Armie Hammer is enjoying a nice little career renaissance, one that has earned him a ticket to Sunday’s Oscars, where 2017’s finest movie, “Call Me by Your Name,” will compete for Best Picture. After wading through flops like “The Lone Ranger” and “The Birth of a Nation,” Hammer is once again beloved. In the coming months, he’ll appear in the jocular Sundance highlight “Sorry to Bother You” and a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic that’s sure to be part of next year’s awards conversation.
Countless profiles have already traced Hammer’s roots as the aristocratic great-grandson of an oil magnate, and almost all of them herald 2010’s “The Social Network,” in which he pulled double duty playing twin Olympic athletes suing Mark Zuckerberg, as the actor’s illustrious Hollywood breakthrough.
Sure. “The Social Network” was Hammer’s breakthrough, and it’s certainly the movie that made him famous. But most profiles overlook the few projects that came before it, particularly one that caught my eye the other day: “Billy: The Early Years,” a biopic in which Hammer plays the one and only Billy Graham, who died last month at the age of 99.
Yep, Sir Armie ― the charming hunk who smooched Leo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” and fondled Timothée Chalamet’s semen-stained peach in “Call Me by Your Name” ― once portrayed America’s most famous evangelist, a Southern-fried live wire who popularized tent revivals, became the youngest college president in U.S. history, counseled actual presidents in the White House, called homosexuality “a sinister form of perversion” and fathered five children, one of whom urged his following to vote for Donald Trump despite the crude “Access Hollywood” tape that leaked during the 2016 campaign.
But let’s not get sidetracked by Graham’s politics when we have a movie so deliciously bonkers to dissect.
“Billy: The Early Years” is a true wonder of the world, far more vapid and unskilled than your average inspirational biopic. Distributed by Rocky Mountain Pictures, a conservative company that would later release “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” and Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America,” it opened Oct. 10, 2008, on 282 screens ― a decent number for a limited release ― and collected all of $347,328 at the box office.
Further clogging this enigma, “Billy” is directed by Robby Benson, a minor ’70s heartthrob who lost out on the part of Luke Skywalker, voiced the Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and helmed a handful of “Friends” and “Ellen” episodes.
According to a Los Angeles Times report from 2008, “Billy” cost $3.6 million ― more than the budgets of “Saw” and “Moonlight” combined. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association declined to endorse the film, calling it “greatly embellished,” even though it’s a saccharine portrait that paints Graham in an wholesome, exceedingly favorable light.
“They wanted to make a movie about someone whose face could be chiseled into a mountain,” Benson said, referring to the producers, who’d recruited him for the job. “I said, ‘Let’s make it fun and funny.’”
Well, it’s fun and funny, all right. It’s also a fascinating case study of an actor making an odd career choice on the pathway to fame. Let’s recap the film’s highlights.
‘Billy: The Early Years’: An Incredibly Specific Plot Summary
Following a Brooks & Dunn cover of Johnny Cash’s “Over the Next Hill (We’ll Be Home),” the movie opens with a framing device. Martin Landau ― yep, Oscar-winning Martin Landau ― plays the elderly, hospice-ridden Charles Templeton, Graham’s evangelist BFF who later denounced Christianity.
He’s giving an interview to a documentary crew, though said documentary’s only purpose in the film is to provide Templeton interludes that fade out to reveal Graham-centric flashbacks. Every shot in Landau’s hospital room is overlit like a second-rate sitcom.
The first flashback cue: “Billy’s life was like a fairy tale. [...] Billy grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting.” The stage has been set. We transition to Charlotte, North Carolina.
As it turns out, all Billy Graham really wanted to do was play baseball! Armie Hammer ― or someone who looks like him; we only see his backside ― hits a ball into a starry night sky in slow motion.
Six minutes in, here comes the Armie we know and love, dressed in a trim baseball uniform and delivering flowers to his mama.
