Thirteen Years & Three Months of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happen
I have a vivid memory of watching The Lone Ranger, co-starring Armie Hammer, in the bedroom built for FLDS polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs. I was in Short Creek, the little of pocket of land that served as the center of the FLDS universe on the border between Utah and Arizona, reporting a story on the women who’d left the religion behind and returned to the area to try and remake their lives. There aren’t any hotels in Short Creek. But there is an Airbnb made out of the compound built for Warren Jeffs’ use upon his release from prison. I didn’t realize until days after I’d already been given my room that it was part of a suite intended for Jeffs and whichever of his many wives were living in close proximity to him at the moment. The walls, the ex-FLDS man who ran the Airbnb told me, were built incredibly thick, with good reason: no one could hear a thing that went on inside.
There was a small grocery store in town and not much else, and every night I’d get some Triscuits, some Sabra hummus, some deli meat, and watch a new Armie Hammer movie in my FLDS Airbnb. I was the only person staying there, at least until the photographer showed up and asked “you’ve been here by yourself for five days?”
A week before, I’d been in Austin for a book event, had been called to cover the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, where a physically and sexually abusive man took his rage out on his ex-mother-in-law’s church, killing 26 people, including several small children. I interviewed the uncle of three of those kids as he stood in the middle of the road, staring into nothing. It was fucking horrible. Then I got on my scheduled flight to St. George, Utah, drove two hours to Short Creek, and spent the week interviewing the survivors of unspeakable polygamous abuse during the day and watching Armie Hammer movies at night.
That was my headspace as I read dozens of profiles and interviews of this man who, at that point, was on his fourth, five, sixth attempt to achieve Hollywood stardom. His story was not novel; any student of Classic Hollywood knows how studios often experimented with stars’ images for years until they figured out what clicked. (Most famously: Cary Grant and Clark Gable). But the history of the studio system is littered with talent the studio didn’t know what to do with, stars who were framed as “box office poison,” or, in the case of the vast majority of black and brown actors, who the studios didn’t believe they could “sell” in the first place. Since the disintegration of the studio system, this scenario has shifted, but slowly: women, especially women of color, usually get one “underperformance,” maybe two, before they become box office poison, blackballed, relegated to television (this used to be a much more dire fate than it is now), or treated as if their last fuckable day had come and gone.
Hammer’s trajectory struck me as particularly egregious as Hollywood as a whole continued to come to terms with #MeToo. Yes, Weinstein and other abusers were being named. But Hammer’s resilience made it clear that the system itself, and the sort of talent it protected and championed, was still very much in place. This was just as true in Short Creek, where a small cadre of remaining FLDS still made life difficult for the remaining FLDS to own property or even register a business with the local city council, as it was in Hollywood. It doesn’t matter if you remove a few bad actors if the integrity of the system itself remains in place.
Fast forward to the end of November, 2017. My piece, entitled “Ten Long Years of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happen,” goes up. To research the piece, I’d spent long hours in the Hammer archive, bought a dozen old magazines off eBay, scoured LexisNexis and ProQuest for old interviews — done what I always do for these star image analyses. I have a PhD in media studies and wrote my dissertation on the history of the celebrity gossip industry, so doing this sort of work is not new to me. But, at least in my pieces for BuzzFeed, I had often chosen to concentrate on stars that I found enduringly interesting, or particularly savvy, or attempting to negotiate a scandal, or embodying a particular ideological contradiction. The Hammer piece was probably the most legibly critical piece of star image analysis I’d written for the site.
I invite you to read the piece in full, because there’s some pretty fascinating bits of image formation and strategy in there, especially all the stuff about the ringworm, but here’s an excerpt of the conclusion:
Looking back at Hammer’s career, it’s fascinating to see just how much agency and independence he claimed for himself growing up, contrasted with how little he says he has had over his working life. He made the decision to drop out of high school; he made the decision to go into acting; he made the decision to not take money from his parents. Hammer liberated himself from his history and the duty that might accompany it, attempting to forge a path for himself the same way that any other actor would in Hollywood.
And yet, for all that personal volition, Hammer’s inability to make himself happen — until now — has never, at least according to him, been his own fault. To blame: the blockbusters he agreed to star in, the critics who panned his films, the activists who doomed his indie breakthrough. Not to blame: an industry calibrated to produce films for men who look like him, or his own judgment in choosing the films that he did, or the director against whom those claims were levied. Armie Hammer didn’t happen for 10 long years because, according to his logic, the system was stacked against him.
Well, of course it was: The “system,” whether Hollywood or American capitalism in general, is stacked against basically everyone. But a small few, including Hammer’s own grandfather, figure out how to manipulate and survive it. What seems to annoy Hammer, then, is that he struggled the same way everyone else — the way women and actors of color in particular — struggle: with shitty options, with publicity that pigeonholes you, with people who only care about your looks, with machinations beyond your control.
Countless stars have fallen into Hammer-like career trajectories and never recovered. Many of those women, spit out by mainstream Hollywood, have crafted nuanced second acts on television, or figured out how to monetize their lifestyles. But none have been afforded the sort of second, and third, and fourth chances that Hammer has been. That’s a privilege afforded men like Hammer’s costar Johnny Depp, or Matt Damon, or Ben Affleck, or Michael Fassbender, or Bradley Cooper, or Ryan Reynolds — or even, in a slightly different way, Mel Gibson. No one gets second chances in Hollywood the way straight white men do.
I think the piece would’ve been a blip if Hammer hadn’t responded to a tweet of it, calling “my perspective bitter AF.”