Friday Night Seitz

The overacting hall of fame

Slide show: Sometimes an actor has to go over the top to sell a performance. Here are some of the most memorable

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    Al Pacino

    "Scarface," "Sea of Love," "The Godfather, Part III," "The Devil's Advocate," "Heat," "The Recruit," et al.

    I’ve already celebrated the great Mr. Pacino in my introduction, but let’s talk about him some more here, because the man is a treasure, an American institution whose characters seem as though they belong in an institution. Nobody does BIG ACTING with quite as much imagination and panache. He’s become so identified with this mode that any departures from it — “Donnie Brasco,” “Insomnia,” HBO’s “You Don’t Know Jack” — feel like bold experiments. But as film buffs and viewers of a certain age will tell you, from his breakthrough in “Panic in Needle Park” through the “Godfather” films, “Dog Day Afternoon” and even “Bobby Deerfield,” “Cruising” and “Author, Author,” he was known as a more naturalistic actor — definitely Method, but not ostentatiously so. Even his most flamboyant gestures seemed life-size.

    Then came “Scarface,” one of the great over-the-top performances in American film, complete with “choo touch my seester I keel you” accent and burn-a-hole-in-you stare-eyes. Pacino’s star turn as Tony Montana warned the world, Say hello to my new acting style! After the box-office failure of 1985′s “Revolution,” he took four years off, then returned in 1989 with “Sea of Love,” and the new Pacino — the movie-star Pacino — was officially born. His voice was different — growly, insinuating, borderline Nick Nolte — and so was his body language. He didn’t walk anymore, he loped or bounced. And man, did he grin a lot. His new go-to persona even crept into “The Godfather, Part III,” about which a dear friend commented, “The biggest plausibility problem in this movie is that at some point between the second and third movies, somebody replaced Michael Corleone with Al Pacino from ‘Sea of Love,’ and nobody around him noticed.”

    Pacino’s “Heat” character, detective Vincent Hanna, was originally written as a cokehead, and Pacino played him that way all the way through rehearsals, at which point the coke scenes got cut; this explains, but certainly doesn’t justify, Pacino’s fidgeting and yelling and table-pounding and Frank Sinatra hepcat vocal mannerisms. (“Cause she’s got a GREAAAT ASSSS! … and you got your head ALL THE WAY UP IT! Ferocious, aren’t I?”) But in the end it seems a tactical choice, a means of contrasting with Robert De Niro’s contained, sometimes icy thief. There’s really no explaining Pacino’s SUPER BIG STYLINGS in “The Devil’s Advocate,” though, or “Angels in America,” or “Scent of a Woman” and other classics from his loud period, except to say that it’s an actor’s choice, abetted by his directors, and that whatever he’s doing on-screen, it’s fun and often weirdly appropriate, even if it’s the opposite of subtle. I will SAY it AGAIN: Al Pacino … is a GREEAAT ACTOR!

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    Jennifer Jason Leigh

    "Last Exit to Brooklyn," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," "Single White Female," "The Hudsucker Proxy"

    Like Al Pacino, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a switch-hitter who can work big or small and be equally compelling. Her breakthrough performance in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was very naturalistic, and over the years she kept returning to that mode, most notably in “Rush,” “Dolores Claiborne,” “Washington Square” and “The Anniversary Party,” which she co-wrote and co-directed with Alan Cumming.

    But when I think of Jennifer Jason Leigh, those aren’t the sorts of roles that spring immediately to mind. I picture her as the broken doll of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” the freakishly overgrown little girl coveting her roommate’s life in “Single White Female,” the motormouthed, wiggly-walking, utterly bizarre Barbara Stanwyck/Rosalind Russell-style reporter in the Coen brothers’ “The Hudsucker Proxy” (“I’ll stake my Pulitzer on it!”) and her mesmerizing but deeply problematic Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.” For that last role, she modeled her voice on recordings of Dorothy Parker. The problem with that approach was the recordings were made near the end of Parker’s life. But by imitating them flawlessly, Leigh put an old woman’s voice in the mouth of a character who was 30 or 40 in the film proper, which was just weird; when people described Parker as an old soul, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they meant.

    Not that I’m complaining, exactly. Leigh’s slightly abstract take on some of her characters makes them pop in a way that a more earthbound strategy might not, and even when she’s wildly miscalculating, something authentically strange and vibrant usually comes through. She’s unnerving in the way that real-life eccentrics, neurotics and freaks tend to be. As for Leigh’s performance as Sadie, the sister of the title character in “Georgia,” I’ll let Sarah D. Bunting have the last word. “Leigh occupies Sadie completely — you can smell her, the sour fug of Marlboro Lights and dirty hair that must attend Sadie’s movements — but manages to let us see what Georgia sees, this off-putting and childish broken-down charmer that can’t be written off. It’s a brilliant job, but I would rather watch ‘Un chien andalou’ a hundred times in a row and then eat the razor they used than sit through it again.”

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    Gary Oldman

    "Romeo Is Bleeding," "The Professional," "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "True Romance," "Hannibal"

    In the early ’90s, Gary Oldman seemed determined to take Mickey Rourke’s career, which seems reasonable when you consider that at that point Rourke wasn’t doing much with it. People really started to notice Oldman after the one-two punch of “Sid and Nancy” — playing a realistically wild, naive, self-destructive Sid Vicious — and “Prick Up Your Ears”, in which Oldman starred as playwright Joe Orton, who was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). But after that he started gravitating toward smoldering antihero and over-the-top villain parts, often playing characters so depraved they gave you chills and so intoxicated/drugged out/nasty that you practically smell them.

    His cop-on-the-edge in “Romeo is Bleeding” was very Rourke-like, a performance that reeked of booze, cigarettes and unwashed laundry. His corrupt cop in “The Professional” is a sweating, shrieking, spittle-flecks-a-flying hambone performance (“EEEEEVERY-ONNNNEEEE“). Did he get typecast after that? Maybe — or maybe he kept doing the ALL CAPITAL LETTERS parts because that’s where the money was. Whatever the explanation, there was an approximately 15-year stretch during which any time you paid to see Oldman in a movie, you could expect a lot of trembling, freaking out, reflexive weeping and snarling and other signifiers of emotional decay. The lovestruck Transylvanian shape-shifter in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” the wannabe-black-gangsta Drexel in “True Romance,” the drawling intergalactic baddie in “The Fifth Element,” the cut-rate Johnny Boy-from-”Mean Streets” in the Irish-American gang film “State of Grace,” and the evil, disfigured billionaire Mason Verger in “Hannibal” were but a few of his super-sized performances. He’s gotten away from this sort of thing recently, though. His more modulated supporting turn in “The Contender” and his very low-key work in the Batman and Harry Potter franchises seemed to signal a new phase in his career — one that could be dominated by relaxed, wise, genuinely likable character roles, the kind that William Holden started to play in his autumnal years.

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    Barbra Streisand

    "Funny Girl," "What's Up, Doc?"

    Babs, we love you, but you’ve never been a subtle actor, except maybe in “Yentl,” a role that required you to fade into the woodwork. But so what? Does anybody want subtle Babs? We want her doing a screen version of her specialty as a singer: belting.

    And man, does she belt, musically and dramatically, in “Funny Girl,” the film for which she tied Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) for the Oscar as best actress; I realize it’s an adaptation of a stage musical, but be honest, aren’t there times when you feel like she’s trying to sell you something, and keeps knocking on your front door even after you’ve shut all the blinds and tried to muffle the sound of your own breathing? “What’s Up, Doc?” is a delight, but what a steamroller she is, telegraphing every beguiling or sarcastic or irreverent moment. “Nuts” is just nuts. Even when she’s trying to dial it back, she tends to overdo it. “The Mirror Has Two Faces” could have won her an award for least naturalistic performance as a theoretically real woman. In the therapy scenes from “Prince of Tides,” all she really needed to do to set up the love story was very subtly suggest that Dr. Lowenstein was a bit more delighted by her patient, Nick Nolte’s Tom Wingo, than was healthy; instead her voice and body language tell you “I am interested in this guy in a non-therapeutic way” almost immediately, and there are a couple of moments near the middle of the film where Streisand (who also directed) cuts to herself looking at Tom, and you half-expect the reverse shot to show a gigantic cartoon ice cream cone with a sign around its neck that reads, “Yummy Yummy!”

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    Bette Davis

    "The Old Maid," "Mr. Skeffington," "All About Eve," "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

    Writing about the 1939 drama “Old Maid,” Dan Callahan wrote, “Over the course of this modest, handsome film, Davis turns from a charming, self-effacing girl into a tight-lipped spinster, the sort of transformation she loved because it emphasized that she was an Actress. Whereas costar Miriam Hopkins never really ages, Davis relishes coming up with the severest middle-aged look possible: stiff-backed, heavy-lidded, dried-up. The way Davis rations the glimpses of the younger girl peeping from this grim old maid signals her consummate control of her effects, which would be meaningless without the sheer soul that guides her every move. There isn’t much subtext to Davis’ characterizations; she lays everything out for you, but her smaller grace notes are what you remember.”

    You do remember the grace notes — especially the moments of loneliness and self-doubt in “All About Eve,” maybe her defining role — but no, Davis wasn’t a fan of subtext. She was a big, big, BIG actress, theatrical even in parts that had nothing to do with the theater. Sometimes her go-for-broke energy backfired; her performance in “Mr. Skeffington,” maybe one of the worst performances ever nominated for a best actress Oscar, is borderline disastrous — so randomly bizarre that her brain seems to have been replaced with a corn popper. (Yes, really; have a look.) Sometimes the Unstoppable Life Force approach works brilliantly: “Now, Voyager,” the late career masterpiece “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” And it’s a good thing it did, because she really didn’t have any other approach. She was an all-or-nothing sort of star.

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    Nicole Kidman

    "The Hours," "Moulin Rouge," "To Die For"

    I hesitated to put Nicole Kidman on this list because whatever you think of her as an actress, many of her major roles ask for her to dial it back a bit and be reactive (“The Peacemaker”), tightly wound (“Dead Calm”) or numbed by unhappiness (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Rabbit Hole”). But when she goes big, she doesn’t hold back — and I think that’s a problem, because when she does go big, she’s just bad. I never buy her; enjoyable artifice doesn’t come naturally to her, and I feel as though I can see every move she’s about to make before she makes it. “Moulin Rouge” is in many ways a hot mess, but it’s so likable — and filled with so much energetic pop music — that you don’t immediately notice how badly she’s outmatched by her on-screen suitor, Ewan McGregor. He’s passionate; she’s “passionate.” He’s in love; she’s “in love.” The first time I saw the film, when her character reciprocated the hero’s affection I worried that she was a secret femme fatale who was setting him up for some horrible double-cross; that’s how not-sold I was.

    I’ve always had trouble buying Kidman in parts that are supposed to be larger-than-life. I never understood the critical raves for her work in “To Die For”; as the ruthlessly ambitious weather girl Suzanne, she italicizes everything, delivering saucy lines saucily, cruel lines cruelly, wrinkling up her entire face when the character is expressing contempt for someone, and overplaying the character’s amorality so baldly that I didn’t believe she could fool anybody, even those poor, dumb teens that she takes in. I thought everything about that performance was too much and all wrong, except maybe her dance in the rain to “Sweet Home Alabama.” And for my money, her Oscar-winning turn in “The Hours” is almost unwatchably twitchy and overdetermined, a spectacular false nose attached to a wind-up doll.

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    Bette Midler

    "Beaches," "For the Boys," "Stella"

    Pauline Kael always had a soft spot for Bette Midler. “Midler is a classic figure,” she wrote of her performance in “Big Business,” “a grinning urchin out of Volpone. Her appetite is the audience’s appetite. It’s as if she and we were passing a flask of euphoria back and forth. More!” Really? Because I don’t see how Midler could ever give us more of anything; in comedies and dramas alike, she always gives you everything she’s got, often with both barrels. Sometimes this is just what the movie needed: “Big Business,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “The Rose” (still her best work). Other times it’s almost grotesquely excessive. Her work in “For the Boys” verged on self-parody, then crossed over, spread a blanket down and had a picnic. “Beaches” was a drippy faucet of a performance, too moist even for a melodrama, and if she hadn’t been balanced by a just-right Barbara Hershey, she would have been impossible to take; in the last third of the film, she really should have worn a wire halo. Her title performance in the remake of “Stella Dallas” may have been her nadir; as the title character, a mother so self-sacrificing that she makes Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree look miserly, she attempted a 1940s “woman’s picture” star turn while surrounded by 1980s actors giving 1980s performances. She poured the Midler-ness on so strong, and with so little modulation, that within about 10 minutes I rooted for her daughter to run away from home and change her name. She is, without a doubt, a Big star.

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    Sean Penn

    "The Falcon and the Snowman," "Casualties of War," "Carlito's Way," "Dead Man Walking"

    Like co-inductee Al Pacino, with whom he costarred in the underrated retro gangster picture “Carlito’s Way,” Sean Penn can switch it up. If you want small, he can do small, and any gradation between that and heee-YUGE. His bit part in this year’s “The Tree of Life” was almost a blank slate performance, which was the whole point, and he’s been sensationally effective in other life-size parts: “The Interpreter,” “State of Grace” (opposite Overacting Hall of Fame co-inductee Gary Oldman), “At Close Range,” “Bad Boys.” Even his Oscar-winning performance in “Mystic River” and his Oscar-nominated turn in “Dead Man Walking” are, in their hearts, small performances, each gesture very carefully thought out even when Penn seems to be uncorking his id and letting it spill onto the screen. (Grieving “Mystic River” father Jimmy Markum’s cry “Is that my daughter in there?” has become movie buff shorthand for “too much,” but I thought it was raw, honest and believably unhinged; if your child’s corpse was discovered in a park somewhere, you’d probably sound like that, too.)

    But there’s a touch of the grandiose 1950s Method actor to Penn, and it really came through in the first half of his career; from approximately 1982, when he established himself in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (big) and “Bad Boys” (small), he reminded me of James Dean, and the young Dennis Hopper and Paul Newman, all of whom desperately wanted to be Marlon Brando until they figured out how to be themselves. Penn didn’t just change his energy from film to film, he changed his hair, his grooming, his posture, his musculature, his accent and — or so it seemed in certain parts — his DNA. And when you look back over his filmography it’s striking how many of his roles could have been played at more or less the same pitch in 1930s or 1940s films, when a certain amount of caricature was expected and even welcomed: the mouth-breathing spy with a porn star mustache in “The Falcon and the Snowman”; the screw-up guitarist in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” (“take yer hat off,” he warns some people who aren’t respecting his rich gal pal, “she grew up wit’ a butlah!”); the whiny, smarmy, coke-addled attorney Dave Kleinfeld in “Carlito’s Way,” and, most of all, the hateful Sgt. Meserve in “Casualties of War,” whose lip seems permanently curled into a disdainful sneer; with his strutting, gum chewing and cartoony Noo Yawk accent he’s like the meanest Bowery Boy ever.

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    Marlon Brando

    "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata!," "One-Eyed Jacks," "The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," et al.

    Marlon Brando was the most imaginative and innovative actor in the history of film, maybe in the history of acting, period. This is as close to provable, objective fact as opinions can get; even actors who don’t like or enjoy him tend to concede that much. Dennis Hopper — another legend I could have easily inducted into this hall — once called Brando “the greatest film actor I’ve ever seen — and I knew that when I was in my teens.” But let’s be honest: Whatever Brando was doing on-screen, more often than not you couldn’t really call it naturalistic. It was “real” in the sense that it gave observable shape to the eddies of his characters’ feelings and thoughts. But aside from “The Men”, “On the Waterfront” and a few other roles — “The Chase” and “The Ugly American” and “A

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    Nicolas Cage

    "Raising Arizona," "Vampire's Kiss," "Honeymoon in Vegas," "Face/Off," "Leaving Las Vegas," "The Rock," "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," et al.

    When Nicolas Cage plays “normal,” as he did in “It Could Happen to You” and “Windtalkers,” he makes very little impression; you give him points for being able to tone it down and seem like a regular human being, but within hours you start to forget the particulars of his performance. But just read some of these lines and tell me you can’t hear the funny voice he devised, and see him stammering, fidgeting, waving his arms around, screaming, scowling and doing all the other things we expect Nicolas Cage to do when we pay to see one of his movies:

    “Biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.” “I’m a prickly pear! I’m a prickly pear!” “Well, what’s the point of being a teenager if you can’t dress weird?” “Or WHAT? I’ll be ARRESTED? Locked … in AIRPORT JAIL?” “Shoot him again! His soul’s still dancin’!” “‘I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy. I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy.’ What is wrong with these people, huh? Mason? Don’t you think there’s a lot of, uh, a lot of anger flowing around this island? Kind of a pubescent volatility? Don’t you think? A lotta angst, a lot of ‘I’m sixteen, I’m angry at my father’ syndrome?” “Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. NOT US! We are here to ruin ourselves, and to break our hearts, and love the wrong people, and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!”

    This man doesn’t deserve a spot in the Overacting Hall of Fame. He deserves a wing. If you fused Toshiro Mifune, James Dean, Albert Brooks, Jerry Lewis and Pee-Wee Herman in one of the teleporters from “The Fly,” you’d end up with Nicolas Cage. May he live long and prosper. I eagerly await the day that he receives a lifetime achievement Oscar. He’ll probably bite its head off.