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Vol. LXIII, No. 30
 
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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DVD Review

Jon Hamm Unforgettable as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the Soul of a Great Series

Stuart Mitchner

It took Jon Hamm seven auditions to convince the producers of AMC’s hit series Mad Men that he was right for the key role of Don Draper. If you haven’t seen the program, you may think, “No wonder. Who’s Jon Hamm? What an unfortunate name for an actor.” If you have seen the show, you’ll be asking yourself how there could ever have been any doubt. Imagine James Gandolfini needing seven auditions to convince the producers of The Sopranos that he was right for Tony Soprano. Mad Men is as brilliantly cast as it is brilliantly designed and produced, shot, scored, and directed, but Hamm’s Don Draper, like Gandolfini’s Tony, towers above everyone and everything else, absolute and indispensable, hero and anti-hero, a movie unto himself. Resemblances between Mad Men and the HBO phenomenon are strictly uncoincidental since the creator, Matthew Weiner, and one of the principal directors, Alan Taylor, are Soprano alumni.

In the DVD commentary for the pilot, Weiner attributes Hamm’s seven auditions to AMC’s reluctance to hire an unknown quantity. They figured the series needed a name actor. For Taylor, who directed the pilot and provided a commentary of his own, the problem was that it took him a while to realize that “a guy that handsome could be interesting.” It took me a while to realize that a series about Madison Avenue in the early sixties could be “that interesting,” not to say addictive. Even back in the 1950s heyday of Hollywood’s flirtation with Mad Ave, the milieu never caught the cinematic imagination the way the racy tumult of newspaper city rooms did in the 1930s or the way the night world of film noir did in the 1940s.

My doubts about Mad Men began to vanish less than a minute into the opening scene of the pilot episode. An intriguingly ambiguous mood had already been established by David Carbonara’s subtle, elegant music and the surreal graphics of the title sequence, where business-suited figures falling from the tops of tall billboard-laden buildings (evoking, perhaps inadvertently, the imagery of the bodies falling from the Twin Towers on September 11), promise something more than a rehash of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Draper Happens

Nothing much happens in that opening scene, but then nothing much has to because Don Draper happens. You’re in a crowded, lively bar, people are drinking, smoking, laughing, talking, and there’s a nice smoky retro feel to the place (the location being Harlem’s Lenox Lounge, with its atmospheric period decor). The camera enters, on the way to its goal, which is the back of Don Draper’s head, a visual touch reflecting the last silhouetted image of the title sequence (also the cover image for Season One DVDs and a recent Banana Republic flyer). Looking over the man’s shoulder, you see that he’s making notes on some cocktail napkins. Although he’s not actually seated apart from everyone else, he radiates “apartness,” being one of those natural actors (think Gary Cooper) who can tell you a lot about himself just by sitting still or turning his head. Although you don’t know who he is at this point, you want to know as soon as you see his face. You may notice elements of Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Day Lewis, and George Clooney, but the effect of his presence is closer to that of a handsomer Humphrey Bogart or an existentially ravaged Cary Grant.

Back in the bar, Draper is puzzling something out. He could be a writer plotting a story, or an actor deliberating the logistics of a difficult role, and it’s a bit of a letdown when, after asking a nervous, elderly black waiter for a light, he begins a conversation about cigarette brands. He wants to know why the waiter smokes Old Golds, asking if there were no more Old Golds in existence, would he then consider another brand, like Luckies, for instance? When the waiter loosens up enough to say how much he loves smoking, adding that his wife read in Readers Digest that it “will kill you,” it’s obvious from Draper’s expression that the health issue is the one he’s been brooding over. It’s a question worthy of serious thought. How does one convince people to keep loving something that may be killing them? As the scene ends, Draper is aiming a gaze worth a thousand words at the living tableau of people at the bar, all of them smoking.

Draper may be remembering that little-do-they-know tableau in the next scene when he admits to Midge, his Greenwich Village lover, that he’s at an impasse: “All I have is a crush-proof box and ‘four out of five dead people smoked your brand.’” The problem is that in less than 24 hours it will be up to him to make sure the Lucky Strike account stays with his company, Sterling Cooper, which means devising a sales pitch that will somehow offset the Trade Commission’s crackdown on misleading advertising while dealing with the health scare, thus, as Midge puts it, luring “millions of sheep to the slaughter.”

