One thing people find it easy to criticize is “overacting”. People also find it easy to simply note an example of “overacting” and smile in the way we do with “guilty pleasures”. “Jon Polito is wonderfully hammy as Johnny Caspar”, that sort of thing. “Few people can chew scenery with the endearing voracity of John Malkovich.” Would you want him to read that?

Maybe so, maybe you want him to know he’s making the production more enjoyable with his antics. But is it intended as a compliment? An appreciation? When it is, it may also be a flippant dismissal, a suggestion that the actor took the easy route. Either he or the director didn’t bother to figure out how to construct a subtle performance. Is this fair?

Take Tommy Lee Jones for example. He’s known for being pretty similar in most of his roles, playing fairly understated roles in fairly understated productions (In the Valley of Elah, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) or in unpredictable films where he embodies stability (Men in Black, No Country For Old Men). Sometimes he’s a menacing man of power (The Client, The Fugitive, Under Siege). In most of the roles you associate with him, you don’t remember him doing anything to attract attention. He himself has described his Captain America role as the same sort of thing he always does. And yet, when he does something different from what we expect, there are people who won’t give him the benefit of the doubt. “Overacting” just means “giving a big performance”, with a negative connotation attached.

Here someone accuses him of overacting in Natural Born Killers. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Batman Forever. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Eyes of Laura Mars. Dammit, those are movies that demand big performances. He’s the villain in all those movies and they are all full of shrieking noises and crazy imagery. What’s he supposed to do?

Especially Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978), whose plot makes no sense. To keep people from walking out in bemusement once the sexy fashion-shoot segments are over, he needs to be as menacing as possible. To be menacing while playing a crazy person, he needs to exaggerate his personality a bit.

Look at some examples of overacting from this typically excellent discussion in Jim Emerson’s comments. Includes plenty of people who question the premise, and plenty who don’t.

  • Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast – no, that’s the character.
  • Sheila Reid in Brazil – cited  as both “overacting” and a performance that makes the movie less comedic and more haunting. Is that possible?
  • Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd – no, that’s the character. Lonesome Rhodes is barely this side of Howard Beale as a character who’s written to be charismatic, but can’t honestly be played as less than maniacal.
  • Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – no, that’s the character. Del Toro is capable of more subtle performances. It’s happened.
  • “Jack Nicholson in just about everything” – yes, you could say he gravitates to roles that require what some might consider overacting. Which after a long career, you could say, suggests that he prefers to act in unrealistic ways. If that’s how you see it.
  • “This might be an unpopular assertion, but Joe Pesci overacts his head off in Goodfellas. It’s perfect for the role and the film, but so out there that it’s about as easily mocked and imitated as anything in cinema.” So, it’s perfect for the role. It’s the sort of acting that suits the role exactly. It isn’t overly acted, it’s properly acted. The 1812 Overture is easily mocked too, you know.
  • Tom Hulce in Amadeus – fair enough.

Sheila Reid as the inaccurately widowed Mrs. Buttle in BRAZIL (Terry Gilliam, 1984)

Coming soon: Examples of actors who are not overacting.