Jon Hamm Is a Great Actor, So Why Can’t He Find Another Great Role?

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In his latest movie, “Marjorie Prime,” Jon Hamm plays a hologram who gives tender therapeutic advice to the aging lady he was once married to (it’s complicated), and if that doesn’t strike you as exciting, you’re not alone. The movie is a precious indie bauble that has already whiffed at the specialty box office. Hamm is crafty and spry in it; you might say — as some have — that it’s an adventurous role for him, in the same way that playing a violent sociopath with choppy shaved hair in “Baby Driver” was an adventurous role for him. These characters aren’t what we “expect” from Jon Hamm, so they make it look like he’s in there, trying on audacious things and working it. The question is: Why does Jon Hamm now look like he’s trying so hard?

I think what I’m asking is: Why isn’t Jon Hamm a movie star? It’s an awkward question to pose, because we all know the entertainment industry doesn’t mint movie stars the way it once used to. It now mints franchises that are bigger than any one star. Beyond that, Jon Hamm’s image as an actor rests on a television series that, as much as any series in the history of the medium, proved that television could vibrate with an artistic electricity heady and bold enough to rival that of any contemporary movie. To presume that Hamm, after “Mad Men” (which ended in 2015), should have “graduated” to the movies may sound like outdated or even patronizing thinking.

Yet let’s be honest: If you compare him to the two other greatest actors of the new golden age of television, Bryan Cranston and the late James Gandolfini, Hamm, on “Mad Men,” had a tall-dark-and-handsome sharky elegance combined with a glamorous film-noir danger that made him seem, uniquely, like the 21st-century version of a classic movie star (think Robert Mitchum with a touch of Gregory Peck).

His look alone — the inky perfect hair, the thrusting chin and reluctant smile, the killer eyes that could melt or freeze you — was worthy of 007. Beyond that, Hamm inhabited Don Draper’s slithery soul in a way that invited the audience into a fascinating complicity with him. Over those years, I read a lot of great “Mad Men” recaps, but a blind spot shared by more than a few of them was the tendency to judge Don’s sins from on high, and to presume that the show viewed his hungry and often illicit soul with that same moralistic detachment. I’d argue that the ambiguous glory of “Mad Men” was how much it submerged the audience in Don’s point-of-view, and it was Hamm’s sonorous force as an actor that allowed that.

It’s that force that’s been waiting to be unleashed, to find a role — a great role — ever since the show ended. We now inhabit a culture so fickle that there are those who would write off Hamm as a one-hit wonder. (I expect to read a comment to that effect within 10 minutes of this column being posted.) But I don’t buy it. Hamm will be a true star again. In the years since “Mad Men,” however, it’s become more and more apparent why he’s fumbling around in movies that aren’t worthy of him.

He is, for one, a grown-up actor in a universe that’s increasingly kiddiefied; almost surely, he would have done better several decades ago. Yet Hamm’s biggest sticking point in terms of casting is tied to the very quality that made him so enthralling on “Mad Men”: He’s a victim of Intellectual Actor Syndrome. For all his swarthy allure, he’s an intensely brainy and articulate actor who leads, in spirit, from the neck up, and whose excitement and danger reside in his thoughts. That requires a script that can channel, through words, the actor’s energized quality of mind. Without it, he comes off as a ghost of himself.

Hamm seemed to get off to a good start on the big screen, giving an ace performance as the FBI Special Agent on the tail of the Fenway Park heist plotters in Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” which was released in 2010, during the height of “Mad Men” mania. But in the cause of “stretching,” he has made a number of bad choices, taking on roles that detracted from his mystique — like the part of Allen Ginsberg’s defense attorney in “Howl” (not a bad role, but the movie was too scrubby and earnest), or the fish-out-of-water sports agent who journeys to India to find a superstar pitcher in Disney’s innocuously inspirational “Million Dollar Arm.” There’s a value to not being overexposed, and Hamm, by saying yes to routine movies like these, made himself seem common, a gun-for-hire, part of the general scenery. I realize that actors have to work, but if the roles you choose end up dulling your brand, then they may not be worth the price.

Hamm has begun to seem like a supporting guy on the fringes, when what he really needs is a daring part that places him at the dead center of the action, a role built around his cutthroat fluency. Sure, you can’t cast somebody who looks like Jon Hamm as just anybody, but off the top of my head, I can think of any number of characters that he’d be perfect for.

It’s easy to imagine him taking on the Henry Fonda role of the U.S. president who goes through the negotiation of his life in a remake of “Fail Safe” (1964), Sidney Lumet’s great countdown-to-oblivion thriller, tailored to these neo-nuclear times. Or playing the shady hero of one of Woody Allen’s serious dramas about an ordinary man caught in a dark web of his own devising (“Match Point,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). And while some will surely say that Hamm, at 46, is too old for the part, I say: Cast him as Superman! Why not have the Man of Steel be a man instead of an overgrown pin-up, especially given that Henry Cavill has about one-ten-thousandth the charisma?

You should never give up the hope that Hollywood will make a romantic comedy for adults, and wouldn’t it be enticing to see Hamm star in one of them opposite an actress like Cate Blanchett? The sparks, and wit, could fly. Can Hamm sing and dance? He’s been brilliantly funny, and shown an effortless light touch, on “Saturday Night Live,” so I’m betting that he might have the talent to hold down a contempo post-“La La Land” musical. And there’s a juicy biopic that should really have his name on it: a movie about the wild, sordid, besotted life — especially the later years — of Errol Flynn. (There’s a Flynn movie in the works, but it’s an “action-adventure” that takes off from an episode in Flynn’s youth, leaving room for a much deeper dive into who he was as a star.) Also, this will probably sound insane, but I think Hamm would be an inspired choice to play Frank Zappa.

How do you land a role of ambition and audacity and white-hot buzz? After “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm should have had the world eating out of his hand. In the two years since, he has squandered some of that capital, but even so, there has to be a daring director out there — David O. Russell? Kathryn Bigelow? Paul Thomas Anderson? — who would kill to create a perfect role for him.

A character like Don Draper is, of course, a tough act to follow, and Hamm may be doing all he can to shake himself free of it, in the same way that Sean Connery, in the ’70s, went to elaborate lengths to shake himself free of James Bond. But Hamm would now do well to ponder the very qualities in himself that Don Draper brought out: the adman showmanship, the hound-dog cunning, the hint of mercilessness held behind a witty façade of civility. You can only play Don once, but Hamm, going forward, shouldn’t feel like he has to run from him. If he does, that may be an actor running from himself.

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  1. Lassie B says:

    Bad choices, I think. Maybe his drinking IRL is holding him back? Too many superheroes in tights movies for teenagers? Mad Men would be a very hard act to follow, and actors in the BIG movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) …..well, they, like John Hamm, still ‘work’ in show business. They can never, ever recapture that lightning in a bottle.

  2. mremanne says:

    I just finished reading an action suspense novel called “The Risk Agent”, and the whole time I was reading it I was imagining Hamm as the leading character, John Knox. Hamm is getting a little old for action movies, but I think he’s still in good enough shape to pull it off. The character would be a great tentpole project, as a movie or limited episode TV series. What Hamm may need most is new representation.

  3. IndyMom says:

    Jon Hamm IS a great actor. This article assumes that a great role has to exist in a movie blockbuster, like “Spider Man” or James Bond, but great roles are everywhere in all forms of media. I like that Jon Hamm has made thoughtful, intelligent, and comedic choices since “Mad Men” appearing in series like “Black Mirror” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” I’m pleasantly surprised when I watch a movie like “Absolutely Fabulous” and there’s Jon Hamm! He’s done quite a lot since “Mad Men.” Yes, Don Draper was an iconic role, but the audience needs to move on. Jon Hamm has.

  4. Mona says:

    With respect to a show I found very entertaining in its early seasons: Suits could never, ever do justice to Jon Hamm. I think he’d make a brilliant lawyer character but this show isn’t good enough for him. It’s a bunch of good-looking people in suits creating drama with not much depth to the characters. I could definitely see him in The Good Fight…. But I’m not sure how they would write a character worthy of Hamm’s caliber into this already very well-cast show either.

