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Awards campaign for James Franco is suitably Alien

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The line between the real and the surreal is a thin one for James Franco. The actor's persona has become such a carefully cultivated hall of post-postmodern mirrors that it can often be hard to tell what's true and what's a put-on.

So naturally, when online award spots started appearing, promoting Franco for his role as a "gangster mystic" in Harmony Korine's outrageous indie hit "Spring Breakers," it was hard to know what to make of it. In fact, one ad plays on this confusion.

"Are you being serious?" a young woman asks, in a clip from the film. Franco's Alien, a garish peacock sporting cornrows and grills, responds, "What do you think?"

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The answer is yes. A24, the distribution company behind "Spring Breakers," has been quietly running a best supporting actor campaign on Franco's behalf that's completely in line with the inside-out nature of the role and the movie. Whether motion picture academy voters will favor a character who in his first scene exhorts a worldview of " "bikinis and big booties, y'all, that's what life is about!" is another matter.

But as critics and fans of the film have noted, Franco's work as Alien is among the best in his career, an electrifying turn that is part pimp, part prophet and pure hustler. One thing is for sure, there's nothing else on the awards circuit quite like it, no performance like Franco's, no character quite like Alien.

"Honestly, I don't know why people say, 'Really? Is this a real campaign?'" Franco asked recently in Los Angeles. "I'm an academy voter. I've been nominated for an Oscar. I'm more proud of this performance than anything that I've done."

The A24 ad for Franco has been built around the slogan "Consider This ..." seems designed to tweak the awards-season campaigning process.

Yet as more relatively young film industry professionals like the 35-year-old Franco come of age and are joined each year by an incoming crop of academy invitees — who have recently included Lena Dunham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jonah Hill, Kerry Washington and Kristen Wiig — films like "Spring Breakers" may come to seem less like Oscar outliers.

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"I've been working in this industry for 16 years. I know when I'm a part of something that's cutting edge," said Franco. "I want to go out and say yeah … consider it. It's doing what we're supposed to do, it's finding new ground and that's what art is supposed to do. So yeah … consider this ...."

The idea of Alien for Oscar has recently received a few notable boosts. The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (full disclosure: I'm a member) voted Franco best supporting actor (in a tie with presumed academy front-runner Jared Leto from "Dallas Buyers Club") on Dec. 8. Both the respected French film journal Cahiers du Cinema and filmmaker John Waters named "Spring Breakers" the top film of 2013. Writing his annual best-of for the magazine Artforum, Waters asked, "What more could a serious filmgoer possibly want?"

In the recent film "This Is the End," in which Franco played a Hollywood actor named "James Franco," his character had a collection of props kept from his movies. The real Franco noted that from "Spring Breakers" he kept Alien's false teeth, entire wardrobe, scalloped headboard bed and customized car.

The first ad came out around the time of Franco's roast this fall on Comedy Central. The image was one from the film in which Alien points guns to the heads of two young women; the guns were replaced with Oscar statuettes. After it was released, a subsequent message on the A24 Twitter account was needed to clarify: "We weren't joking."

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"I think it's much more towards a legitimate campaign idea than a goof," said A24's Nicolette Aizenberg. "We're certainly not insulting campaigning, it's just doing something that feels more in line with the movie and the character and embracing what it is. We wanted to do something that was out there and cut through more so than just a standard campaign."

The tagline comes from an improvised monologue Franco delivers in the movie. Unconsciously echoing the legendary shirt scene from "The Great Gatsby," Alien shows off all the things in his bedroom — cologne, clothes, money, weapons — while declaring "look at my [stuff]!"

In some ways the oddball nature of the very idea of the campaign for Franco as Alien has found the campaign taking on something of a life of its own. Rather than paying for conventional ads, A24 will release a new piece of artwork that then gets picked up by websites and blogs and circulated online.

"Our materials and our assets go further than a typical campaign ad would," noted Aizenberg. "We've been very fortunate in that people, especially the press, love this idea. So people are running things, are into supporting the idea 'consider this.' And it's making people consider it."

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Franco's character doesn't first appear on screen until 20 minutes into "Spring Breakers" and doesn't really enter the story until somewhere around the 40-minute mark. Many potential supporters watching at home might well have turned off the movie by then. Another possible stumbling block for any Franco campaign is whether academy members will forgive him for his widely derided stint as Oscar co-host in 2011, the year he was nominated for best actor for "127 Hours." But Franco himself downplays that as a factor.

"I think the press are the ones who want to keep punishing me," Franco said. "I don't know, but my guess is most performers or most people in the business will know, OK, it was just a show, and they'll know how shows are put together. It was a bad Oscar presentation and maybe James wasn't into it and maybe there is some fault for that."

With critics' prizes and various awards nominations coming in the next few weeks, the window is fast closing for dark-horse contenders such as Franco and "Spring Breakers." Franco recently failed to gain a supporting actor nomination from the Spirit Awards, which would have seemed his likeliest place to gain traction.

"We're realistic, we know it's a hard movie for the academy," said Aizenberg. She added, "It's all about making sure people are aware and taking it seriously. I think that's the hardest part, we are having fun with this campaign, but we don't want it to just be a big joke."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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