The Moment of Truth

One of the virtues of Mad Men is that Sterling Cooper handles known, brand-name products and accounts (Maidenform, Clearasil, Kodak, Mohawk Airlines) rather than fictional ones with made-up names of the sort that invariably undermine authenticity. Lucky Strike is a major client, of course, and thus the pilot’s thematic center (the episode’s title is “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”), so it makes sense that the crucial scene in which Draper is called on to save the day is the one Hamm was called on to read to stake his claim to the part during those multiple auditions. The actor and the man he’s playing are both selling something: Hamm is selling himself as a performer and as creative director at Sterling Cooper; and, of course, he’s also selling the series whose future depends on how well he eventually handles this do-or-die scene. As Weiner mentions in his commentary, the pilot was made when they had no way of knowing whether there would be any episodes beyond the first one. In a larger sense, Hamm and Draper’s challenge also becomes the moment where the aesthetics of the series mesh with the aesthetics of the sell, wherein you, the audience, share the client’s point of view with the men from Lucky Strike.

One reason viewers are likely to bond with Don Draper during his moment of truth is that he almost blows it. When he gets his cue at the big meeting, he’s clearly at a loss. Like an unprepared student, or an actor who has forgotten his lines, he fumbles with his papers and stalls until his feral colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) steps in and makes a presentation so negative that it alienates the Lucky Strike contingent, which is heading for the exit when Draper finally comes to life, stopping them in their tracks, drawing them in and dazzling them with the simplest of concepts (“happiness”) and phrases (“It’s Toasted,” a real-life Lucky Strike slogan). There’s something in the urgency and spontaneity of the moment that makes you want to see more of this Madison Avenue poet in action.

The beauty and depth of Draper’s character is not just in his mysterious, possibly shady past, nor in his active extra-marital lovelife, but in the fact that this elegantly tailored existential hero has a family he loves — when he has time. These elements coalesce brilliantly in the Season One finale when Draper unveils his sales concept for the Kodak slide projector the company is calling The Wheel. It’s another moment of truth, with the Kodak men looking dubiously on as Draper turns down the lights and presents a slide show featuring images from happier days with the wife and kids from whom he is about to become estranged. As the images come and go, he defines nostalgia in terms that reflect his murky personal history (“the pain from an old wound”), telling his clients that what they’re selling isn’t technology but memory. “This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” he says, speaking not as a teacher or salesman but easily, reasonably, intimately, unaffectedly. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

The emotional richness of the “carousel scene,” which was written and directed by Weiner and should go down as one of the great television moments, adds to the impact of the first season’s concluding image of Draper alone at the shadow-drenched bottom of the stairway in his empty suburban home, his family gone, his face naked, devastated. The time that went into that triumphant presentation for Kodak has cost him the chance to be with his family. When Soprano fans hear Bob Dylan singing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as the scene fades, they’re bound to feel the sweet pain of nostalgia, for this is very much a Sopranos ending.

Season Two

Of the qualities in Tony Soprano that made it possible for audiences to love a brute, the first and probably most famous was his response to the beauty of the ducks in his swimming pool. While Don Draper is no match for Tony in brutishness, his tendency to do ugly, hurtful things to others and himself is developed to stunning effect in Season Two of Mad Men. While Tony never really comprehends his relation to this psychic paradox, Draper is wise to himself. Who else but a closet poet would notice someone in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and be curious enough to lay hands on it? Like its hero, Mad Men is open to everything, so why not have Jon Hamm reading from Frank O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky” in voiceover, “Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.”

I saw both seasons of Mad Men on DVD, straight through over the past weeks, and much of the enjoyment came from not knowing its secrets, which is why I’ve tried to avoid giving too much of the story away. Clearly, this extraordinary show has more than Hamm’s Golden-Globe-Winning performance going for it, what with two consecutive Golden Globes as Best Television Series (Drama) and six Emmys. Judging from the second season, Mad Men just gets better and better. Season Three begins August 16 on AMC. Season Two is just out on DVD and can be found, along with Season One at Premier Video and the Princeton Public Library.

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