  5. Vinod says:

    Jon Hamm is a modern day Jack Lemmon. He has that kind of range to play parts ranging from The Out of Towners through Days of Wine and roses. If only movies were scripted that way now . . . not boring kid’s stuff.

  6. Acely says:

    I love that man and his masculinity head to toes. His moves, his voice, his looks…OLD HOLLYWOOD STYLE! And i agree with you 100%. I´m waiting for that dramatic performance, or a romantic comedy, because i love his humor. I think it´s a matter of time, and it will happen. He is very much loved…

  7. Ranee says:

    Whatever Jon Hamm does – I’ll watch it. Whatever he says I’ll listen. Whatever he doesn’t say really does it -he doesn’t need to say a word looking that good! Whatever he’s wearing, well… he’s the man of the decade, handsome, debonair and good looking – what more could a girl want? He is Superman x a million – Suit him up, cape him, but keep him in the minds of women across the globe who adore him. Please, do this before he gets old..er…. I shouldn’t have changed my phone number, now he’ll never be able to reach me. Keep him on the big screen – he makes it look soooooo good! Love from me in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

  8. Luke says:

    What about a role in Suits? He could easily play a role on there with the same allure as mad men.

    • Mona says:

      With respect to a show I found very entertaining in its early seasons: Suits could never, ever do justice to Jon Hamm. I think he’d make a brilliant lawyer character but this show isn’t good enough for him. It’s a bunch of good-looking people in suits creating drama with not much depth to the characters. I could definitely see him in The Good Fight…. But I’m not sure how they would write a character worthy of Hamm’s caliber into this already very well-cast show either.

  9. Norm Dill says:

    Or maybe the women have conflated a sexual attraction to Ham and a current day taboo attraction to the character of Don Draper with acting chops?

  10. DEKE RIVERS says:

    He is too old. It is all about sequels and they need younger actors.

  11. Donna Heywood says:

    Jon Hamm for James Bond. He is the one for the role. He has the look all the way!!

  12. Bonnie L Garner says:

    He is so handsome and talented. I loved Mad men. He would make a great James Bond

  13. Donna W. Turner says:

    He’d make a fabulous Rhett Butler

  14. Dr. Hospital says:

    It could be neat to see him star in something with Sam Rockwell

  15. Jackie Lewis says:

    I’d love to see him on the big screen and not doing handr block commercials. Great actor.

  16. Well you certainly can’t buy this kind of publicity (unless of course his reps did somehow). But I agree with the article, and I think it rather a Valentine to Jon Hamm. Not every actor generates this kind of article in this publication. I hope he sees it that way. And I also hope the next big chapter of his career comes sooner than later. I too believe he’s not only an actor but a Star.

  17. I’ve said this before and will say it once again – and the fact the franchise is mentioned at least twice in the article adds a touch of kismet – if Jon Hamm can pull off a British accent the way Hugh Laurie sounded American in “House”, the Jon Hamm should be the next James Bond.
    If you read the Fleming novels Hamm channels the deeply flawed spy’s physical and spiritual aura better and any of the previous 6 actors who’ve played the part. Talk about a challenge?! I’m a Craig fan and like the edge he brought back to the series. I know hes a short timer but I’ve seen the list of potential replacements and shake my head and stifle a yawn (the Cavill Superman indictment applies to James Bond as well). I hope this is something Barbara Broccoli would consider. The combination of svelte ego and conflicted vulnerability Hamm could bring to the role makes me want to start a website.

  18. loco73 says:

    Wow, some of the comments here sound quite personally bitter as if Jon Hamm murdered someone’s cat or something.

    Maybe if he joined some brain dead superhero franchise he would be better off financially and careerwise.

    Otherwise, perhaps he should seek roles in the medium that brought him to the public’s attention in the first place, television. There really is no more slumming in TV these days. There are enough projects outhere that could benefit from Hamm’s casting. And with the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, he surely has more avenues than just networks or cablers.

