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Film & Music: HAMMY HORROR: Kiefer Sutherland's baddie in Pompeii is a classic ham turn in the great tradition of theatrical film villains. Stuart Heritage picks his favourite scenery-chewing stars

May 2, 2014



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You might come to Paul WS Anderson's Pompeii for the volcano, but you'll stay for Kiefer Sutherland's Roman baddie. It's a classic panto ham turn; all evil eyeballs and implacably ludicrous accent. It's a treat.

Kiefer qualifies as a ham because he understands the rules of hamminess. Rule one is that he has already established himself as a perfectly capable actor. If he hadn't worked with Lars von Trier and Aaron Sorkin and won Golden Globes and Emmys, people would watch Pompeii and assume that he had completely lost his mind. The second rule is that he knows he's above this. Maybe he's doing it for the money, or because he owes his agent a favour, but he's making up for it by removing all trace of nuance and sincerity from his performance. Last, and most importantly, he's having an absolute ball. Congratulations, Kiefer, you've just joined the great hams of our time. These are your peers . . .

1 Gary Oldman

Finding the definitive Gary Oldman ham performance is like trying to choose which of your children you prefer. Is it Leon, where he managed to add about 12 new syllables to the word "everyone"? Or The Fifth Element, where his accent ebbed and flowed like the veins in his temple? Or Hannibal, where he played an unintelligibly vengeful pig-attack victim? Whatever, the man is a long-term devotee of the art of ham.

2 Frank Langella

There is a moment in 1987's Masters of the Universe where Langella, playing Skeletor, is asked to wear what is essentially a pair of gold antlers and scream with delight as he becomes the ruler of everything in existence. "YES!" he wails, as an enormous intergalactic sphincter opens up behind him. "The power fills me!" Then he shoots laser beams out of his eyes at a topless man. It remains, to this day, his greatest moment.

3 Al Pacino

Thank heavens for the day that

Al Pacino woke up and decided he preferred roaring all his lines, as if he was trying to scare an elk from a distant lawn, to just saying them like a normal person. Imagine Pacino from The Godfather starring in The Devil's Advocate. It'd be awful. But

latter-period Pacino has spent the

past two decades bawling lines as ludicrous as: "A woman's shoulders

are the front lines of her mystique," while daring us to point out how silly he looks. He's got it all figured out.

4 John Lithgow

If you've never seen Cliffhanger, you might assume that John Lithgow is only a moderately hammy actor.

You would be wrong. In Cliffhanger, he uses every single tool in his arsenal to convince the world that nobody has ever hated Sylvester Stallone (or the concept of mountains) more than

him. The best thing about this role

isn't that Lithgow is evil; it's that he may or may not be British. His accent entirely depends on his mood.

An all-out tour de force.

5 Steven Berkoff

Like a weaponised Gary Oldman, Berkoff often gives the impression that he's actually a professional ham. To watch him in Octopussy, or Rambo II, or Fair Game or Rancid Aluminium or 44-Inch Chest or The Tourist is to watch a man completely at odds with the rest of the production.

A man who thinks he's in a

much bigger film. A man who thinks that all the microphones are much further away than they actually are. He is capable of great, experimental acting methods. His genius is trying

to use them in films called

Rancid Aluminium.

6 Robert De Niro

De Niro is a more reluctant ham than Pacino. You get the feeling that he's arrived there more by accident than by design, and you always end up feeling sorry for him - with one exception. That exception is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, an animated/live-action hybrid adaptation of an old Jay Ward cartoon. Perhaps it's because playing a comedy Nazi was liberating, or perhaps it's because he was a producer and nobody could tell him otherwise, but De Niro sprays his performance to the rafters with such unabashed joy that he even manages to reprise his "You talking to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver at one point. Wonderful.

7 Paul Giamatti

Watch him in Downton Abbey or 12 Years a Slave and you'll be struck by the sensation that Paul Giamatti is waging an epic battle against his instincts. Leave Giamatti to it, and he'll naturally start to go large. He roared through Shoot 'Em Up like a man on fire. He placed his Cinderella Man character in territory midway between Jimmy Stewart and Bugs Bunny. He even put a funny slapstick run into Sideways. His next role is a TV series about the misadventures of a homicide detective called Hoke. Based on his previous work, it'll be like watching a firework display.

8 Bryan Cranston

This is speculative but, based purely on the way his eyebrows manage to worm their way across every square centimetre of his face in the trailers, there's a pretty good chance that Cranston will redefine hamminess as we know it in this month's Godzilla remake.

Fingers crossed!

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On the web

Up Pompeii! Our critics go wild for the disaster movie in this week's film show

theguardian.com/film

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Source: Guardian (UK)


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