Over the top, scenery-chewing, hammy. These are words that are often thrown around lavishly while discussing an acting performance. But what exactly do they mean? An actor showing off his skills on screen? A lack of restraint in displaying emotions? Or just a plain case of a bad actor horribly miscast in a role? To quote the great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah, “Every reaction is subjective and every assessment to acting is subjective.” This innate subjectivity is what complicates the whole issue while critiquing an actor’s film performance. Some actors tend to have fun with a film and go all flashy on-screen while being subtle as a feather in the next one. And then there are actors who are inherently flamboyant in their approach towards acting. Some people criticize Sean Penn for being a ham.
While I’m a staunch supporter of the good old restraint theory, I do disagree with them. Penn never really chews the screen. He pours his heart onto every scene and lets his emotions explode in a way that is not really subtle but effective, while staying truthful to his character. This article, however, takes a look at performances where the actor deliberately chooses to chew the screen or the films demanding them to do so. With everything said now, here is the list of most over the top movie performances.
10. Ralph Fiennes, ‘Harry Potter’ Series
Ralph Fiennes is a brilliant actor and rarely does he disappoint us with his incredible acting chops. He is that kind of an actor who can stand out even in the most miserable movies. His turn as Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard with an insatiable hunger for power and greed is a delectably over-the-top performance; one that stays absolutely true to the character and the film which is precisely why his approach works so brilliantly. Fiennes takes great care to not get carried away and doesn’t really chew the scenes but his devilish looks, relatively unsubtle ways of expressing the character and the bizarre voice make sure that Fiennes nearly threatens to steal the show with a terrifically wild act.
9. Jim Carrey, ‘Batman Forever’
My general issues with comic books and superhero flicks would only prevent this movie from getting an honest, fair analysis here. I watched this film (Actually, the whole trilogy!) as part of my research on this article and not surprisingly, it didn’t do any wonders for me just like most other films from this genre of cinema. There was a visible tonal difference in this film from its previous installments, making it more kids and family friendly which is what makes it perhaps the most Batman-ish movie of all time with its ludicrousness and hilariousness. And that is exactly how Jim Carrey takes on the role of “The Riddler”. Carrey does his part to perfection in a film that doesn’t demand much from him and has fun with a role as he goes well over-the-top donning the role of the villain, making it every bit enjoyable, hilarious and memorable.
8. Denzel Washington, ‘Training Day’
A classic example of a supremely talented actor having fun with a character that is outright obnoxious, corrupt and frighteningly funny. Denzel Washington savors every moment he is on-screen and his flamboyant charisma has undeniably immortalized Alonzo Harris. Whether or not Denzel’s performance was a great one is up for endless debate but his performance here is unapologetically over-the-top and lacked any sort of restraint. Denzel chews the screen, chews his co-actors, chews the plot and mostly the entire movie. An unfortunate case of a great actor topping a mediocre film? Maybe.
7. Gary Oldman, ‘Leon: The Professional’
It was Oldman’s turn to define scenery chewing and boy, how well does he do it! ‘Leon: The Professional’ tells the story of a 12-year-old Mathilda whose family is murdered and is taken in by her neighbor who is a professional assassin and teaches her the techniques and secrets of his trade. Gary Oldman goes all old school here in his approach as a crazy, psychopathic DEA agent with a bizarre mix of fetish for murders and classical music. Oldman smashes Stansfield out of the park as he entertains, entertains and entertains in a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable scenery chewing performance while being diligent about making his character look extremely believable. And that is one mark of a truly brilliant actor and that is what makes his performance in the film one of the finest villainous turns we’ve ever seen despite its apparent lack of restraint and flamboyance.
6. Dennis Hopper, ‘Blue Velvet’
Probably the best acting performance on this list and one of the finest examples of over-the-top acting done exceptionally well. Dennis Hopper’s turn as Frank Booth, a psychopathic pimp and a drug dealer with sadomasochistic fantasies in David Lynch’s 1986 magnum opus, ‘Blue Velvet’, is undoubtedly one of cinema’s most frightening and horrifying villains. Hopper doesn’t shy away for a moment and pounces on the role, snatching every frame with his frighteningly charismatic persona that still sends shivers down our spines. The brilliance of his performance lies in the fact that despite lacking any sort of restraint or control, the performance doesn’t look dated at all and still feels unimaginably creepy. A truly brilliant piece of scenery chewing act.