    Would have loved to see him in Fincher’a newest Netflix project, “Mindhunter” . Hey, HBO is going ahead with “True Detective” season three…he would make a great lead together with Mahersala Ali…

  19. Beth S says:

    I love what Jon Hamm is doing. His Baby Driver role has him taking the unpredictable route and shaking up his gorge stereotype. I can’t wait to see what he’s in next.. that’s what will make me go to the movies

  20. He would be a box office draw as 007! Hes great.

  21. Spinelli says:

    Or maybe that’s not the career he wants. Movie stars tend to have really boring careers. They get straitjacketed into certain roles and, for an actor, that has to be dull. (This is even true of those that try to break out the straitjacket–look at Johnny Depp, whose “quirkiness” has settled into self-parody.) No, roles in movies like “Marjorie Prime” or “Howl” will not make him a household name, but they afford him another kind of opportunity to work with actor and/or filmmakers he likes or admires, to lend his name to projects than mean something to him. I saw him at Sketchfest in SF this past January. He was very funny, but there was something else: From my vantage point, I could see into the wings. At one point, I looked over, and there was Hamm, spread out on the floor, elbow up, hand supporting his chin, watching the other performers, laughing and absolutely enthralled. He was clearly delighted to part of the ensemble. People forget, while Don Draper might have been the central character, Mad Men was an ensemble show. Hamm might not have the ego or the desire to make it all about him. And he was in his mid-30s when he found success, old enough not to be distracted by shiny things.

    • Lucy says:

      Touche! He’s a great actor who seems to have a principled mind of his own, charting his own path – which makes him even more intriguing.

  22. Frank says:

    Since there are already superhero movies how bout a fun super dad family movie comedy along the lines of my three sons, Ozzie and Harriet, leave it to beaver, lassie, father knows best.
    G rated.

  23. Meh says:

    “especially given that Henry Cavill has about one-ten-thousandth the charisma?”

    I’m not a fan of Cavill as Superman, but he has more charisma in The Man from UNCLE than Hamm in anything.

  24. Patricia Delvalle says:

    I agree that Jon Hamm should take more time to look over parts he’s offered to be recognized for his great craft. Wonderful actor!

  25. Bobby says:

    Decent, solid actor… not great.

  26. Sandy says:

    He needs a new agent and a new manager. Are men jealous of him and won’t put him in their movies ???!!!!

  27. pickles says:

    I love Jon Hamm.

  28. Mr. Ms. says:

    Hamm is a good actor. A great one in MM. But he fancied himself a comedic actor, too. And so he played against type, too often. (“30 Rock” was great, though)

    The window has not closed, but it is closing.

    He needs a new agent/agency.

    Pronto, Tonto!!!

  29. Lucky says:

    Speaking of Gandolfini and romantic comedies for adults, check out “Enough Said”. As for Hamm, he just got out of an unhappy marriage, is working with some of the finest filmmakers today, and is basically the most handsome man on the planet. I think he’ll be just fine.

  30. bob says:

    He’s a decent actor not a great one. The bottom line is his defining role was on a series that was watched by six people east of San Bernadino and west of the Hudson. I just hope he made some decent investments.

    • Deepdust says:

      I agree that MM was not watched by remotely the number of people that industry-insulated folks think watched. Fringe show when compared to say Clooney in ER, everyone really watched that show.

  31. George Toles says:

    Why the condescending, faux-lofty snarkiness–an epidemic in the comments section? To dismiss the article and/or Hamm’s work in Mad Men in one or two glib sentences is hardly indicative of intellectual curiosity or generosity.

  32. Phillip Ayling says:

    I thought about writing a serious comment, but the article didn’t have enough substance to bounce real thoughts.

  33. Chris says:

    You really need to find a new career you know nothing about movies.

  34. P. Murt says:

    Robert Mitchum would eat Hamm for lunch. In Mad Men Hamm was playing a wimp who looks like a shark, and uses his looks to hide his weakness. But the viewer sees him as a pathetic worm. Actors defined as weak in the eyes of the audience like that don’t become movie stars… he’ll always be associated with being spineless.

    • Juan motie says:

      Seriously? You need to stop with your armature critic review. Hamm played the part exactly the way you described. He ment to play it that way. So he was superb. That is want you call talent. Sorry that you are intimidated by his skill.

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