A good actor is a precious commodity. The lighting crew, the directors, the sound team, and every other member of the behind the scenes roster have one distinct advantage the actors do not have. They are able to spend hours getting everything to be just as it should be. The actor, on the other hand, usually has to be able to turn in a convincing performance at a moment’s notice. The margin for error is particularly enormous for on-screen talent. Maybe that’s why an actor can sometimes go a little crazy during shoots and deliver a performance that is a wee bit over the top.
Whatever the cause of overacting is, the fact remains that there is nothing quite like watching an actor engage in the fine art of scenery chewing. No, overacting usually won’t win someone the Oscar, but there is something magical about watching that one perfect WTF scene featuring an actor that has decided to just go all out and give the world that one moment when they definitively lost their minds. They make us laugh, they make us cringe, but mostly, the finest moments of overacting establish a legendary legacy of their own.
Here are the 15 Most Legendary Moments Of Overacting In Movie History.
15. Al Pacino’s Interrogation Methods In Heat
Al Pacino’s transition into an overactor was a slow one. Some might even call it graceful. In the ’70s, Pacino was known far and wide as one of the greatest actors in the world. His performances in such films as The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon were both subtle and terrifying. If you’re looking for the turning point in Pacino’s career, then you probably want to point the finger at Scarface. It wasn’t Pacino’s first flirtation with overacting, but it was the movie that let everyone know the man was among the very best scene chewers.
This scene in Heat stands out as Pacino’s most notable moment of overacting for a couple of reasons. Unlike many other movies and roles which feature Pacino going all out all the time, Heat is actually a pretty restrained film for the most part. That is until this scene, which features Pacino screaming at a witness about finely-shaped butts and their persuasive powers. Apparently, that’s because Pacino improvised the scene and director Michael Mann decided to just leave it in. It’s hard to blame him once you watch this scene for the 50th time and begin to appreciate the brilliance of Pacino getting a movie’s worth of overacting done in just a few seconds.
14. Gary Oldman Calls For EVERYONE! In Léon: The Professional
Gary Oldman is such a great character actor that the only role we’re not entirely confident he could play is the lead in a film about the life of Gary Oldman. His ability to disappear into nearly any character has led to some of the most memorable roles in film history. Despite his considerable talents, Oldman is almost always at his most memorable when he is overacting. There’s just something magical about one of the most gifted actors in the world dialing it up to 11 and refusing to show restraint.
While there is no shortage of memorable Oldman overacting moments, it’s impossible to not consider this single line read from Léon: The Professional to be his masterpiece. Throughout The Professional, we come to understand that Oldman’s Stansfield character is incredibly quirky. This is the moment, however, that he goes from quirky to flat-out insane. Oldman’s cry of “Everyone!” in response to a question of how many men to send is the kind of read that an actor might give just to contribute to the outtakes. It has also become the iconic moment in a pretty iconic film.
13. Raúl Juliá Turns Into A Living Video Game Character During Street Fighter’s Final Fight
To be absolutely clear, we would never dream of mocking the late, great Raúl Juliá or his performance in this movie. Quite the contrary, actually. It is because of Julia’s performance that Street Fighter is typically remembered as one of the great all-time “so bad it’s good” movies. It’s been said that the reason Juliá took this role in the first place was because he wanted to spend more time with his children, who so happened to be fans of the games. Let’s all thank Juliá’s children, then, for motivating him to give one of the most lovably over-the-top villainous performances ever.
As far as overacting goes, the highlight of Juliá’s turn as M. Bison is certainly his final fight against Van Damme’s Guile. One can imagine Juliá taking one look at this scene that involves him shooting lightning and flying around the room and deciding that restraint was no longer an option. During these final moments, Juliá declares himself to be a god of unmatched power. Given the brilliance of his performance, we tend to agree.
