's precisely the highest compliment I think you can pay an actor: 'I wasn't sure if it was you.' "

Number of movies he will star in this year

Franco: 13

JGL: 1


Franco: At first, Franco's antics were intriguing. "He's playing himself?" we thought. "What a witty comment on our culture's obsession with celebrity! He's dashing from school to set to school because he loves to learn? So do we!"

But over the past few years Franco's prolific outpouring has had a mediocre crap–to–bona fide genius ratio of 10-to-1. Yes, Spring Breakers was hilarious, but I literally fell asleep during Oz the Great and Powerful and if his new novel Actors Anonymous is anything like his short stories, then zzzzzzz. Using his star power to publish stories in Esquire, debut music videos with Rolling Stone and organize shows for MOCA just takes away opportunities from all of those other artists out there who have talent but no name recognition, who put 10,000 hours into one specific medium instead of 1,000 hours into 10 different mediums.

JGL: Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is a man who values quality over quantity. Like Franco, he seems to have an insatiable desire to create. Unlike Franco, he seems to work intensely on only a few projects at a time. And instead of drawing attention to himself, JGL draws attention to his work. HitRECord, his primary non-Hollywood hobby, involves empowering OTHER people to create, share and collaborate. In other words, it's not all always about him.

If James Franco shows us the grossest side of ourselves, forcing us to admit that our culture values fame over talent, Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes us feel like celebrities might be just as cool as we want them to be: smart, talented, sincere and unmotivated by fame or money.

I get the feeling that Franco wants us to hate him, wants us to blame him for the things that are wrong with our society, and that Gordon-Levitt wants to be admired and respected for his stellar work. So the question of who is superior comes down to a value judgment. Which is more important: your personal narrative or your creative output?

Ultimately I would rather watch one mesmerizing movie than comb through someone's unfiltered creative detritus for a few gems.


Franco: Ratchet

JGL: Badass

See also:

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Crowdsourced hitRECord Website Becomes a Book

Professor James Franco: A UCLA Student Talks About What It Was Like to Take the Actor's Screenplay Class

Amanda Lewis on Twitter:

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