It’s been said that there’s no such thing as overacting. Whoever came up with that clearly needs to watch more movies, because there are actors who’ve taken the concept of chewing the scenery and made an entire career out of it.
Sometimes it can be out of place, but in some movies, a little overacting here and there is entirely appropriate.
Whether you consider their performances to be brilliant, distracting or just plain captivating, here are the 12 Best Over-the-Top Performances from Great Actors.
12 Dungeons and Dragons (2000) - Jeremy Irons
Dungeons and Dragons is probably the most enjoyably awful movie you’ll ever watch. The acting and CGI is questionable, the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it’s notably lacking in both dungeons and dragons. Though Tom Baker is in one scene, so that’s…good.
The cast, on the other hand, seem fully aware of what they’re getting into and have decided to just have fun with their roles. Nowhere is this more obvious with Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of the cackling evil wizard Profion, whose level of ham and melodrama puts most Disney villains to shame. Whether he’s having a civil conversation or using his evil magic powers to manipulate dragons, the level of overacting from Irons is immense- and if you think about it, perfect for the setting. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t exactly serious business, especially not literally anything going on in this particular movie, and Profion is exactly the villain the piece needed to set the tone. Appropriately, the very first scene has him chewing the scenery in grand fashion- and when this was chosen as the intro to the entire movie, you know exactly what you’re in for.
Signature Line(s): “You don’t LIKE that, do you?? Goooood, I can use every OUNCE of your RAGE, hatatatatata…”
“LET THEIR BLOOD…RAAAAAAAIN FROM THE SKYYYYYYY!!!”
11 Harry Potter - Ralph Fiennes
Voldemort is not a subtle person. He’s given himself the title of "Lord," has "death" in his name and may have removed his own nose for the purposes of looking more like a snake. While his followers are given to more obvious drama (Bellatrix Lestrange springs to mind), Voldemort as played by Ralph Fiennes has more subtle ways of overacting that only occasionally explode into full-blown ham.
For example, Fiennes probably didn’t need to hiss all of his lines like a snake, but it certainly helps with the sinister image of the character when you hear him rasping “Harry Potterrrrr…” with his diabolical upper-class accent. Voldemort is fairly subdued until Deathly Hallows Part II, when it would seem the stress of trying to kill one kid for seven movies just became too much and the Dark Lord became completely unhinged. It was clear that Fiennes was having a ball with the role, screeching every spell at the top of his lungs (‘Avada Kedavra’ is so overdone it somehow morphs into ‘UVUDU KUDUVRUUUU!’) and generally transforming Lord Voldemort into a cackling villain fit for a final confrontation of good and evil. It might not strictly be the Voldemort from the books, but we’re still given a villain who, sane or not, is utterly terrifying. Except for when he attempts a hug.
Signature Line: “Harry Potter is DEEEEAD!! Nyeh-heh-heh!”
10 Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) - Ian McDiarmid
Ian McDiarmid might not be known for much outside of Emperor Palpatine (or at least in comparison to the role), but there’s no denying that for all three Star Wars prequels he owned his part. The first two have him in a subdued portrayal as kindly old man, mentor and efficient politician. Then the lightsaber flicks out of his sleeve in Revenge of the Sith, and the Palpatine of the rest of the movie is a lesson in overacting at its finest. McDiarmid’s card-carrying villainy is cranked up to eleven as he snarls, whimpers and screeches nonsensical lines about unlimited power that serve to show just how high on the Dark Side Sidious is at any given time.
From a narrative standpoint, there can be no confusion about whether we’re meant to know this person is a bad guy, even if Anakin is completely sucked in. The guy cackles while electrocuting someone right out of a window, goes on to dramatically order genocide throughout the galaxy and takes great pleasure in declaring himself Emperor, though all of this pales in comparison to his interactions with Yoda. Perhaps there was an awareness on set of how absurd the whole thing looked (and sounded, if the ‘little green friend’ line is anything to go by), as the battle in the senate building has McDiarmid unleashing his full villainy while looking like a kid having a blast in a playground. If nothing else, the comparison between kindly Palpatine and unhinged Darth Sidious is shocking enough.
Signature Line: “UN-LI-MI-TED…POWEEEERRRRR!”
9 Batman and Robin (1997) - Uma Thurman
Batman is one of the darkest, most angsty superheroes in the business, so it makes sense that his villains are colorful and over-the-top just to balance things out. The various Batman movies have been filled with campy acting and scenery chewing, since anything else just wouldn’t feel right. In particular, to portray the Joker as anything else but over-the-top would be wrong, since the character’s main defining trait is that he’s totally insane. Meanwhile, out of the overacted mess that was Batman and Robin, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy has to stand out, if only because we know for sure that Uma Thurman is generally a great actress.
In a feat of acting that we’re going to assume was intentional, Poison Ivy is portrayed as a doe-eyed temptress with elongated words and a load of corny lines that wouldn’t be out of place alongside the Batman of the '60s. It’s camp taken to a new extreme, and aided by the various attempts all around her, it would almost seem out of place for Thurman to give a genuine performance. There’s only so much Oscar-worthy acting to be done whilst wearing a bright green leotard, which is why we get to see Ivy in all her hammy, faux-seductive glory. And if you find your opinion of Uma Thurman ruined forever…just go and watch literally any other film of hers. That should do the trick.
Signature Line: “There's just something about an anatomically correct rubber suit that puts fire in a girl's lips.”
8 Batman Forever (1995) - Tommy Lee Jones
As noted, Batman movies are treasure trove of overacting. Jim Carrey is usually a black hole of entertainment in that regard, sucking all the attention toward himself in any given scene. His portrayal of The Riddler in Batman Forever would’ve been this too… if he hadn’t been outdone. Jim Carrey, out-performed? Yeah.
The second villain of the piece was Two-Face, in a bizarre portrayal from Tommy Lee Jones that showcased a side of his acting never before seen. It takes some serious overacting to appear in a scene alongside Jim Carey in a bright green leotard (again?) and still be the most attention-grabbing thing on screen, but somehow he managed it. Over and over again.
Once again, a genuinely heartfelt performance in a '90s Batman movie just wouldn’t feel right- and because this cannot be stated enough, Jones had to act alongside a villainous Jim Carey (in a neon leotard, seriously) and somehow make himself memorable. This lead to his Two-Face portrayal as even more off his rocker than usual, flying into a panic and rage whenever someone interferes with his coin toss and unleashing evil cackles like he’s trying to be an even quirkier version of The Joker. Jones’ performance might have come under fire from purists, though given that he’s merely part of the wave of campiness, it’s easy enough to swallow with everything else.
Signature Line: “Why? Why, why, why, why, why? Luck! Blind, stupid, simple, doo-dah, clueless luck!”
7 The Matrix Trilogy - Hugo Weaving
Right from the start, we get the impression that Agent Smith is different from your average Matrix Agent, displaying aggression, manipulation and even disgust when the rest of them seem to be consigned to blank slate faces. Actor Hugo Weaving brings out the nuances of his character in ways that steadily become less subtle over the course of the trilogy until eventually he embraces full villainy, as signaled by this face:
Weaving’s performance isn’t showcased by increasing the volume, but instead by the complete domination of his every line. Even the way he casually states names, contorts his raging face or hisses his evil plans smacks of melodrama. Smith is a computer program discovering emotion like it’s a narcotic and wanting even more, which becomes fully realized when he escapes into a real body and starts giving everyone axe-murderer eyes. Weaving abandons some of the subtlety for the final act, actually indulging in a fit of evil laughter that results in the aforementioned nightmare face. This portrayal reaches its peak in the final battle, where we see Smith reveling in his victory, screaming to the heavens and generally making it all the more satisfying to see him blown into loads of tiny bits.
Signature Line: “Humans…are a virus. A disease! And WE…are the cure…”
6 The Princess Bride (1987) - Wallace Shawn
The Princess Bride might just be the cult film. It helps that the film is endlessly quotable, filled with great performances and plain hilarious.
Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini might meet his ironic end less the halfway through, but the performance alone makes him more memorable than most. It helps that he’s a shrill-voiced short guy with a gigantic ego and a penchant for the dramatic, but the actor definitely hams it up as much as possible at every opportunity (“THE CLIFFS OF INSANITY!!”).
Most prominently, Vizzini’s death has him steadily growing more and more agitated as he follows his insane thread of logic, culminating in him basking in his victory before falling down dead mid-evil-laugh. Perhaps it was Wallace Shawn’s distinctive voice, his physical presence or just his acting chops, but it made Vizzini’s death one of the most melodramatically memorable in cinematic history.
Signature Line: “Inconceivable!”
5 The Fifth Element (1997) - Gary Oldman
There are many who’ll swear that Gary Oldman is the best actor alive. Whatever your opinion, it’s safe to say that he’s pretty good at what he does, which is usually acting as responsible authority figures who either dispense wise advice, make decisions for the greater good or some combination of both. But not always.
Zorg from The Fifth Element is neither responsible nor likely to care about the greater good, instead being more focused on weapons that make really big explosions and magical stones. Given that the movie is a marathon of sorts, with everything on screen trying to steal the attention of everything else, Oldman’s performance as Zorg - complete with ultra-long side fringe, a clearly-evil soul patch and a very short temper - manages to acquit itself just fine. With a southern accent and a tint of madness in even the softly spoken words, Oldman manages to seem over-the-top even in the presence of Chris Tucker, whose default mode is overacting. With no other modes available.
