If you’ve spent any time on social media these past few weeks, you’ll know that the internet has a new boyfriend. Going by the unbelievably opulent moniker of Armie Hammer (his namesake, grandfather Armand, was an industrialist who became part owner of Arm & Hammer purely for rich-person kicks), this all-American square-jaw is having a long overdue moment.
Though he first came to prominence at the beginning of the decade, playing Harvard douchebros Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in David Fincher’s The Social Network, it’s only now that Hammer is truly blowing up. And he may be due an Oscar nomination, too: Hammer’s lively, deceptively complex performance in Luca Guadagnino’s new queer masterpiece Call Me by Your Name, is that good.
It may seem ironic that, after the actor has already headlined several huge tentpoles, Guadagnino’s $3.5 million indie is the movie to at last deliver on Hammer’s star potential. Following his breakout dual turn in The Social Network, Hammer was promoted immediately to blockbuster lead; after Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar Hoover biopic J. Edgar, Hammer appeared in the candy-colored Snow White-reimagining Mirror Mirror ($85 million), the bloated action-western The Lone Ranger ($250 million), cult spy thriller The Man from UNCLE ($75 million) and most ignominiously, the Entourage movie, which representative as much as any film could be of the pungently superficial worst of the movie business.
That Hammer’s star seemed to fade in this period wasn’t just because the films weren’t very good; he barely registered in them, either. Between 2011 and 2016—the year he course-corrected back into mid-tier projects and indies—you’d be forgiven for forgetting who Armie Hammer even was. But what Hollywood initially did with Hammer makes sense: This is an industry that has forever conflated image with ability, and in this topsy-turvy world, regular-looking guys with leading-man charisma like Michael Shannon become supporting stars while chiselled character actors are pigeonholed as bland leading men.
We’re conditioned to believe someone who looks like Hammer doesn’t deserve to just wallow in the kind of lesser-seen independent movies that his Call Me by Your Name co-star Michael Stuhlbarg typically books. A longtime lead in the theater world, Stuhlbarg didn’t get his break in the movies until he was 41, where Hammer was fast-tracked for franchise fame seemingly from the moment he set foot in Hollywood at the age of 19.
A century of matinee idol worship has taught us that such a face as Hammer’s belongs on billboards, and that a body like his—pampered and moulded like wagyu cattle by a multimillion-dollar upbringing—ought to be displayed on the most screens in the best blockbusters money can buy. WASP-ishly handsome, Hammer appears tailor-made for the kind of career Hollywood singles out for its most beautiful (and, almost always, white) men: one that asks they coast in big-money projects on their looks, charm and little of the raw acting talent that got them in the game in the first place.
The problem, as Hollywood has been late to discover, is that Armie Hammer isn’t a cookie-cutter movie star, but a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man. There’s something a little bit off about him, whether he’s publicly berating a Buzzfeed author over her theory that his regular guy image is just a construct or showing a liking for BDSM when he thinks no one is looking. Watch him dancing in this glorious clip from Call Me by Your Name: he’s too goofy to be taken seriously as a Prince Charming or Lone Ranger, even if physically he might be mistaken for a match.
Hammer just doesn’t appear comfortable in the role of the squeaky-clean hero figure—but give him a part that challenges this archetype, or that deconstructs Armie Hammer-style privilege, and he shines. This was apparent in The Social Network, though perhaps those that subsequently tried to make Hammer the next Tom Cruise missed the subtleties of the performance(s). On their surface, the Winklevii are Ivy League perfection, but beneath there’s shades of entitlement, smug masculinity afforded by a lifetime of privilege—and vulnerability.
Hammer’s charmed existence (including his ability to spring back repeatedly from career failure), as observed in that Buzzfeed piece, is clearly something the actor has wrestled with. He’s too awkward about his own identity to successfully play icons of white, handsome masculinity, and his apparent desire to prove there’s more to him than what we see has informed his best performances—which have come in smaller, more character-driven movies.
In Ben Wheatley’s action comedy Free Fire, his ultra-capable nice guy exterior betrays a sly psychopathy; in Tom Ford’s queasy thriller Nocturnal Animals, his model-perfect alpha male husband radiates a dreaded mid-life ennui; and in Call Me by Your Name, Hammer’s outwardly jock-ish Oliver is initially ogled as a sex object and treated as an airhead by Timothee Chalamet’s Elio, only for the character—and the actor—to gradually reveal unknown depths. In all of these roles, and in Call Me by Your Name especially, Hammer happily upends our notions of what to expect from someone who looks like Armie Hammer. Has Hollywood finally realized that there’s more?