Armie Hammer’s star has never burned brighter than when one BuzzFeed writer suggested it burned out completely.
If Armie Hammer’s publicists were hoping that his critically praised turn in Call Me By Your Name would lead to headlines, then perhaps they should have been more specific: somewhere buried deep within some drawer of his talent agency’s offices, a single finger curled downwards on a monkey paw. On Sunday, BuzzFeed published a feature-length piece titled ‘Ten Long Years of Trying To Make Armie Hammer Happen,’ a piece that attempted to position the actor’s career within the context of a series of Hollywood comebacks. To me, Anne Helen Peterson’s essay was an engaging – if not somewhat reaching – piece on how stars are manufactured, not born, and Peterson’s approach of digging into old interviews scratched a long-standing itch of mine. It was a piece I enjoyed reading, and I promptly shared it with my own audience on Twitter.
Come Monday, though, the narrative around Peterson’s piece had solidified in an unexpected way. Hammer himself had addressed the piece on social media, calling Peterson’s chronology “spot on” but describing the author’s tone as “bitter AF,” choosing to delete his Twitter account shortly afterward. This led Slate to publish a piece titled ‘Man Up and Reactivate Your Twitter, Armie Hammer,’ and, well, things progressed as expected from there. Now do a search for ‘Armie Hammer’ on Twitter, and it seems like everyone has something to say about the piece, most of it coming out in support of the actor. And while there are some valid criticisms of Peterson’s writing in the mix – especially ones that argue Peterson should have spent more time on the studios and less time on Hammer as an individual – I cannot help but wonder why this profile of all pieces seems to be on the brunt end of so much vitriol.
First, since it bears noting: I would describe myself as a pretty big fan of Armie Hammer. I was first introduced to the actor in the second season of The CW’s Reaper, where Hammer played the playboy son of Ray Wise’s Satan (exactly the sort of trust-fund-ne’er-do-well that Peterson points to in her BuzzFeed piece). In just a few short episodes, Hammer left a huge impression; he had the looks and easy charm of a Hollywood leading man, and I was convinced that I was looking at the Next Big Thing in Hollywood. When Hammer’s movie career seemed to get stuck in a permanent holding pattern, I voiced my concern that Hollywood was wasting the potential of one of its brightest stars-to-be. Still, I never gave up hope. Hell, as the former Weekend News Editor at ScreenCrush, I even wrote about some of Hammer’s less-impressive theatrical releases as a thin excuse to sing the man’s praises. Should I ever be forced to pick sides between BuzzFeed and Armie Hammer’s acting career to-date, I’d gladly declare myself a member of #TeamHammer.
Which is partially why I find myself so confused at the criticism levied at Peterson’s piece. What surprised me so much about the BuzzFeed article was not the hard stance the author took against the celebrity of Hammer – I gently disagree with her assessment of his talent – but how the article seemed to be received as a character assassination instead of a thoughtful analysis of how Hollywood publicity works. Throughout the article, Peterson uses Hollywood ephemera – celebrity interviews, profiles, and puff pieces – to paint a picture of the manufacturing of a Hollywood star, irrespective of Hammer’s talent. I’ve always enjoyed film historiography as much as film history; our constant evaluation and reevaluation of Hollywood means that the de facto “history” of a celebrity is in a constant state of flux. And understanding the way they were promoted to an audience can go a long way towards shining a light on the industry itself.
That’s what resonates with me about the Hammer piece. Not the assertion that the actor represents all that is wrong with Hollywood – those last few paragraphs in particular creak and groan under the weight of the argument they’re trying to support – but the effort Peterson puts into understanding how Hammer’s publicists worked to make the man a star. The article is littered with delightful little touches that show how Hollywood tries to keep its rising stars in the middle of the road. There are the insights into Hammer’s J. Edgar press tour, where Hammer’s no-nonsense answers about his character’s sexuality were tempered by regular references to his fairytale domestic life. Or the curious lack of an Armie Hammer media blitz leading up to the release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., one of the few blockbuster movies from the past few years that deserved better than its lackluster fate. These don’t stand as critical evaluations of the man’s work or even his character, but like many good historiographical studies, they take an assumed statement of fact – “Armie Hammer Should’ve Been a Star By Now” – and poke and prod at the corners to reveal the competing narratives underneath.
Now, one could certainly make a compelling argument that Peterson’s piece focuses too much on Hammer as the exclusion of Hollywood power structures – a point made by writers like Ira Madison III as the controversy took on its own legs – but that pointed criticism seems lost somewhere amidst the disgust. It might not be an overstatement to say that the critical response has done more to solidify Hammer’s star power than any of his wide release films; some of the biggest names in the industry have called the piece everything from “joyless” to “bad” to flat-out “garbage,” and subsequent articles recognizing the opportunity for an old-fashioned pile on – here’s looking at you, Slate – have only solidified the negative reactions to Peterson’s piece. I don’t begrudge anyone their strong opinions about BuzzFeed, Armie Hammer, or the piece in particular, but in this case, I can’t help but wonder if we turned a conversational jumping off point into a line in the sand.