B-Movies Extended: The Top Ten Over-the-Top Movie Performances

These actors didn't just chew the scenery, they devoured it whole.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Chew, chew, chew. That is the thing to do.

Have you seen Premium Rush yet? Oh, you haven’t? It’s okay. I’ll wait while you go get a ticket and see it.

Back? Amazing, right? And wasn’t Michael Shannon excellent? Indeed, if you’ll recall from the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast right here in the hallowed cyber-pages of CraveOnline, you would hear William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I pretty much frothing wildly over how entertaining the flick was, and even making an earnest call to The Academy, asking that Michael Shannon be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. We argued that the kind of truly unique scenery chewing that Shannon delivers in Premium Rush is just as impressive as any complex and high-minded dramatic performance to come out of Hollywood’s usual dramatic Oscar-bait weepies. We also discussed how Gene Siskel, way back in 1997, made a plea with Academy members to nominate the legendary Jon Voight for his performance in the oft-maligned rubbery killer snake flick Anaconda.

You need not delve into period films and Nazi dramas to find great performances. Sometimes – indeed, often – you can look to any mid-level action flick and find some wonderfully iconoclastic performances from hard-working oddball actors, biting into their roles with such energetic aplomb, it’s hard not to enjoy their work. Think of Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It’s possible, indeed, to take much pleasure in an otherwise “bad” performance, enjoyable by dint of its sheer energy. Think of Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls.  She’s often accused of thrashing and growling and overacting, but you cannot deny that she brings an infectious and awesome energy to the role, forcing it over the wall into the realm of camp. I will say this in print, and I will stand by it: I like Berkley’s performance in Showgirls. The film would not have worked the way it does with any other actress.

Indeed, as a response to Michael Shannon’s wonderfully wall-eyed performance in Premium Rush (and you did see it, right?), Bibbs and I have decided to do some brainstorming, and come up with some other notable over-the-top and idiosyncratic performances that stand alone in a world of bland emoting and grand speechifying. No scenery will be safe from the hungry jaws of the following people. Watch and tremble.


Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest

The legendary, and legendarily horrible, Joan Crawford was an awesome actress of impressive stature who was just as well known for her talent as she was for her catty off-screen antics. Thanks to the 1981 camp classic Mommie Dearest, based on the tell-all expose by Crawford’s daughter Christina, she is also known as a monstrous abusive parent, who would regularly deny money, Christmas gifts, jobs, and affection to her put-upon children. In the role of Joan herself, Faye Dunaway gives what can only be described as a hysterical performance, as she gleefully rips into the scenery and her on-screen children with equal energetic terror. Indeed, when the movie came out, critics lambasted Dunaway for her scenery chewing, and some cite Mommie Dearest as the nadir of her career, or, at the very least, a downward turn. I say that watching Dunaway eat her way through walls is actually one of the most extraordinary things she has managed to do in a long and varied career. There’s a reason that, to this very day, people like to raise a fist in the air, and scream “No! More! Wire! Hangers! Ever!” Thank you Faye. You did something magical.


Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss

Nicolas Cage is one of those actors as known for his mania as he is for his understated leading-man work. These days, he seems to be 50/50, and you rarely know which Nic you’re going to get: The reserved intense Nic, or the bug-eyed crazy Nic. I like them both, personally. And while he has plenty of juicy “wacky” roles to choose from (seriously, have you seen Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans?), I have to zero in on his earlier performance from 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss. In that film, Cage plays a single young man living in the big city who has a casual one-night stand with a mysterious smoky woman (Jennifer Beals), who, during the course of their lovemaking, bites him. Soon thereafter, Cage becomes convinced that he is a vampire, and takes to wearing black capes, plastic fangs, and hunting pigeons for their blood. He eventually begins making bug-eyes at other young women, and trying to bite them as well. His seduction techniques look like he’s having some sort of attack. And to cap off all the mugging, Cage actually eats a real cockroach on camera. Now that is total dedication to your craft. Get back to me once you’ve eaten a bug for a living.


Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday

A melodrama of the highest order, Larry Peerce’s 1973 film Ash Wednesday takes another screen legend, one admittedly already known for none-too-subtle performances in films like the gloriously junky Cleopatra, and allowing her to milk every scene for all it’s worth. Elizabeth Taylor doesn’t thrash and snarl the same way Faye Dunaway does in Mommie Dearest, but watching her prowl around a ski lodge, getting flirty looks from scads of young men is a pleasure unto itself. The film is about an aging woman (Taylor) with a flagging marriage to a cold-hearted prick, who gets plastic surgery to make herself more beautiful. Taylor had proven that she could handle meatier material than this, so it was odd and also pleasurable to see her play such a shallow and vapid woman, suffering under the knife to please a fellow. If one considers how much Taylor herself banked on her beauty for the longest time, Ash Wednesday could be seen as semi-autobiographical. Bette Davis made All About Eve. Taylor made Ash Wednesday.


Jeremy Irons in The Time Machine

Actually, I’d like to cite Jeremy Irons in Casanova, The Time Machine, and Dungeons & Dragons for this slot. Irons, known for his viscous voice, had already received an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune back in 1990. To this day, despite a wide variety of acting jobs, he has a reputation for playing sinister heavies. This reputation led to a string of films in the early ‘00s wherein he plays outright villains. In Casanova, he played opposite the charming Heath Ledger as the prim and uptight jerk who would put an end to the famous lothrio’s many amours, and shakes his fists like a principal in a ‘70s teen comedy. In Dungeons & Dragons, the ill-advised film adaptation of the famous nerd-making RPG, he plays a wicked wizard, sporting a pair of goofy gauntlets, spewing out dialogue about dragons and magic that make you feel a little bit sad. Best of all has to be his role in the 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In it, Irons plays the “Über-Morlock,” a white faced, fright-wig-wearing cenobite-like ghoul who lives in a cave, and has a series of rings down his back. He eats the Eloi, and spews a cross-eyed philosophy of power dynamics. His first line of dialogue, as the pale ghoul? “Do I surprise you?” Always, Jeremy. Always. 


Wings Hauser in Vice Squad

Dwight “Wings” Hauser is sort of like a low-rent Gary Busey, but not as stable or cogent. Even though he’s played a long string of heroes and good guys, he always looks as if he’s about to grab the nearest folding chair, and turn your skull into chunky salsa. He’s kind of scary. And never was he scarier than in a rather obscure little crime flick from 1982 called Vice Squad wherein he plays a mad-eyed superpimp named Ramrod who slaps hookers to death, threatens Season Hubley, and leads cops across rooftop chases while wearing high-heeled cowboy boots. I can’t look at Wings Hauser without thinking he’s going to explode from all the blood rushing into his face. The guy is a madman who has been allowed to act in front of cameras. I’m sure that guy has a couch made of human skin. Or at least a healthy collection of, I dunno, turtle corpses or something.


Honorable Mentions:

Udo Kier

Crispin Glover

Susan Tyrrell

Al Pacino

Daniel Day Lewis


From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

Michael Shannon’s performance in Premium Rush, despite many acclaimed roles in films like Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, is what finally made me excited to see him in Man of Steel. I’ve gone on record that we don’t need to see General Zod in another Superman movie, but I now suspect that we at least need to see Michael Shannon play him, at least once. In this weekend’s largely overlooked release, he gives the kind of zealous, over the top portrayal usually reserved for broad parodies, but thanks to his canny sense of comic timing and the already outlandish filmmaking, he never seems out of place.

There’s a school of thought that seems to think that over-acting, if you can call it that, is “bad.” And maybe it is. But giving a broad performance isn’t the same as giving a bad one. There are wild characters in real life as well. Kim Jong-il wasn’t reining himself in, was he? Donald Trump feels like a bit of a kook too. Go ahead and take a gander at some of the sleazier reality TV shows, if you can stomach it. There are nutty, overly emotional and extremely odd people in the world, and playing them sometimes means eschewing subtlety in favor of sweeping pronouncements and absurd little tics. 

And yes, sometimes an actor takes what seems like a relatively normal role and goes completely nuts with it. Sometimes they steal the damned movie, sometimes they arguably ruin it, but there’s something hypnotic about seeing a character in their own crazed universe, oblivious to the reality of their situation. It might not make for a good movie, but by god you’ll remember them.

So here, then, are some of my favorite outlandish performances from cinema past and present. They may be nuts, but they capture your attention and stick in your memory, oftentimes more than the rest of the actual film.