5. Robert De Niro, ‘Cape Fear’
In my humble opinion, ‘Cape Fear’ was a blunder from Scorsese. To think that the director, who made one of the greatest gangster films of all time just about a year ago, would go on to direct a mediocre remake of a classic with arguably the best actor in business is something my mind can never comprehend. Nevertheless, the film still comes off as a terrifically entertaining thriller flick with a hilariously frightening Robert De Niro as the psychopathic protagonist who is desperate for vengeance against the lawyer who deliberately refrained from honestly defending him in a trial that resulted in him suffering from a 14 year harsh imprisonment. After an array of astonishing performances over the past decade, Robert De Niro was at the zenith of his unparalleled acting prowess. But here we see a De Niro who further flaunts his incredible range as an actor in a performance that is brash, loud and over-the-top. Maybe it’s an area that he wanted to explore but De Niro’s portrayal of Max Cady lacked any sort of restraint and depth. But ultimately it’s his performance that salvages the film from an epic wreck and is one that is undeniably entertaining.
4. Al Pacino, ‘Scent of a Woman’
One of cinema’s truly heartbreaking performances. Heartbreaking because we see a once great actor fumbling and mocking his own self and it pains me to the core. Throughout the film’s tiring running time, I couldn’t help but think of the iconic roles that this man has essayed in his prime. The haunting images of a shattered Michael who hears about his baby’s death in ‘The Godfather Part II’, an emotionally wrecked Sonny who realizes that he is all alone and what he did was all for nothing and an honest cop who could never come to terms with the brutal realities and faded moralities of real life, driving himself to almost self-destructive extremes. And this is where I could sympathize with the man Al Pacino and not the character that is Frank Slade. Maybe Pacino was bored or had grown too tired of internalizing roles and found the scenery chewing method much easier and more entertaining. One of the most over the top movie performances.
3. Faye Dunaway, ‘Mommie Dearest’
Acting works differently for different people. Most importantly the context of the film becomes the base. An over-the-top acting performance could work really well for some while others may find it an excruciatingly painful experience. And Faye Dunaway’s performance in ‘Mommie Dearest’ is one which I found to be an unbearably painful experience. A lot has got to do here with the film’s overly melodramatic tones and mediocre writing. Dunaway’s performance takes away any kind of believability that one would look for in a character; especially one that is based on a real-life person. But the film’s growth in stature over the years to being a so-bad-that-it’s-a-good movie has somehow managed to turn Dunaway’s performance into an iconic film performance.
2. Jack Nicholson, ‘The Shining’
Subtlety has never been Jack Nicholson’s forte (‘Chinatown’ being a brilliant exception though). Right from his performances in ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘The Last Detail’, Jack Nicholson has unabashedly displayed his flamboyant, charismatic and devilishly charming persona in almost every role that he has ever played. This one, however, works most brilliantly. Kubrick’s distinctive sense of dark humor and evil overtones go well in tone with Nicholson’s unrestrained, showy performance to create one of cinema’s most disturbing and ambiguous characters ever written. It is a creepy performance that grows on you and I can hardly imagine any other actor in the part for Nicholson owns every bit of the role. Nicholson’s performance gels well with the overall tonality of the film but subtracting it, all we get is an extended version of the usual badass Jack Nicholson persona. Nevertheless, a great film performance. One that brilliantly manages to get across the meaning behind the film.
1. Al Pacino, ‘Scarface’
The birth of the Look-at-me-While-I’m-Acting method. The death of a master craftsman who once redefined the subtle art of acting. No, this is not the Al Pacino that I love. This is not the Al Pacino who made me realize the intricacies, delicacies and finesse of the craft of acting. In Brian De Palma’s cult classic crime thriller, Al Pacino plays a Cuban drug lord Tony Montana, who arrives in Miami in the 80s with nothing and rises his way to become the most dreaded gangster. An unbearably caricatured performance, Pacino devours every frame with his overcooked Cuban accent. The performance is so over-the-top that it feels cartoonish and there is no sense of human touch given to the role. Pacino’s performances topping this list and my previous one on “Subtle Acting Performances” is in itself a manifestation of the brutally comic irony of his long, prolific acting career.