There's no better way to grab the audience's attention than a ridiculously overacted performance. Furthermore, some actors made their careers by hamming it up and radiating too much of the screen presence. Yet, over-the-top acting is very sensitive territory. When used the wrong way, it can make actors' interpretation remembered for all the wrong reasons. That's why there are much fewer actors who could dial it up all the way and get by with it. Hammy performances are usually associated with low-quality B-movies or movies where the cast decided to have fun. Anyhow, they are an excellent way to remember the movie as audiences just love eccentric maniacs who shout a lot! Now, let's see who chewed the most of the scenery in our top ten list.
10. Arnold Schwarzenegger - "Batman & Robin"
Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the most recognizable voices in the business. He was one of the biggest action stars in the 80s, despite not being a Shakespearean caliber of an actor. Yet, in the late 90s, even he struggled to find the ideal role for himself.
1997 was one of the worst years for comic book movies, and Arnold's performance in "Batman and Robin" didn't make it any better. In "Batman" TV show, Eli Wallach portrayed Mr. Freeze as a calculated and intellectual scientist. Alas, Schwarzenegger turned him into a one-liner spewing monster. Therefore, this superhero movie catastrophe could pass as a Batman parody, primarily because of Schwarzenegger's acting.
9. Jeremy Irons - "Dungeons and Dragons"
Hammy delivery isn't reserved for typically bad actors only. Sometimes, the great ones can perceive the quality of the movie they're in or the lack thereof. Exactly that happened to Jeremy Irons on the "Dungeons and Dragons" set. Instead of acting with half measure just for the paycheck, he decided to go the other way.
Jeremy Irons acted the hell out of his role of evil wizard Profion, having the time of his life doing so. His performance was so over the top that he managed to upstage everyone, including the titular dragons. Instead of a forgettable adaptation of a board game, we got a campy classic, thanks to the massive ham-outs of Mr. Irons.
8. Raul Julia - "Street Fighter"
It is the unwritten rule that actors are remembered by their last role. Enter Raul Julia, the acclaimed actor known for his extraordinary range. So how did he end up in a movie based on a video game? The story behind his role of M. Bison is as legendary as his acting. Namely, after reading the script, Raul Julia rightfully concluded the movie would be utter crap.
Furthermore, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which limited his physical movement. However, he accepted the role because of his children, so they could watch him in movies other than "Addams Family." The rest is the stuff of legend as Raul Julia absolutely dominated in every scene. Hence, his performance saved "Street Fighter," giving it a cult status. He obviously enjoyed the process, offering everything he had in his last role.
7. John Malkovich - “Con Air”
If we could accuse "Con Air" for subtlety, Simon West's movie would be acquitted of all charges. Just imagine a flick where Nicolas Cage is the sanest person around! "Con Air" is stacked to the rafters with otherwise great actors, including Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Wing Rhames, Colm Meaney, and others. Somehow, they all became aware of the quality of the movie, and they started to compete in the craziness.
However, the absolute champion in that area was John Malkovich as Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom. Thus, he played the sociopath villain so delightfully and without any inhibition. That's why we're pretty sure he enjoyed chewing scenery with Nicolas Cage. He was so impressive that he repeated the same kind of role in "Burn After Reading." The only difference was, he was intentionally bad in the latter movie.
6. Peter Finch - "Network"
Sidney Lumet's 70's masterpiece, "Network," is one of the movies that was way ahead of its time. Yet, the most famous part of it was Peter Finch's performance as Howard Beale. Even those who didn't watch "Network" would probably recognize Finch's iconic rant. That scene alone earned him an Oscar, unfortunately posthumously. The famous words "I'm as mad as hell, and I don't want to take it anymore!" are now a part of popular culture.
This is one of the rare examples where over-the-top performance isn't out of place. It's not over-exaggerated but nuanced to tonally fit in the movie. However, it takes true acting mastery to unleash a performance like that.
5. Gary Oldman - "Leon The Professional"
From the start of his Hollywood career, Gary Oldman was "the" guy for portraying eccentric and over-the-top people. However, his lunacy shines the brightest in the role of Norman Stansfield, a bent cop who went too far to the dark side. All the time, Stansfield is on the verge of a violent outburst, and when it happens, it's just a delight to watch.
Oldman's character is one crazy SOB - a drug-fueled, Beethoven-loving psychopath of the highest order. Yet, he's also one of the most entertaining villains to watch. Oldman's at his best when he's playing restrained characters, but no one does hammy characters like him. You can't help but be impressed by the pure manic energy he emits as the crazy cop.
4. Dennis Hopper - "Blue Velvet"
Even in David Lynch's cinematic universe, full of nightmarish features, the role of Frank Booth stands out. This is the best Dennis Hopper performance and one of the most unsettling characters ever put on the silver screen. Therefore, his Frank is menacing, vicious, and scarily unpredictable. In one moment, we see him abuse Isabella Rossellini before crying to Roy Orbison's song.
Hopper, whose youth has seen a lot of drugs and parties, earned the role by convincing Lynch he is the real Frank Booth. That was probably why he feels so authentic as a drug-crazy suburban maniac. Yet, Frank Booth is one of the most skillful performances of a villain. Any other actor would've made it a parody.
3. Al Pacino - "Devil's Advocate"
Al Pacino's career had its ups and downs, and his every stellar performance is followed by an apparent cash-in role. Pacino usually defines those parts by going up to eleven on a crazy scale. Therefore, he got the reputation of "shouty guy," and for a reason. In "The Devil's Advocate," he plays, who else, the Devil, and takes pleasure in taking every inch of a scene space.
The imposing effect of Al Pacino's acting is even more substantial when you have perpetually confused Keanu Reeves on the opposite side. The script allowed Pacino to unleash his inner demon, pun intended. Hence, he exploded with camp pomp and outrageous delivery that toes the line between genius and parody. Pacino is hysterical throughout the movie, culminating with the ending monolog.
2. Jack Nicholson - "The Shining"
Jack Nicholson earned the reputation of an actor who could play craziness with ease. Furthermore, sometimes directors have to restrain him, so he doesn't go too crazy for the movie. However, when Nicholson filmed "The Shining" with Stanley Kubrick, his insanity and unpredictability worked in his favor. Jack Torrance's descent into madness is slow, but it's a sight to behold once he crosses the line.
The great thing about Jack Nicholson is that he pushes himself and experiments. Did you know that the "Here's Johnny!" line was Nicholson's improvisation? His acting in "The Shining" is the crowning jewel of his career and the best example of over-the-top acting done right.
1. Nicolas Cage - "The Wicker Man"
If we didn't limit ourselves to one performance per actor, we could fill this list with Nicolas Cage's roles only. Honestly, we're not entirely sure what has happened to his career since he won the Oscar in 1994. Some critics say he explores new acting methods, which often ends up disastrous. The most prominent example of Cage's craziness is his role in "The Wicker Man."
The remakes of the horror classics are not a good idea by itself, but putting Cage as the lead actor diverted the film's tone. Instead of occult horror, we've got the finest example of unintentional comedy, with hysterical Cage losing his marbles all over the place. He dressed as a bear, punched at least two women, did HBK to a girl, got his legs broken, and screamed his way to his final moments. In a better world, this would be the best horror-comedy of all time.
Over-the-top performances are a good way for the audience to remember the movie. The peril of overexaggerated acting is that it takes an absolute skill to do it well. More often than not, overreacting and scenery-chewing will make a movie into an unintentional comedy.
What's your favorite hammy performance from this top ten list? Which ones would you add to it?
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