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.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR MORE OTT PERFORMANCES

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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen