Rise of the Expressionistas

Who told actors they should do more than act?

Of all the reality TV setups I’ve seen, my favorite by far is Tony Danza on A&E playing a Philadelphia high school English teacher. He dances, laughs, talks too much and cries four times in one episode. When a student asks if he’s a millionaire, he replies that a million isn’t what it was. Then he screws up a lesson about omniscient narration.

Never mind that Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem education reformer, says in Waiting for ‘Superman’ that it took him three years to become a decent teacher and five years to become a good one. The game for Danza is to pull it off in a year with only one summer of training.

There’s nothing like being an actor these days when it comes to pushing the limits of what you can do with your life. Case in point: James Franco. The actor/author/journalist/artist/graduate student/director publishes his first book of fiction this month. “I shouldn’t say I’m doing so many things because it starts to sound ridiculous,” he told The New York Times last month. “As hard as I work in film, it’s my day job.” The other work is “pure expression.”

Or is it just job hogging? In these branding-mad times, why is it that every celebrity seems compelled to turn a public platform into a magic carpet ride straight into territory that had typically been occupied by the trained and talented? Perhaps it’s to be expected when the pathologically narcissistic are deluded into thinking that their work is both creative and rigorous. At any rate, Expressionistas are everywhere right now.

It may have been surprising years ago, when Sean Combs moved from music into fashion, and then to A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. Now there’s no end to it. Madonna (when she isn’t directing) is in Macy’s. Sarah Jessica Parker is at Halston. Hugh Laurie is making an album, joining Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and Scarlett Johansson. Gwyneth Paltrow is writing a cookbook. And Hilary Duff just published a novel.

Then there are all the celebrity children’s book authors, including, most recently, Julianne Moore, whose Freckleface Strawberry (Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books, 2007) is now an Off Broadway musical. It’s as if Oprah and New York University combined land-grabbing forces for world domination. We even had a celebrity intern to ogle a few summers ago, when hockey player Sean Avery apprenticed at Vogue. Maybe that’s what inspired Franco to enroll in several graduate school programs at once. Why not add medical school to his to-do list? I’m sure his acting experience on General Hospital (he played an artist named Franco and then created an exhibition about it in Los Angeles) has honed his knowledge and bedside manner. And judging from his recent art installation, he seems comfortable with genitalia and bodily functions.

It would be funny if not for all the real artists who work so hard for so long with little hope of recognition. Then again, maybe the only problem is people like me who take the time to go see the artwork of a 31-year-old actor. When I was at Franco’s Tribeca installation (which closed earlier this month), I got a call from a friend who once showed at a Whitney Biennial. She’s well into middle age and still trying to make ends meet as she applies for grants and teaching jobs. I told her where I was and then regretted it.

“Maybe I need to be in the movies to get a break,” she said.

Or maybe on Tony Danza’s show as an art teacher?