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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.


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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?