Thursday, July 26, 2007

Director's Commentary: Canned Ham

I have a confession to make. It's not an easy one to make having studied acting and getting my degree in theatre. Most of the time, a good 99 percent of the time in fact, I enjoy the subtleties and nuances of a great performance. The great actors, from Katherine Hepburn to Jimmy Stewart, from Bergman to Brando, from Stanwyck to De Niro, are the filet mignons of the acting world and I enjoy feasting at their table with a nice, rich burgandy. But I confess, every now and then I get a hankering for a Cherry Coke and a slice of ham. And a great ham performance can sometimes leave you with a feeling of invigoration that all the nuance in the world can't match. And so now, allow me to humbly propose the first five inductees into The Ham Hall of Fame, each honored with a salt-cured Piggies Plaque.

Introduction to The Five Piggies

It is only fair, at the outset, to distinguish between a bad ham actor and a good ham actor. A bad ham actor is a woefully limited actor who over emotes (badly) and inflects his words adamantly in every performance because it's all he knows how to do. Think Richard Dix. His hammed up performances don't fill me with joy, they make me wince. A good ham actor is an actor of considerable skill who because of his abilities can go over the top in ways lesser actors can only dream about. The good ham actor exudes an energy that shoots off the screen and smacks you in the face. In short, a good ham actor is a great actor who knows how and when to take things over the top. Think Charles Laughton.

1. This little piggy went to market

And speaking of Charles Laughton, I have always considered his performance as Captain Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty as a great moment in ham history. In the later versions, with Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins, Bligh is portrayed as an impatient and rigid disciplinarian. Here he is portrayed as the son of Satan. Not only is it written as an evil character (he wants shipmates to hang even after it is clear there were not involved in the mutiny) but Laughton plays him with such a relish for malevolence that if the film had employed a scene whereby Fletcher Christian (a very non-British Clark Gable) walked in on Bligh eating a roasted baby it would not have surprised the audience. With Laughton one does not get subtle glances, one gets arched eyebrows and long telegraphed stares. There is no nuanced twitch of the lip but a dour frown drooping down to the floorboards. It's a great ham performance in an entertaining film. The film also comes packaged with two other treats: Clark Gable not even attempting an English accent as Fletcher Christian and Franchot Tone looking so unrugged, with arms so spindly and a chest bordering on concave, you would expect he would die from frailty after one day at sea. Other notable pork chops for Laughton would be The Big Clock and Witness for the Prosecution.

2. This little piggy stayed at home

If you've seen The Rose Tattoo you probably recognize how wonderful Anna Magnani is in the lead. From beginning to end she doesn't seem like she is acting, almost as if a real person had wandered onto the set in front of the cameras as they were rolling. You probably noticed something else too: Burt Lancaster as Alvaro Mangiacavallo. Holy crap! Hit the road intimate character insights, here comes Burt as Alvaro. In many scenes, like when Alvaro shows Serafina the rose tattoo on his chest while laughing cartoonishly ( HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA ), Serafina looks bewildered by Alvaro. It's tempting to think that this was not a part of Magnani's performance but simply that of Magnani the actress thinking to herself, "Why in the hell is he ACTING so much?" Alvaro is played as a bumbling buffoon by Lancaster with every line delivered at the top of his lungs. Lancaster doesn't play the role to the balcony, he plays it to the moon. At first, you're stunned by the obvious theatrics Lancaster employs to play the role but by the end Lancaster has actually endeared you to the character. Ah, the mark of a great ham.

3. This little piggy had roast beef

Now let's go to one of the all time great actresses. She played many a role to perfection, and while she is known as a grand movie diva she is not known as a ham. But there is one performance that stands out as a definite finalist for the Ham Hall of Fame. I'm speaking of none other than Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. In this film she holds back absolutely nothing. There isn't a hint of underplaying to be found in a single frame. Three moments stand out. The first comes after Blanche (Joan Crawford) complains that Jane wouldn't be able to treat her badly if she wasn't in a wheelchair to which Jane (Bette Davis) blusters, "But ya ARE Blanche, ya ARE!" The second would be the famous moment where Blanche discovers what her next meal is - it's not chicken. That's when Bette let's out a sustained cackle that takes away the horror of the scene and just makes you start laughing with her. And finally, my personal favorite, when Victor Buono accompanies her on piano as she sings "I've Just Sent a Letter to Daddy." The result is a visual and aural salute to the ham. Looking like a forgotten baglady but nonetheless impersonating a little girl it's a wonder to behold. For that number alone she should have gotten an Oscar, or at least some acknowledgement of the guts it had to take to do that in front of the entire crew.

4. This little piggy had none

Now we go to an actress playing an actress. In a roundabout way, it's connected to the last movie. This time it's Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Joan Crawford herself never hammed it up nearly as much as Faye Dunaway did playing her. Obviously there's the "No more wire hangers EVER!" scene and if you don't know that one by now you have a talent at blocking out pop culture that is enviable. But there are so many others. My personal favorite is her meeting with the Pepsi Board of Directors: "Don't f*ck with me fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo." I don't know if Joan Crawford was really like this or not I just know that Dunaway, clearly by design, provides absolutely no transitions between "normal" Joan and "enraged" Joan. When Dunaway gets angry in the film it is sudden and blunt. And in the meantime Dunaway makes sure her eyes bulge and her chin quivers. Every emotion she has she projects from a mile away. She's sad, head shakes violently. She's angry, veins burst from forehead. She's happy, ... oh wait, that doesn't happen much. It's a great ham performance. Someone put a slice of pinapple on her back and start glazing.

5. And this little piggy went... "Wee wee wee" all the way home

My final inductee on the list is also an actor of considerable skill. Enough skill in fact that he has made this virtual train wreck of a movie watchable to me again and again. I'm speaking of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula (this movie is also notable for having a second, supporting, ham performance by Anthony Hopkins, practically baying at the moon as Dr. Van Helsing). Gary Oldman makes the Count irrepressably watchable. When Harker (Keanu Reeves, yes, Keanu Reeves) cuts himself shaving Oldman manages to compress five or six facial expressions into two seconds as he licks the blood off of the razor. Hidden under layers of make-up and a wig stolen from Daisy Moses' giveaway pile Oldman nevertheless makes himself known. With his trembling hands, that sonorous old-man chuckle, the look of panic when cornered and full-throttle release of anguish when he has lost his love, Oldman fills the role with such a physical relish it's quite possible it is one of the few film performances in existence visible from space. And all of this had to have been made all the more difficult having to do so many scenes with Reeves who achieves a kind of "anti-ham" performance here, a benchmark of sorts in mangled accents and wooden stammering. The movie itself is so visually excessive that any lesser of a performance wouldn't have even been noticed.

Bacon Wrap

And so we wrap up the first five inductees. There's plenty more to choose from but space and time demand I stop here. And if you're ever in the mood for a nice thick slice of honey-roasted ham be sure to check out any one of the above. Just make sure you've got lots of Cherry Coke. You're going to need it to wash it all down.