We critics don’t show enough reverence for a certain kind of ham acting, which can represent not just self-indulgence but relish, boldness, and a splendid absence of shame. Two titanically hammy performances bring that home, both by actors also playing hams: Al Pacino as a spent, delusional old Shakespearean in The Humbling and Patrick Stewart as an aging dance professor in Match. This is hamming as the royal road to catharsis—purge hamming.
The Humbling is from one of Philip Roth’s leaner, more exhibitionistic novels, a tantrum over age and impotence, a rage against the dying of the dick. It’s not his finest hour, but he’s Philip Roth and has earned his self-pity (and hamminess). In Barry Levinson’s film (Buck Henry and Michal Zebede did the adaptation), Pacino is stage star Simon Axler, who tells anyone who’ll listen that he awoke one day to find his talent simply gone — poof — and who one night ends a halting delivery of Jaques’s famous self-pitying soliloquy (“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”) by flinging himself into the orchestra pit. It’s not just that he can’t be emotionally truthful onstage. He has no idea if he’s even being emotionally truthful in life. As he’s wheeled into the hospital on a gurney, he tries out different moans on a nurse and asks which sounds more real.
Pacino in low doses can be fulsome, and this is 10,000 cc’s of super-concentrated Al and his patented air of electrified stuporousness — which means it’s always on the border between thrilling and insufferable. But he’s an unusually generous solipsist, often playing straight man to Greta Gerwig (less strenuously adorable than usual), as the lesbian goddaughter who seduces him, and Dianne Wiest, as her horrified actress mother. Stage wonder Nina Arianda finally gets a decent screen role as a bananas fellow psychiatric patient who wants to hire Simon (he once played a hit man onscreen) to kill her husband — Arianda finds the through lines in disintegrated psyches. The climax has the unfortunate effect of echoing Birdman, but The Humbling isn’t weighed down by Birdman’s magic-realist pretensions and is much better at showing a once-superheroic figure at the end of his tether.
Patrick Stewart strides through the first part of Match (written and directed by Stephen Belber, based on his three-character play) like a camp colossus, extolling the grandeur of dance and flinging a limp wrist at a couple (Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard, both very fine) who’ve traveled to his Inwood apartment ostensibly to interview him for a dissertation. I cringed a bit during the first half-hour, when Stewart’s gestures come close to hitting the camera, and he’s one of those Brits (Finney and Olivier are others) who get thrown by the American accent’s irregular tempos. But the stereotypical fruitiness burns off in the course of the film’s revelations, exposing a hoarse, broken, lonely man, and Stewart hits notes of grief I’ve never heard from him before. Captain Jean-Luc Picard would be enough for one lifetime, but given that Sir Patrick is now living out an exuberant second adolescence as a Brooklyn hipster and throwing himself into parts like these, it’s time to proclaim him another reason to love New York.
*This article appears in the January 12, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.