As we learn, 16-year-old Billy didn’t have much of a thing for religion, probably because of his devout, uncaring father. For example, during a prayer at the dinner table, the little rebel sneaks a bite of food. (Maybe this is a good time to note that it’s the Great Depression? Multiple characters mention it, but the movie doesn’t delve into many of the era’s social dynamics.)
Billy swears he’ll never become a preacher (or an undertaker, which we can’t fault him for). In his eyes, evangelists are “money-grubbing” hacks, period.
Blissfully, “Billy: The Early Years” has no time to waste. Immediately after he condemns preacher-hood, a farmhand invites Billy to attend to a tent revival. For the uninitiated, that’s an outdoor worship service where a man in a boxy suit shrieks about eternal damnation. There, the reverend addresses Billy directly, leading to the quickest change of heart ever known to changes of heart. Time to go to Bible school!
But forget all that altar-call stuff. The movie gets good ― real good ― in the next scene, when Armie dons overalls and tends to farm work like something out of a fetish fantasy. Luckily, his mama approves of Bible college! (Told you it was the quickest about-face.)
Oh, and “Billy: The Early Years” Armie is just as handsome as “Call Me by Your Name” Armie, but he’s slightly less sculpted, giving him a plantation-twink vibe. He was 22 when the movie came out, and more young boys would have come out too, had they seen it. (Little did we know the peach-related intrigue that awaited us.)
The movie returns to Landau for some fodder on Templeton’s less dogmatic religious conversion. Boring.
Meanwhile, Billy has begun selling hairbrushes door to door, bringing his chewy Southern cadence and calculated charm to one home after the next. Knock on my door, Billy!
Here he is cheesing at evangelism-school orientation. Look at those blue eyes shimmer.
When seminary begins, Billy’s roommate tells him preaching is no different than selling brushes. Voila! It all makes sense now. But phooey on that one girl in class who rejects his advances. “I just don’t think you’re going to amount to much,” she says, after showing up at a dance with another boy despite having told Billy she’d go with him. Ouch. What a fool.
As for Billy’s first sermon, well, I’m not sure what we’re meant to make of it. Amid a staggeringly earnest story, the scene jolts into a surreal whimsy that’s just plain confusing. Billy stands at the lectern nervously, fiddling with his notes and observing a clock’s defeating tick.
Then, as if a lightning bolt has struck him, he starts shouting to the room in nonsensical fragments (“And what about David and Moses?!”) as the camera zooms toward him feverishly. Zany hoedown music plays as he yaks. At first it seems like a fantasy sequence, something taking place in his head. A homily on LSD, if you will.
But it’s all too real. I think?
The congregation’s reaction shots ― also captured via quick, tilted zooms ― seal the deal. A diamond in the extreme rough, that Billy.
Now it’s back to his romantic life. He’s crushing on the girl who will become his wife, Ruth Bell (played by Stefanie Butler). After he passes her a note in the school library and ignites their courtship, Billy and Ruth start romancin’ it up. Naturally, it’s a sexless arrangement, as far as we see it, until children enter the picture. Gotta stay pure.
But remember how baseball was once the only thing Billy wanted to do? Well, apparently he’s no good at it anymore. Ruth knows how to throw a ball, but Billy does not know how to catch it without hurting his cute little hand. (Or his big hand. Armie Hammer is 6-foot-5!)
He squeals in pain every time. Does it really hurt that much to catch a baseball? (This is a real question. I wouldn’t know.)
Billy then has the dreamiest split-screen phone call with his mother to proclaim his love.
One quick serious note: Lindsay Wagner, the “Bionic Woman” and “Six Million Dollar Man” actress who portrays Billy’s mother, is actually rather lovely in this movie. She has a delicate way of making silly dialogue seem authentic. Bravo, Lindsay Wagner. Someone give her a real role.
OK, so we’re a little more than halfway through this 85-minute gem when, for some reason, Billy starts preaching to anyone who will listen. Literally. I guess that’s what evangelizing means? Sort of? Cut to him standing outside some dilapidated sheriff’s office wearing this oddly patterned suit and converting a nonbeliever in a matter of seconds. And to think how hopeless he was the last time we saw him orate.
