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On Commencement Speeches

Posted: 05/16/2012 12:38 pm

The New York Observer -- a newspaper owned by Donald Trump's son-in-law that is perhaps best known for publishing a sex column in the mid-1990s -- took issue with a piece I wrote in The Huffington Post about ghost tours in New Orleans.

This was the writer's opening sally:

James Franco, the real voice of our generation, has taken time out from his busy schedule of Art and Teaching and also Learning to begin a Huffington Post diary. It's about time!

So what important issue of our times is Mr. Franco tackling? President Obama's stance on gay rights? The construction of Marina Abramovic's performance space over on the Hudson? His new album, perhaps?

Those are all great guesses, but James Franco is actually here to talk to us today about a matter close to his heart: Haunted tours in New Orleans that he took with his Nana. (Which is the name of his Japanese hairdresser, not his grandmother.)

Yes, this is all true. I didn't write about the president's stance on gay rights -- I figured there was enough talk about that already. (Plus, who wants to hear an actor's take on it anyway?) I didn't write about Marina, but only because we are doing an episode of Iconoclasts for the Sundance Channel together and I figured everything one would want to know about her would come out then. And yes, I am working on an album with my art school band, but I wouldn't want to write an article for HuffPost that promotes my own work. Instead, I wrote about New Orleans and ghost tours because I think there is something interesting about the way we are repelled by violence, on one hand, and attracted to it for its entertainment value, on the other. Maybe the great journalists at the New York Observer should stop wondering why I am not covering Obama or Abramovic -- and start asking themselves why, instead of covering pressing world issues, they are covering my writing, which they claim to consider petty.

Which leads me to my next topic: commencement speeches. I figure people don't really want to hear what I have to say about politics, or sports, or geography. But I do feel entitled to write about film and performance, the way that our lives are shaped by these things, and how I personally am engaged with them. Most people have never given a commencement speech -- there just aren't a ton of those offers going around. So because I just gave a commencement speech at UT Arlington -- which is in Texas, if you didn't know -- I want to write about it to shine a little light on what the experience was like.

Commencement speeches suck. To set the scene: About four years ago, I was asked to give the commencement speech at U.C.L.A. in front of all the members of the graduating class and their families. In all, it's more than 10,000 people, enough to fill the stands and the floor of Pauley Pavilion. Because I had only just earned my B.A. from U.C.L.A. -- I had returned when I was in my late 20s to finish my English degree -- some of the students felt that I hadn't accomplished enough to inspire them. They created a Facebook group, which attracted about 220 members from a class of 6,000 -- enough to earn them some local news coverage and an invitation for the creator of the page to speak on NPR. 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. My guess is that they didn't really care who gave their commencement speech; they were just taking advantage of the opportunity to blow off some steam. Because if there's one thing I've learned, it's that no one remembers their commencement speaker's speech.

Around the time of the Internet protests, I happened to meet President Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Because his choice as a commencement speaker was being protested at Notre Dame, and since he wasn't given an honorary degree after speaking at Arizona State because the officials felt like he hadn't accomplished enough, I asked him how he dealt with such detractors. He said, "humor." I tried to take his advice. I wrote a speech for UCLA where I planned to flip off the protestors as a model for how to deal with empty negativity, but it seemed ill-conceived. Obama had something I didn't: the snub from the Arizona State officials was laughable because he had obviously accomplished so much. I was an actor who had been in some big movies, but I guessed that most people chalked that up to good looks or blowing some casting directors. Since I was speaking only because it was an honor to have been asked, I decided not to object when the film I was contracted to work on demanded that I fly to Ireland early for rehearsals. I bowed out of the speech, and the school got a member from the band Linkin Park to speak in my stead.

I once asked Tina Fey if she ever gave commencement speeches, and she said she only speaks at high schools -- there's too much pressure at the college level. And when UT Arlington invited me to speak, I had a ton of reservations. Mainly, I didn't want to give a thankless speech to a bunch of ungrateful people who would criticize me and then forget the speech anyway. Commencement speeches are the worst kind of speech, because you need to be enthusiastic and inspiring in your own voice. There is nothing cheesier than that. No wonder Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen gave their Harvard speeches in character. Liberated from the burden of being Tony Robbins, they were free to simply entertain. If I thought about the famous commencement speeches I knew -- Ralph Waldo Emerson's, David Foster Wallace's, Steve Jobs' -- I realized they either contained excellent advice or told a good story. But 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. Then again, I suppose that's not the worst message -- the message being, you can change your life.

I have no shame about getting help with anything I do, especially something as quickly forgotten as a commencement speech, so I had my friend Deenah Vollmer work on a draft and then I passed it on to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who passed it on to their writer friends Kyle and Ariel, who punched up some of the jokes. Here's the best part:

I hope you all realize how lucky you are to be in this position right now. Looking up on stage, at a man with deep brown eyes, a flawless head of hair, chiseled good looks, staring right back at you. And I'm just talking about Arlington U president James D. Spaniolo!!! (Note: point to Spaniolo) You're leading the charge, Spaniolo. Great stuff.

(OPTIONAL: When I say James, y'all say Spaniolo! James! Spaniolo! James! Spaniolo!)

In all seriousness, you guys are incredibly lucky. There's no better feeling than the sense of accomplishment that comes with graduating. It's such a good feeling that I've been chasing it for the last 6 years. I have a BA, a few Masters, and I'm currently pursuing a PhD. Seriously. I think I'm developing a bit of a problem. It's gotten to the point where if I don't graduate something within a 6-month period, I start getting the shakes, I break out with hives. I wake up with cold sweats. Cotton mouth is becoming a pesky little issue. So I feel very privileged to be here today just to get a taste of that sweet graduation feeling. If I'm being completely honest, I'm already starting to get a contact high off it. So thank you for that.

I know a lot of you are probably looking at me on stage and thinking, "Why should we listen to you? You've never enrolled in our school, you're not from Texas, you have no connection to us whatsoever. You're just a spoiled actor, celebrated the world over." But the truth is, I'm not just a spoiled actor. 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.


The crowd was so into it, they cheered when I said, "Good evening." I guess all the worry was for nothing.

 
 
 
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