What makes a ham? For me, it is not merely the kind of bad acting that is always turned up to an unconvincing 11 since the poor player is incapable of anything else. To truly ham it up, to my mind, it has to be intentional; an actor possessing a certain level of skill and nuance, but who for whatever reason has decided to cast restraint to the wind and lean in to the absurdity of the part, throwing everything over the top for the sheer fun of it. Dictionary definitions might disagree, and that is okay; the line between ham and Hamlet can be a fine one, and while most of us know a ham when we see one, we might be hard pressed to pin down the exact ingredients. The examples herein are not wafer thin, watery slices of supermarket ham, all reconstituted earlobe and pink food colouring. This is bone in, hormone free, lovingly reared piggy; the kind of hams that might grace the centre of an upmarket Christmas spread, honey glazed and clove studded, gleaming in the candlelight. Arguably a bit much, will likely give you indigestion later, but in the moment? Delicious.
Nicolas Cage — The Wicker Man
We must start, of course, with the undisputed Lord of All Hams; His Excessiveness Sir Nic Cage. He could, of course, be every entry on a list of twenty, but 2006’s The Wicker Man has the virtue of being a remake of a 1973 folk horror classic. That means we get to compare Cage’s performance to his predecessor, Edward Woodward, with the result resembling the Before & After shots in a ‘Don’t Do Meth’ PSA. While the original is all suspenseful pan pipes, repressed emotion and humming menace, the 21st century update lets Cage loose on a scenery chomping rampage around a mysterious island, troubling beehives and kicking women in the face in his quest for the truth. I can’t claim that this movie is an excellent use of 100 minutes of your life; it’s so bad it’s good, but it’s still pretty bad. Fortunately, you can get the gist in this 6 minute youtube roundup, then forever enjoy screaming ‘HOW’D IT GET BURNED!’ at your significant other every time you forget something in the oven.
Johnny Lee Miller — Elementary
Full disclosure: I’ve fancied the pants off JLM since renting Plunkett & Macleane from the local Blockbuster somewhere around the turn of the millennium. I’ve always been a sucker for a man in a tricorn hat. Yet there’s something weirdly asexual about his swaggering, tattooed Sherlock Holmes, despite spending most of his time next to the otherworldly gorgeousness of Lucy Liu. But what he lacks in pork-ability, he makes up for in sheer, unbridled hamminess, striding around the streets of New York gurning knowingly at suspects and shouting “poppycock” whenever an opportunity presents itself, and often when it hasn’t. Some might object to Johnny’s inclusion on this list when his BBC counterpart, the mighty Cumberbatch, has been omitted. While there’s clearly a great joke about extra ham on your eggs Benedict to be made, I’d argue this one is all about context. Sherlock is one long, perfectly seasoned hamfest, a knowingly camp if tonally dark homage to Conan Doyle’s novels. In this world, everything is heightened, each character teetering on the knife edge of caricature without ever quite slipping over. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is over the top, sure, but only ever a notch above his companions. Meanwhile, in Elementary’s New York, everyday Americans go about the daily business of a police procedural, while a solitary British Farmed Ham cavorts in their midst. Occasionally shirtless.
Tim Roth — Lie to Me
For another English Ham in New York, except actually Washington D.C., look no further than the long ago cancelled Lie to Me. One of several late noughties attempts to emulate the success of House, Tim Roth plays an improbable deception expert named Dr. Cal Lightman (no, really) who can tell fact from fiction by analyzing tiny facial movements. Perhaps to avoid accidentally betraying himself with a ‘microexpression’, Roth ensures all his facial contortions are distinctly macro, leering, jeering and sneering his way through every scene with such violence that he must have pulled an erector muscle. Swaggering around his specially designed interrogation suite pelvis first, arms swinging at knee height like an agitated orangutan, Dr. Lightman reminds us that he is from Laaaandaaaahn by calling everyone “darlin’” or “wanker” whenever his mouth isn’t full of beans on toast. Whether breaking all the rules to get at the truth or conversing with/harassing a long suffering colleague, his eyes gleam with joyful menace: part Fagin, part Artful Dodger, 100% pure ham.
Daniel Craig — Knives Out
A Daniel Craig movie without a single swimwear scene? Pointless, I hear you cry, and yet Knives Out is a rare gem, an old-fashioned romp that’s simply fun in a way the modern blockbuster often fails to be. The entire film is arguably a high end charcuterie platter, with legends like Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Plummer embracing the opportunity to run riot within the comforting confines of a country house murder mystery. But the Mickey Mouse in this particular trap is beyond doubt, from the moment Craig strides into the picture and introduces himself as Benoit Blanc in an accent that drips from his mouth like an unctuous hollandaise. Does Knives Out fall into the Sherlock gap, too irreverent overall to house a grade-A ham? It could well have done. But Craig as Blanc is a juicy enough joint to stand out amongst even the most decadent feast. When James Bond is delivering an extended donut metaphor with full cajun-tinged commitment…you could put him in front of a whole chorus line of Nic Cages and he’d still steal the show.
Here’s hoping you found some joy in this little ham selection pack. But there are many more classic examples out there. Who are your all time favourite hams?