Meanwhile, Martin Landau is still stuck in that hospice bed, recounting his own evangelism days and his friendship with Billy, who is now preaching to larger and larger crowds.
In the best moment so far (other than the overalls), we get this cool shot of Landau imagining his younger self, played by Kristoffer Polaha.
Polaha’s Templeton is suddenly everywhere in Billy’s life, including at the birth of his first daughter. But Charles’ faith is shaken by the horrors of World War II ― which, sure, fair. Makes sense. Nazis are horrific.
Things keep on zipping, and after a title card informs us that two years have passed, Billy goes from farmland sermonizing to being president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis at the age of 29. He doesn’t want to be one of those money-grubbing preachers he slammed at the start of the movie, so he tells his staff to make sure he’s “accountable for every penny collected” and can avoid whatever might precipitate the “downfall of an evangelist.”
Here’s when things get Mike Pence-ish. In order to avoid a scandal, Billy decrees that “no man is to be in a room alone with a woman other than his wife.” It’s the most sexually explicit moment yet, other than the overalls. (But just wait.)
Charles’ crisis of faith intensifies as the war rages on. He brings his dilemma to Billy. How can God leave Hitler to run amok? How can the Almighty allow such travesties to blanket the globe?
They sit together on a couch, seemingly on the precipice of a big ol’ smooch. Little did Armie know, he was auditioning for “Call Me by Your Name” almost a decade too soon.
Charles abandons the pulpit, but Billy keeps praying nonetheless. When he next sees his friend, it’s the summer of 1949, four years after the end of World War II. Charles has doubled down on his agnosticism, and Billy, now 31, has doubled down on his convictions.
More importantly, they’ve both doubled down on their sexual tension. This is presumably unintentional, but let’s ignore that boring detail and accept the scene at face value.
Now, with less than 12 minutes remaining, a seed of doubt has been planted in Billy.
He has a dark night of the soul ― literally. In the next scene, he teleports like a ghost, appearing in the middle of the woods somewhere. Now we know where that $3.6 million went: The CGI is lit.
It’s his come-to-Jesus moment. He is coming to Jesus to beg for proof of the Bible’s veracity. “Where are you?” he yells, after which a montage of moments from his still-young life flash by. That’s it! Mystery solved! It only took recalling his past to move on with his future.
“I hear you, Lord,” he says, again proving that Billy Graham had the hastiest religious conversion ever known to preachers whose net worth totals $25 million.
And now, everything’s hunky-dory. Billy’s “early years” are coming to an end, and so is the movie. Suddenly, he’s preaching about his friend Charles in his own tent revivals and telling the masses that Jesus “came from that part of the world which touches Europe and Africa and Asia” ― aka the Middle East ― and “probably had brown skin.”
Considering how much some fundamentalists love White Jesus, this is maybe sort of a progressive idea to include in this otherwise ginger movie?
Anyway, apparently this is what it looks like to stand in front of a sky. (Note: The sky is gray at the start of this concluding sermon, but grows progressively bluer as Billy continues. It’s a metaphor!)
And the crowd! What a mighty crowd! He made it though the wilderness! (Yeah right.)
That’s the final shot. The end credits roll to the sounds of Michael W. Smith’s “Amazing Love.”
Here’s what we learned about Billy Graham from “Billy: The Early Years”: He’s a walking version of the hymn “Old-Time Religion,” blessed with a pleasant working-class upbringing and a squeaky-clean respectability but cursed by a sex appeal he can’t take advantage of and what seems to be no desire to visit his old friend, who is stuck in hospice giving interviews about Billy’s life.
You should watch this movie. It’s a masterwork to behold.
A representative for Armie Hammer did not respond to our request for comment.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Hammer took a bite out of a semen-stained peach in “Call Me By Your Name.” He held the peach but did not bite it. A previous version of this story also indicated Billy Graham endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency. In fact, that was his son Franklin Graham.