Raul Julia in Street Fighter

Raul Julia was an accomplished actor and a charismatic presence, best known to many young types as the superlative Gomez Addams in Barry Sonenfeld’s The Addams Family movies. He was also in acclaimed dramas like Kiss of the Spider-Woman, which has less to do with Marvel comics and more to do with two disparate prisoners in Brazil who fall in love. He died too young, at the age of 54, and like many great actors his last film was not a very good one. Street Fighter has long been lambasted as a terrible video game adaptation (just like, well, most video game adaptations), which turned the fairly straightforward Capcom fighting game into a needlessly sprawling, overly jokey nonsense affair that some considered a waste of Julia’s talents. But Julia, to his credit, gave every bit of himself to his performance as the mad dictator M. Bison, a ludicrously conceived despot with outlandish taste in attire and a tendency to belt out every line of dialogue like he’s a Roman Emperor calling to a subservient throng. But even Bison’s quieter moments have a desperate ring of hilarious narcissism. “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.” And what a Tuesday it was…


Gary Oldman in Leon: The Professional

Although it’s generally lumped into the action genre, Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional is mostly a quiet, thoughtful and complex character study about an illiterate hitman (Jean Reno) who takes in a little girl (Natalie Portman), whose family has been murdered by a corrupt cop. In the director’s cut, they kinda-sorta fall in love, which really made the drama meaningful but was considered too outré for American audiences at the time. But all that subtlety goes out the window when Gary Oldman pops up on-screen, playing a wild madman of a villain whose very existence defies everything Leon is about. It’s broad, but the very fact that Oldman feels out of place actually makes his character fit into Leon perfectly. He’s so mad – “Get me everyone… EEEEEEEVVVVVVVVEERRRRYYONNNNNNE!” – that he singlehandedly turns the quiet drama into an action spectacular by the film’s powerful, kick-ass finale. And we love him for it.


Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai

Toshiro Mifune is considered one of the finest Japanese actors who ever lived, and by extension, one of the finest actors of any nationality. One of his strengths was playing the character he was given, not just to whatever he felt his wheelhouse was. In Seven Samurai, an action film that helped define the very action genre, his character was not a great samurai. Technically, he wasn’t even a samurai. But he acted the way he thought a samurai should act, and overcompensated for his meager personal experience in every scene. The character was acting, and chewing the gorgeous feudal scenery, but Toshiro Mifune was being genuine about it the whole time. It’s a testament to the rest of Akira Kurosawa’s incredible cast that Mifune galvanized the film without ever quite stealing it.


Richard E. Grant & Sandra Bernhard in Hudson Hawk

Hudson Hawkquickly turned into an instant punchline, symbolizing as it does the studio system gone mad, since it feels like it’s trying to be every movie at once, and a star actor’s utter hubris, since Bruce Willis not only starred in the heist comedy but also helped to write the silly thing. But if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it since it came out in 1991, give it a gander: Hudson Hawk seems to presage the kind of metatextual genre-bending we’ve grown accustomed to in the ensuing 20 years, taking place in a curiously self-aware universe in which every movie cliché is treated as a fact of life. And it’s pretty un, too. Among those clichés are the righteously campy villains, played by Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhardt as Bond villains ratcheted up past eleven, all the way to a hundred. They were both nominated for Razzies. The Razzies are wrong sometimes. They’re the perfect bad guys for Hudson Hawk’s ahead of its time, cartoonish world.


Kate Nauta in The Transporter 2

My love of The Transporter 2, which I even referenced in my B-Movies Podcast review of the tonally-similar Premium Rush, is getting legendary. I love the action, I love the homosexual undertones (unusually played up for a mainstream action film), and I really, really, really love Kate Nauta. She plays the villain’s right hand lady in the film, who spends half the film in sopping wet fetish lingerie with a gun at Jason Statham’s head, removing it only to lick his face. How she didn’t parlay this role into more work is beyond me. She commands the screen with her outlandishly villainous sexuality, trades believable blows with one of the great action stars of our time, and she looks absolutely f*cking fantastic in the process. I think I’m going to go watch it again, actually. For… research. Yes. Researching her performance. Yes, that’s it…


Honorable Mentions:

Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in Batman and The Dark Knight (too obvious to mention above)

Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill

Steve Martin in The Little Shop of Horrors

Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher

Leslie Banks in The Most Dangerous Game

Robin Williams in Aladdin

Ian McDiarmid in Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith

Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves