The overactors - Mad, bad, and dangerous to the scenery

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Nicolas Cage's turn in Bad Lieutenant is the latest example of movie overacting. But, says Leigh Singer, hamming it up on film is an art form in itself – we should admire and enjoy it

Shoot him again... his soul's still dancing." Such pulp poetry clearly isn't meant to be delivered with understated sincerity – so fittingly Nicolas Cage detonates the line with a gleeful cackle in Werner Herzog's new movie, Bad Lieutenant. Abusing old ladies and teens, and hallucinating iguanas after hits from his "lucky crack-pipe," Cage's corrupt cop is another trademark wild-eyed, jitterbugging, gonzo performance from a line of over-the-top acting – a nasal, false teeth-wearing romantic lead in Peggy Sue Got Married, a hillbilly Elvis in Wild at Heart, a live cockroach-snacker for Vampire's Kiss, through to recent inadvertent cult comedy The Wicker Man ("the BEES!") – unparalleled in modern cinema.

Cage isn't so much a loose cannon as a grenade belt tossed into each scene he plays. Yet he and the other great actors frequently accused of grandstanding – Pacino, Nicholson, er, Shatner – certainly buck the industry trend. Since silent film gave way to the talkies, the dominant faith in American movie acting has been naturalism: worshipping at the church of the Method, genuflecting to patron saints Dean and Brando. Unlike theatre's declamatory projecting to the back row, a "stagey" performance onscreen isn't a compliment.

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Yes, prize-givers habitually mistake Best Acting for Most Acting, easily distracted by accents (evening, Meryl), prosthetics (g'day Nicole) and the motherlode of Oscar bait, disabilities (take your pick from a clutch).

Yet even such self-aggrandising performances are still usually tuned to the key of supposed psychological realism; no matter how obvious or obnoxious, the actor is resolutely "in character" and therefore, somehow, inherently authentic. It seemingly matters little that Method's furrowed-brow mumbling is, in its own way, as stylized as a kabuki mask.

By contrast, truly off-the-wall, go-for-broke performances are often dismissed as mere showing off and not the legitimate experimentation more accepted in other creative fields. Indeed, in a recent interview for geek website Ain't It Cool News, Cage even couches his freewheeling proclivities in musical terms.

"I don't get to use guitars or trumpets, so the challenge for someone like me who likes to embrace abstract art, but has his instrument as his own body, is that people think you are nuts," he said. "If you think about going outside the box, which is my term for what people like to call 'over the top,' it's going to be met with incredible confusion and opposition, simply by virtue of the fact that it's film acting."

Interesting that Cage has to reach for language more associated with other art forms ("instrument") and movements ("abstract art") to try to legitimise what he does. Likewise Al Pacino recently referred to trying to tap into something "operatic" for his notoriously bombastic Cuban heel Tony Montana in Scarface.

It's because both men are well aware of prevailing prejudice against film performance as performance art. Whereas theatre has long had the Brechtian tradition of distancing its audience alongside the more immersive Stanislavskian naturalism, on film anything that alienates is simply called bad acting. In architectural terms, it's akin to everything designed to remain within rigid classicism, with no Rococo flourishes allowed. Basically, if it ain't Baroque, don't fix it.

Of course some larger-than-life performances do still end up etching themselves onto the collective consciousness, if not the base of a statuette. Pacino's Montana and Nicholson's psychotic axe-wielder in The Shining, to cite two towering examples, were both ridiculed on release. Now their moves and catchphrases – Pacino blowing away his enemies with a gun nearly as big as he is ("say hello to my leetle fwen!") or Nicholson's leering, improvised "Heeere's Johnny!" – aren't just party pieces for impressionable teens, they're enduring cultural touchstones.

Moreover, certain roles practically cry out for pyrotechnics. Gurning and churning are the very core of the rubber-faced slapstick comedy of Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey. A diva without a hissy fit or three – Faye Dunaway's vamping Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest or Bette Davis's cuckoo ex-child-star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – is far too fallow terrain in which to pitch future camp classics.

Dastardly villains also have more licence to let rip: Laurence Olivier took his scheming hunchback Richard III from stage to screen but kept the character's theatrical soliloquies as snide asides to the camera; and Alan Rickman's eye-rolling panto turn in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ("No more merciful beheadings! And cancel Christmas!") allegedly irked star Kevin Costner enough to re-cut the film. No matter. While Costner's Robin of Malibu stole from the rich to give to the poor, Rickman still cannily pilfered the entire movie. In essence, we shouldn't underestimate the OTT fun factor, even (especially?) when the practitioner crashes and burns. It's the guilt-free equivalent of rubbernecking a car crash. Would you rather see Cage's ludicrous Wicker Man go up in flames or the ponderous, po-faced demise of Sean Penn in All the King's Men?

Yet what's even more intriguing about the likes of Cage, Daniel Day-Lewis or Johnny Depp is that they try more outré approaches to less obvious roles. Every sashay and twirl from Depp's kohl-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean single-handedly turned an action hero into a fey, high seas Keith Richards, in a Disney theme park-inspired blockbuster no less. Day-Lewis's paranoid oil baron in There Will Be Blood was writ large, but only his fearless monstrosity could create a climactic eruption as left-field as "I drink your milkshake!". Naysayers would no doubt replace "fearless" with "shameless."

But, ultimately, it really is a matter of personal taste. I rate Day-Lewis's raging baptism scene in There Will Be Blood as the best thing he's ever done but snigger at the overwrought Sturm und Drang of his milkshake-slurping shenanigans; I can lap up Cage's antics in Bad Lieutenant or Wild at Heart but his wacky obsessions in Ghost Rider are desperate attempts to jump-start shoddy material. And I'd cheerfully beat him soundly over the head with Captain Corelli's mandolin and his excruciating "just-a one-a Cornetto" cod-Italian parping.

Cage is in many ways a one-off because he has been pushing limits and buttons from the beginning. A more common complaint about the likes of Pacino and Nicholson is that the scenery chomping only set in later, when they got bored or lazy. And sure, you can look to Pacino in the first two Godfather films or Nicholson in Chinatown as examples of the absolute pinnacle of intense, largely interior movie acting.

But don't forget other masterfully subtle, late-period performances – Pacino in Donnie Brasco, Nicholson's About Schmidt or Cage's superb twin roles in Adaptation – that remind us that their excesses elsewhere are a choice. It doesn't excuse their worst showboating and yes, florid, art-inflected excuses like "abstract" or "baroque" can be a pretentious cop-out. But genuinely daring attempts to think outside the big screen box of naturalism, to create something unique and memorable, should be celebrated, not automatically shot down. And, if Cage can get his own soul dancing, hopefully he can stir yours too.

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