Or rather, when Gary Oldman acts, he manages not to chew the scenery so badly the plot just collapses into him like a singularity.
Signature Line: “I…AM…VERY…DISAPPOINTED!!!”
4 Planet of the Apes (1968) - Charlton Heston
Planet of the Apes (as in, the not-James-Franco version) has made quite an impact on pop culture for a number of reasons, though the twist ending remains one of the most popular. Believe it or not, despite it being kind of obvious by now, we weren’t supposed to know that the planet in the movie was Earth. It may not have been the first ‘it was Earth all along!’ discovery in cinema, but it stands out as the most famous… and we have Charlton Heston’s acting to thank, in part.
As George Taylor, Heston manages to create several iconic moments through the movie, most of them through glorious overacting. The “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” line entered pop culture more or less because of the way Heston snarled the whole thing through his teeth, and there’s no shortage of overblown dialogue from a man locked up by apes and driven to insanity (“IT’S A MAAAAADHOUSE!!”). Then we reach the final scene, the dramatic reveal of the decayed statue of liberty, and we see him sink to his knees, defeated and crying out his irrational thoughts so that they can be relentlessly parodied for the next few decades.
Signature Line: “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you, damn you all to HELL!!”
3 Scarface (1983) - Al Pacino
Al Pacino portrays Tony Montana as completely nuts, which, for a guy who loves both mountains of cocaine and heavy machine guns, is definitely the way to go.
Even in his quiet moments, Pacino is constantly wearing an deranged expression that suggests he could just start gunning people down at any moment, and his every line is drenched in thinly-veiled insinuations that he’s about to snap and kill everyone for fun. Essentially, we’re made to believe this is someone who would genuinely refer to a grenade launcher as his "little friend."
The true overacting, as is often the case, comes in Montana’s final scene. Under assault from his rival’s men and in a cocaine-fueled rage, Pacino pulls out all the stops and has Tony go out in a blaze of glory, screaming his defiance in between mowing down his enemies with grenades and those aforementioned trusty machine guns. In fact, the expletive-laden rant doesn’t even stop while Tony is being riddled with bullets, not until he’s shot in the back and comes to an abrupt end floating face-down in a pool. It's method acting at its finest, probably.
Signature Line: “YOU WANNA PLAY ROUGH? OKAY…SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!”
2 Jupiter Ascending (2015) - Eddie Redmayne
Eddie Redmayne is a great actor. He won an Oscar and everything. Still, there is a point at which chewing the scenery turns bad and overacting becomes too much. Unlike the other entries on this list, Redmayne’s performance in Jupiter Ascending is over-the-top in the wrong way.
The script and general ludicrous nature of the whole movie doesn’t help, but Redmayne, portraying Balem Abrasax, tends to ham up every scene with his odd brand of "acting." Balem has a hair-trigger temper and is prone to shouting, a lot, even when he was perfectly calm and whispery only a second beforehand. While rage is a powerful emotion, it decreases the impact when you have to watch an angsty space royal who can flip his entire persona at the drop of a hat. It’s just great for everyone asleep in the audience, but not for creating drama.
Even Redmayne’s whispered lines (that is, half of everything he says when not screaming) can come across as painfully overdone, as if acting in a Shakespearian drama rather than a glitzy Wachowski-directed sci-fi. What works on stage simply doesn’t often translate to a film, though we’re willing to give Eddie Redmayne the benefit of the doubt and put part of his bizarrely nuanced performance down to the direction. Otherwise, this is a cautionary tale to those who might be tempted to think that overacting can instantly make up for a lack of actual talent. Unless you’re Eddie Redmayne, in which case…we all slip up every now and then.
Signature Line: *suddenly screaming for no reason*
1 Mommie Dearest (1981) - Faye Dunaway
For whatever reason, overacting from women just doesn’t seem as common. When it does appear, it’s generally more Uma-Thurman-as-Poison-Ivy line of subtle scenery chewing rather than going nuts in front of the camera. 1981’s Biographical Mommie Dearest subverted that idea, and stars Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, a former movie star, compulsively clean housekeeper, terrible mother and the mortal nemesis of wire hangers everywhere.
Roger Ebert himself wondered why anyone would ever put themselves through the process of watching the film, as it’s more or less a full-on depiction of a woman already mad descending into even more madness. Perhaps the most iconic scene has Joan (her face covered in cold cream, thus making her look like even more of a maniac) discovering one of her daughter’s clothes hanging on one of those aforementioned wire hangers and flying into a scene-stealing, child-beating rage that makes Eddie Redmayne seem timid by comparison.
Dunaway has since stated that she wished she’d been reigned in on her performance… though given that she was acting as someone with some serious mental issues, the portrayal could be taken as being true to life. Terrifying life, but still.
Signature Line: “Nooooo….wire…HANGEEEEERRRRS!”
Can you think of any other over-the-top performances that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!