12. John Travolta Talks About The Galaxies He Has Conquered In Battlefield Earth
There are two kinds of people on this planet: those who have seen Battlefield Earth and those who still retain a measure of hope for the prospects of humanity. Long-time Scientologist John Travolta decided that L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel Battlefield Earth was the perfect source material for the next great sci-fi blockbuster. Many studios disagreed. Eventually, Travolta found funding for his film and proceeded to prove that everyone that doubted him in this endeavor — was indisputably in the right. It’s truly one of the worst movies ever made.
In Travolta’s defense, the man gave it his all during each scene. Perhaps acting under the assumption that every scene in this film was a candidate for his imagined award nomination highlight reels, the veteran actor decided that he could leave no scenery unchewed. No scene took a harder bite from Travolta than this relatively unimportant moment in which he proclaims that he was being trained to conquer galaxies while others were learning to spell their names. His delivery of this line is unique in that such acting is usually reserved for eight-year-olds in a Shakespearian play, and it’s right at home in this epically disastrous box office bomb.
11. Tommy Wiseau Uses The Room To Inform Us He’s being Torn Apart
Generally speaking, if you see that someone has decided to write, direct, and star in their own film, your first instinct should be to think “vanity project.” More often than not, you’ll be proven right. You’ll certainly be in right as it concerns Tommy Wiseau’s infamous 2003 film, The Room. All known evidence suggests that Wiseau was intending to make a complicated drama featuring various characters whose lives were all intertwined. What he ended up with is a structurally confusing mess that left viewers with no alternative but to laugh. Otherwise, they risked losing their sanity trying to figure out what was going on.
Rather than try to untangle the mess that Wiseau created with his behind-the-scenes contributions, let’s just appreciate the brilliance of his on-screen performance. Wiseau wants you to believe that his character Johnny is some kind of shining beacon of near perfection. In truth, he’s just kind of a nutjob with vanity issues. Johnny is seemingly modeled after a James Dean-type character, which becomes all the more obvious when Wiseau spits out this classic line from Rebel Without A Cause. Somehow, he manages to go even further over-the-top with it.
10. Pierce Brosnan Goes All Out When Telling Someone Where They should Be Living In Taffin
Pierce Brosnan doesn’t really have a reputation for being an overactor. If anything, he usually plays the handsome and suave straight man as a contrast to more animated actors such as Robin Williams and Sean Bean. Sometimes, however, an actor not having a reputation for that style makes it all the more memorable when they do suddenly decide to crank it up to 11. It’s why anyone who stumbles upon the largely forgettable 1988 film Taffin walks away from it asking themselves just what the hell was wrong with Pierce Brosnan during the filming of this movie.
Taffin is essentially a glorified vehicle for how little Brosnan seemed to give a damn during this time. The movie has been described by some as the Irish version of Road House which is, at the very least, a pretty accurate representation of the sort of absurdity occurs during its runtime. No line read in Road House quite compares to the moment that Brosnan shouts “Maybe you shouldn’t be living here!” in a manner that combines the best of babbling with the worst of conveyed emotions. He gets a lot of mileage out of a line that takes most people a few seconds to complete.
9. Eddie Redmayne CREATES LIFE…and destroys it In Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending is a movie that seems to think it’s more epic than it actually is. It’s listed as a space opera, which, so far as strict classification goes, makes sense. This film from the Wachowskis certainly has all the trademark qualities of a space opera. In fact, its arching storyline — told across several staging points in the universe with the help over several distinct races of characters — might have been the foundation for a great space opera were it not for the fact the movie is downright awful in nearly every respect that matters.
The one actor that seems to have been clued into this fact is Eddie Redmayne. In the same year that Mr. Redmayne received an Oscar nomination for his role in The Danish Girl, he also took on the role of Balem in Jupiter Ascending. Honestly, the Academy should have recognized this role instead. After all, it is this performance that will be remembered for years to come thanks to Redmayne’s decision to speak in either whispers or screams at random intervals. The scene in which Redmayne informs the audience that he creates life and destroys it is perhaps the greatest instance of an actor saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet. One can only imagine what he would have done with Kylo Ren.
8. Faye Dunaway Makes Sure Nobody Ever Uses A Wire Hanger Again After Mommy Dearest
Mommy Dearest is the film adaptation of an expose written by the daughter of actress Joan Crawford. Some dispute the specifics of Christina Crawford’s story, but the general summary of her book is that Joan Crawford was an absolute lunatic behind the scenes. Starting from Christina’s claim that Joan may have adopted her as part of a publicity stunt, she paints a very vivid picture of a person that wasn’t opposed to doing things like strapping her children to the bed in order to ensure that they didn’t sleepwalk.
The most memorable moment from the story has always been Christina’s accusation that Joan would punish her children for using wire hangers as opposed to their superior alternatives. Actress Faye Dunaway must have been an especially big fan of this moment, as her portrayal of Joan Crawford is highlighted by a moment in which Joan has one of the all-time great meltdowns in film history over the matter of wire hangers. Dunaway’s scream of “No wire hangers!” is epic enough on its own, but what really sells the moment is her almost inhuman facial expressions. It’s like her skull is trying to escape her skin.
7. Darren Ewing Laments The Fact He is About To Be Eaten In Troll 2
Some say that Troll 2 is the worst movie ever made. There’s even a documentary about the film to that effect. But that sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. Troll 2 is a very bad movie in the traditional sense, but it’s also a wildly entertaining run down the checklist of pretty much everything you probably shouldn’t do when making a movie. It’s the good kind of bad, the kind of bad that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in physical pain and is always good for a solid a laugh or two.
As such, we’re not even entirely positive if it’s fair to classify Darren Ewing’s cry of “Oh my God!” as overacting, when it’s hard to say that anyone could have delivered the line “They’re eating her…and then they’re going to eat me!” with any real conviction. It’s quite likely that Ewing had the same reaction, and just decided that if there’s no great way to deliver this truly awful line, then he might as well say it in the most memorably awful way possible. If so, mission accomplished, good sir.
6. Frank Langella’s Closing Monologue Makes Masters of the Universe Better Than It Should Be
Once in a generation (actually, it happens way more often than that) a good actor decides to say “screw it” and takes a role in a truly awful movie. Besides the universal “what are they doing in this?” viewer reaction, the results of this set-up are often mixed. More often than not, it just ends up being a black mark on their resume. Sometimes, however, an actor comes along and turns in a performance in a movie so great that it ends up almost rescuing the entire affair.
Frank Langella’s performance in Masters of the Universe is one such instance of this effect. To be certain, Langella doesn’t completely salvage Masters of the Universe, but he manages to maximize every moment he’s on screen by turning in a performance that even the ridiculous animated version of Skeletor would be proud of. It culminates in a moment when Skeletor assumes absolute power, and delivers a monologue so melodramatic that it single-handedly justifies the art of the melodramatic, Shakespearean speech delivery method.
5. Jeremy Irons Calls For A Dragon’s Rage In Dungeons and Dragons
We’ve all taken a paycheck job. It may not have been the job that you wanted for the rest of your life (or, you know, even for a month), but you simply needed the money that they were offering. Most of these jobs are characterized by poor job performances. After all, if you’re not enthusiastic about a gig, it stands to reason that you’re not going to put forth your best effort. Thankfully, Jeremy Irons isn’t like that. It’s likely that he took this role in Dungeon and Dragons for the money, but that did not stop him from stealing the show.
If you played a game of Dungeons and Dragons with someone that had half the conviction that Mr. Irons shows in this movie, it would be the greatest campaign ever. Irons doesn’t give a damn if he’s taken seriously. He just wants to make sure he puts his body and soul into every line uttered. It’s debatable which of those lines is the best, but in our eyes, there’s nothing that quite compares to him screaming at a dragon so that he can use every ounce of its rage before launching into a snarl/laugh that is without cinematic equal. Irons could have easily mailed this one in, and we’re eternally grateful that he didn’t.
4. Ian McDiarmid Becomes The Emperor Of Overacting In Star Wars: Episode III
Overacting is a generally negative term, which is really a shame. There are far worse sins in the acting game than going over-the-top. For instance, let’s take a moment to compare the acting performances of Hayden Christensen and Ian McDiarmid in Star Wars: Episode III. Christensen occasionally engages in overacting, but his performance is best described as a half-awake run through some truly awful lines. McDiarmid doesn’t just run through his lines; he takes them by the neck, shakes them all about, and forces them to bow to his acting will.
Why, exactly, the reserved McDiarmid decided to just go all out with his official transformation from Senator Palpatine to The Emperor is something of a mystery. It really doesn’t matter, though. The only thing that matters is that his commitment to scene-chewing led to some of the most ridiculous line readings in Star Wars history. His attack on Mace Windu is particularly epic. Whether he’s growling the word “no” or doing his best Raul Julia impersonation while shooting lighting from his fingertips, McDiarmid turns this pivotal moment into the ultimate staging ground for the benefits of overacting.
3. William Shatner’s Khan Scream Turns A Dramatic Star Trek II Moment Into A Meme
William Shatner’s acting career is a series of legendary overacting moments. Early on, Shatner discovered that by delivering his lines in a very stilted way, he could distinguish himself from his colleagues and earn the love of fans everywhere. This style evolved over the years, and eventually came to define the role of Captain James T. Kirk. Shatner may have many, many moments of overacting brilliance peppered throughout his career, but whatever his greatest moment is, there’s no doubt that it occurred at some point during his tenure as captain of the Enterprise.
So far as that goes, how can you possibly deny that Shatner’s “Khaaaaannnn!” scream from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the actor’s finest overacting moment? This one is all about context. Ricardo Montalban thought he could out-overact Kirk by delivering a forced, slow speech about how he was going to leave Kirk to die. He was dead wrong, and Shatner made this clear by delivering a simple line reading with such outrageous levels of anger that it literally echoed throughout the universe.
2. Liar Liar’s Courtroom Scene Becomes A Monument To Jim Carrey’s Brilliance
Jim Carrey wasn’t the first physical comedian by a long shot. His predecessors in that respect are too numerous to name in full here. Carrey, though, is arguably the most successful physical comedian of all-time, at least from a box office standpoint. What made Carrey such a rousing success? Talent, mostly, but his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty in terms of giving it his all every step of the way certainly played a part. The man is a ball of pure energy that cannot be stopped. He can only be admired.
While we’re admiring his ability to overact with the best the best, a special nod must go to his performance in Liar Liar. While not necessarily Carrey’s best film, Liar Liar was made at a time when Carrey was at the peak of his powers and was really testing the limits of how much comedy could be squeezed out of his preferred style. Those boundaries may have been broken during the scene in which Carrey is forced to defend a client without lying. Whether he’s pulling his own face apart or just producing noises no human should be capable of making, Carrey’s pain shines through every overacted moment.
1. Nicolas Cage Recites The Alphabet and Begins His Legacy in Vampire’s Kiss
It’s important to sometimes remind ourselves that Nicolas Cage won an Oscar. Mind you, he didn’t win an Oscar because it was a dry year in Hollywood or someone in power was simply off their rocker; he won it because he turned in a great performance. He’s turned in several such performances, actually. Most people, however, will forever associate Cage with incredibly over-the-top moments. This is understandable. There is nobody that quite compares to Cage when it comes to pure overacting ridiculousness.
While some will argue that his “Not the bees!” line in The Wicker Man is the actor’s most iconic moment of overacting, there’s really nothing quite like performance in the 1988 film Vampire’s Kiss. Cage set a pretty high bar for his career in this one. Take, for instance, this scene in which he recites the entire alphabet in order to prove a point about how a filing system works. On paper, nothing should be more boring than watching an actor recite the alphabet. Cage, however, does it with such gusto and physical assertion that you are compelled to watch. It’s impossible not to.
What’s your favorite overacted scene in cinematic history? Let us know in the comments.
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