What does Miley Cyrus's death have to do with James Franco?

Rumours that the pop star was murdered by Disney reveal the apocalyptic nature of the Hollywood dream

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“Couple years back, there were reports that someone had found Miley Cyrus' body way out in East LA, with signs of dehydration, along with bruises on her wrist and neck. It was all over (Californian radio station) KCAL for, like, a day, and then the very next day KCAL apologized for promoting 'blatantly untrue slander.' If anyone can find the video clip, it would be much-appreciated” - anonymous, the 4Chan /x/ board

"We admitted that life is a performance, that we are all performers, at all times – and that our 'performance' had left our control" - Actors Anonymous, James Franco

There are people on the internet who will tell you that Miley Cyrus is dead, although inevitably, reports will vary as to how long ago this occurred – a car accident in 2007, perhaps, or an accidental death in 2012 in her Miami mansion's bathroom, or a drug overdose in January this year after her public party "with molly". But perhaps most alarming of all is the persistent rumour that Disney had Cyrus killed back in 2010 and then dumped her body in the California desert. 

In this narrative, her post-2010 career is explained away as the work of a substitute pulled from the Mouse's half-drugged stable of tenderonies and sutured into a likeness. As proof, proponents offer photographs of 2014-era Cyrus in which her chin and marzipan-sculpted chipmunk cheeks are circled as "telltale" markers of surgery. The reason for her murder is typically cited as being related to sexual abuse  – more often than not, that Cyrus refused to partake in an orgy with Disney executives; otherwise, that the beating resulted from a sadomasochistic sex-game gone wrong – and her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, is often referred to as being complicit.

"I’d take it back in a second,” he told the New York Daily News in 2011, when asked about her involvement with Disney. “For my family to be here and just be everybody okay, safe and sound and happy and normal, would have been fantastic. Heck, yeah. I’d erase it all in a second." 

The internet users who circulate this tinfoil theorem have also dreamed up other, similarly lunatic Hollywood rumours (for instance: that Megan Fox has been swapped for a clone not once, but twice), but this one – like any other classic piece of Paul Is Dead-style conspiracy hokum – intrigues because it requires the reader to buy two suggestions as fact: 1, that the famous are almost totally interchangable, and furthermore, that we barely recognise them as individuals; and 2, that their lives are universally more desirable than our own, and that we – civilians – would change places with them in an instant if the chance were offered to us.

As with any invented "rule", there are easy examples of the opposite within our grasp: think, for instance, of the film star James Franco's recent Pace Gallery show, in which he aped the work of Cindy Sherman. “Mr Franco... is never less than Mr Franco,” wrote Roberta Smith for The New York Times, “his moustache, beard or hairy legs in full view, his face in an expression of studied vulnerability or simply a look-at-me smirk.”  

In many ways, the quality of his output in more "legitimate" arts than movie-acting is largely inconsequential: by far the most interesting thing about him will always be his desire to pass as a polymath, if only because of what this desire means for the validity of the Hollywood dream. Franco is an indisputable success in both independent and mainstream cinema, a former Oscar nominee and ceremony host whose looks have allowed him to front a Gucci campaign, and yet he contents himself with acting either the fool, the greasy frat-boy or the misinterpreted artist. The significance of this schizophrenia-boogie mode of self-expression – the "problem" it represents, if you like – is that the drive to project and "try on" alternate personae (the academic, the ephebophilic social-media skeezeball, the leaden pastiche of a Sherman pastiche of a silver-screen archetype) carries along with it the attendant suggestion that A-List status is somehow Less Than Everything; that being adored is unsatisfying, or incomplete in itself.  

In short, this is more or less the obverse of the Cyrus doppelganger hoax: the idea that a famous person would voluntarily switch their lives with somebody – anybody – else.

If Sherman were to be murdered by an irate dealer, would Franco step up willingly for reconstruction and reassignment and take her place? At its core, this is no more or less absurd than the Miley Cyrus replacement, unless we allow ourselves to believe that a popular media figure is "better" than a popular artist. Adopting Sherman's identity – or the identity of any heavyweight artist, for that matter – will not ensure a surge of coverage on MTV or TMZ or in Heat magazine: it will only bestow the pedestrian gift of respectability. Would he change his name and gain 50 pounds for the chance of passing as a common-or-garden student at Columbia? This is a more realistic proposition, although less glamorous: as a civilian, he could at least sleep in a lecture without being photographed doing it.

What, then, is the difference between Franco and Cyrus – between a role that the film star longs to escape, and the role the civilian dreams of inhabiting? For all of her bawdy behaviour, Miley Cyrus is non-subversive enough to remain an icon of mainstream appeal, instead of a knowingly-postmodern jokester like Franco, and this, perhaps, is where the two examples diverge: it is easier to imagine Cyrus as the subject of feverish teenage ambition, however misguided this longing might be.

(“I have played so many different characters,” the actor writes in his second novel, “that acting is hardly different than living.” He is, at least, aware of his own duplicity.)

When Nick Cave, in "Higgs Bosun Blues", sings that “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake” and “Hannah Montana does the African savannah / As the simulated rainy season begins”, he gives the impression of a coming apocalypse; likewise, the notion that a nameless girl would give up her face – and her identity, wholesale – for the chance at being Cyrus is vaguely apocalyptic in and of itself. Ultimately, we decide that the pop star still lives; that James Franco is still The Actor James Franco, and not Cindy Sherman or Bret Easton Ellis, or a peacefully-slumbering student, for that matter; that Sherman herself still adopts new personae, for different-but-similar reasons; that people on the internet are occasionally insane. It's also the case that it doesn't much matter to us if this Miley Cyrus is the same Miley Cyrus as the one who played Hannah Montana. She is, and she isn't – this is the very nature of adolescence. It gives us all a black-and-blue beating and leaves us stranded in some desert, somewhere.  

“A lot of people,” the singer told Tavi Gevinson for Elle magazine earlier this year – maybe speaking in a voice which sounds somehow different from the one on the Disney Channel – “when I started this transition in my life, encouraged me to be very free. But when I started to free myself, they very quickly wanted to put me back in my cage again. They were like, 'Okay, well, fly – but don’t fly too far; don’t get too high...' I use myself as, like, a sacrifice for my fans, to be like: 'Look, I'm like you!'”

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