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In-Between Man: An Appreciation of Jon Hamm

Press Play By Lincoln Flynn | Press Play June 5, 2014 at 2:08PM

Call it the “Dad/Uncle” split. Men onscreen may be pseudo-patriarchs, emblematic of some sort of “traditional” order. Conversely, they may be lively, with a possibility of being affable and amusing, like everyone’s favorite uncle.
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Jon Hamm

Three years ago, a supercut video premiered online that compiled all of the times, up to that point, that actor Jon Hamm had said “what?” as Don Draper on the AMC show Mad Men. It did what supercut videos are often meant to do: recognize, decontextualize and repeat a specific motif in film and television for comedic effect. Yet what is most striking when you watch it now is all of the slight contextual/emotional variation that Hamm could get out of one word. It could be construed as a demonstration of Hamm’s wide ranging and detailed capability as an actor, something that usually isn’t required of someone with matinee idol looks.


Likewise, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog also ran a photo slideshow titled “24 Photos of Jon Hamm Making Silly Faces in Nice Clothes,” functioning the same way as the supercut video, this time applicable to Hamm’s public persona. It demonstrates that a) Hamm is, ostensibly, a goofball and b) a dynamic physical expressivity is one of his tools as a performer, just as the “Don Draper Says What” video demonstrates his expressivity with language.

Yet, what is most fascinating about Hamm, beyond the above, is that his stature as an actor and celebrity points to the way leading male actors are often dichotomized. Either they are stoic, austere, and masculine, or they are dynamic, demonstrative, and possibly funny. Of course such a dichotomization isn’t clear-cut, but it reveals something about gender roles in our culture. Call it the “Dad/Uncle” split. Men onscreen may be pseudo-patriarchs, emblematic of some sort of “traditional” order. Conversely, they may be lively, with a possibility of being affable and amusing, like everyone’s favorite uncle. It could be argued that an actor’s longevity depends on whether an actor can switch between these modes, or blend them.

While our notions of masculinity should have room for both types of character, there are still good examples of this dichotomy in action among current leading male actors. Consider Ryan Gosling. While he is an undeniable talent, he has made a transition from being a mercurial performer to a fairly fixed one. During his child-acting days, he was a song-and-dance lad on The Mickey Mouse Club. Then, starting in his late teens he became dynamic and often idiosyncratic in films like The Believer, The Notebook, Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl. Now, in the wake of Drive, he gives more restrained (and limited) performances in things like The Place Beyond the Pines, Gangster Squad and Only God Forgives. While there’s still a chance for him to give performances with more range, it seems as though he has settled into a more controlled phase.

In the opposite direction, consider William Shatner. At the start of his career, he was a more serious, sometimes histrionic actor, appearing in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, The Intruder, and on TV shows like The Twilight Zone or Dr. Kildare. Then he became Captain Kirk on Star Trek, which grew from a cult series to a full-fledged franchise within ten years after its cancellation, due to syndication. Consequently, Shatner became a household name. Not only that, his very demeanor became a known, parodied quantity. At some point Shatner became aware of this and used it to parlay his career. Now he’s William Shatner, an actor who’s in on the joke and more human for it. He has gone from a vainglorious leader to a vainglorious, barely-aging elder who can take a pie in the face.

Hamm seems to be right on top of the “Dad/Uncle” split. Born in St. Louis in 1971, he played a string of bit or supporting roles in movies and TV shows before Mad Men creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner handpicked him to be the show’s lead character in 2007.

Weiner must have recognized a paradoxical quality to Hamm that makes him a near-perfect fit for the role of Don Draper, a creative director for 60’s advertising agency Sterling Cooper whom, despite appearing like what was once (and some still see as) an ideal of American masculinity, was born as Dick Whitman, an illegitimate farm boy who appropriated the identity of his superior officer Donald Draper while serving in the Korean War in order to go AWOL. Through a high-degree of personality compartmentalization, Whitman became “Don Draper” but the character’s deception has slowly and drastically unraveled throughout the series; in recent episodes, he has recognized the need to be more transparent to the people in his life.

Hamm has come to embody the role so well that Weiner has openly said that Draper is a work of collaboration between the actor and showrunner. But as a result of becoming synonymous with the role, Hamm’s work can be disorienting when he doesn’t play Draper. Also, there’s a lack of roles in TV or film that are a) as rich in character as Draper, b) could utilize Hamm’s multifaceted and dual acting style, c) more than “he’s a brilliant maverick with quirky issues” (which is what so many lead males roles are now on TV) and d) prolonged enough to allow for such extensive characterization as a TV character allows At this point, his success playing one of modern television’s most iconic antiheroes could be as much a curse as a blessing.

When looking at performances that Hamm gave in Mad Men episodes at the beginning, in the middle, and near the end of the show’s run, it becomes clear that Hamm’s layered portrayal of Draper has quite possibly made him a better actor. In the series’ inaugural episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Draper is a smart, slick ad man who’s revealed to be deceitful to his wife and family; while it’s a calling card performance, it’s still rather straightforward and un-dynamic. Granted, it was probably designed to be a template performance within a pilot episode, emphasis being put on Draper’s archetypal façade and attitude. But it doesn’t give much indication of what Hamm could or would do later on in the series.

Especially in Season Four’s “The Suitcase”, which may be the series’ best episode, a poignant portrayal of initial grief. By that point, it had been revealed that Dick Whitman befriended Anna Draper, the real Don’s wife, sometime between the Korean War and his advertising career, and  that he considered her to be the only person who really accepted him. But in 1964 she succumbs to cancer and, during “The Suitcase,” Don does his daily work at the agency as he suspects that Anna has passed, dreading making the call in order to find out. Furthermore, work involves coming up with a pitch for Samsonite, which involves harshly coaching his protégé Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) as she goes through her own existential crisis on her birthday.

Mostly a two-header showcase for Hamm and Moss, “The Suitcase” runs the gamut of moods, and Hamm (along with Moss) nails every emotional beat: Draper is stern, reluctant, berating, drunk, amused, amusing, stupidly heroic, wistful, grievous and, in the end, amicable towards Peggy. It’s a remarkable single-episode performance that is likely to be Hamm’s shining moment as Draper if nothing in the upcoming final episodes matches it.

Speaking of final episodes, [GENERAL SPOILERS FOLLOW] Draper has been gradually redeeming himself in the most recent and penultimate season of Mad Men, which has required him to recognize that real personal change comes at the cost of accepting loss and defeat. His marriage to his second wife Megan (Jessica Pare) has fallen apart and, having returned to work after a forced hiatus caused by unprofessional behavior, he has deigned to do copywriting work while being scrutinized by his colleagues. At the same time, he has become more willing to reveal his true self to those in his personal life, which implies that he’s trying to dissolve his double nature. Instead of remaining a poisonous amalgam of different personae, Draper is attempting to be a whole person. Remarkably, even after seeing the character behave horribly for the umpteenth time in Mad Men’s sixth season, Draper’s prolonged, humble pie redemption is believable. This, too, is a result of Hamm’s well-honed versatility in the role, which is layered enough to allow for more positive character development.

Hamm’s attempts to become a leading man for the movies mirror Draper’s transformation somewhat. During Mad Men’s run he has appeared in a variety of films and TV shows, usually to demonstrate his comedic chops in things like 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, Children’s Hospital, A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Bridesmaids. And as the star of last month’s release, Million Dollar Arm, he just barely makes an egocentric sports agent who recruits two Indian kids to be major league pitchers into a tolerable, decent guy through sheer charm. (On paper, the role is less an anti-hero than an “anti-protagonist” that could’ve been an insufferable representation of entitled, insensitive white dudes in the hands of another actor. As is, the movie is a passable yet questionable sports tale that, despite good intentions, privileges the wrong point of view.)

Yet one would hope that Hamm would take a cue from the arc of his most famous creation and try to find roles that befit and synthesize his dualistic, complex qualities as an actor. As the concept of masculinity can be better relativized as a widespread examination of gender politics can correct long-standing issues—call me a Pollyanna but I believe that this is happening more than ever-- we need leading men in our movies and TV shows who can mirror and influence this relativization. Don Draper’s characterization can be interpreted as a deconstruction of traditional manhood that, while it still exists, demonstrates how it can cause interpersonal chaos, just as sociological and psychological studies have demonstrated that emulating traditional gender roles (i.e. men should be tough, emotionless, unnecessarily callous, entitled, powerful and uninvolved in childcare) most often leads to interpersonal problems as well as mental and physical health issues.

Perhaps Hamm may not be fortunate enough to have other roles as successful as Don Draper. But if he has any control over the outcome of his career after Mad Men, he will hopefully find work that suits his talents but also continues to blur the “Dad/Uncle” dichotomization of leading men, which might help to continue to redefine cultural notions of masculinity. We need leading men who can positively destabilize mandated gender roles. So who better than Hamm, the actor who has helped to complicate and reveal old-school manhood as Don Draper, to do just that?

But in case he can’t, maybe Hamm could do what Leslie Nielsen did later in his career: become a full-fledged silly actor. It may not fulfill any ideals presented above, but he would be good at that.

Holding degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic basis at http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

This article is related to: Blogs, Lincoln Flynn, Jon Hamm


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