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The Greatest Over-The-Top Movie Performances

Let's get something clear right off the bat: Big, hammy acting isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, in some cases, it might distract from a film, but if you put the right actor in the right picture, you can get an exaggerated performance that will absolutely make the movie. Of course, subtlety and realism have their place, but so do grand gestures, wild screaming, and jumping up and down like a madman. Sometimes, overblown acting blends in perfectly with the zaniness of the film, and sometimes it works as a brilliant juxtaposition to all the serious stuff happening onscreen. You put an outrageous actor in screwball comedy, a nutty action movie, or a disturbingly dark drama, and you might have cinematic gold on your hands. From alcoholic dads with a thing for axes to schizophrenic psychos with a craving for human flesh, these are the greatest over-the-top film performances of all time.

Here's Johnny

When it comes to playing angry men, there's no one better than Jack Nicholson. He shouts, screams, and gnashes his teeth in practically every film he's ever made — but he took that rage to scary new levels in The Shining. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this 1980 horror classic finds Nicholson playing Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer with the world's worst case of writer's block. And when Jack gets aggravated, he wants everybody in axe-murdering distance to know about it.

Nicholson wiggles his fingers, waggles his tongue, and constantly flashes a toothy, monstrous grin. When he angrily storms down a hallway, he waves his arms like he's swatting giant, invisible flies. He dances and sways through a barroom like a drunken psychopath. And when he confronts his horrified wife (Shelley Duvall), he acts like the world's most terrifying toddler throwing a truly spine-tingling tantrum. He recites nursery rhymes ("Little pig, little pig") like a murderous Mother Goose, and the famous "Here's Johnny!" line is hammy in the freakiest way possible.

A lot of Nicholson's overacting here is courtesy of Kubrick, who forced his cast to shoot the same scenes over and over again. As the filming went on, Nicholson's takes got crazier and crazier, and Kubrick often decided to go with his most insane interpretations. (Even when warming up for scenes, Nicholson looked nuts.) The result is a truly disturbing character, but even though he's trying to murder his family with an axe, Nicholson is clearly having fun playing a killer. The man is downright gleeful, and his over-the-top enthusiasm makes Jack Torrance one of the most memorable villains in horror history.

No wire hangers

Joan Crawford was a larger-than-life actress with some scary parenting skills. So when it came time to adapt the controversial expose Mommie Dearest, someone needed to give a larger-than-life performance. That duty fell to Faye Dunaway, the Oscar-winning star of movies like Network and Bonnie and Clyde. But instead of creating a grounded, realistic character, Dunaway was evidently possessed by the vengeful spirit of Crawford herself and played the movie star as a demonic grand dame with lungs that go on for days.

Dunaway's performance is pure camp, and while it might not be strictly "good," it's certainly entertaining. Strike that — it's glorious. She plays Crawford as a woman who doesn't know the meaning of the word "whisper." She's frantic and demented, her voice wavering between a hellfire sermon and a nervous breakdown. Every single syllable is drawn out as long as possible. Each word is emphasized for maximum impact, like a hammer over the head. She's Queen Kong, a movie monster who could hold her own against any kaiju. When her voice isn't quavering melodramatically, it's a full-blown roar, with her face twisting into shapes that don't seem humanly possible.

In fact, those freaky faces were quite a problem for Dunaway, who had to keep her mouth contorted all day long to keep that Crawford look going. And in the infamous "no wire hangers" scene — a landmark moment in hammy acting — Dunaway screamed so much that she destroyed her vocal cords and had to visit a voice specialist. Dunaway picked up a Razzie for her work, but while the movie might have torpedoed her career, it cemented her place in the pantheon of over-the-top thespians.

The final frontier

If you're a fan of exaggerated acting, it doesn't get any better than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. On one side of the aisle, you've got William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk, and while he brings a lot of nuance to the classic character, he can't help but Shatner it up every once in a while. In maybe the film's most famous scene, the Star Trek star rips loose with one of cinema's greatest screams, adding a bunch of new "a's" to the name "Khan."

And speaking of Khan, the award for deliciously hammy acting goes to Ricardo Montalban for playing the genetically engineered Übermensch. With perfect pecs and a twinkle in his eye, Montalban is having a blast as Kirk's arch-enemy. He might be clean shaven, but if Montalban had a mustache, he'd never stop twirling it. Whether he's making death threats or giving romantic speeches, the man literally hisses with hatred. Khan loves giving flowery monologues lifted from Moby Dick, and even when he's covered in blood, Montalban savors every Ahab moment.

It's even more fun in the scenes where he's playing against Shatner; with all their exaggerated gestures, they feel like an unstoppable force and an immovable object. In fact, when he's squaring off with Kirk, promising to abandon the admiral on a dead planet, it almost sounds like Montalban is getting off on just how evil he can be. It's a true space opera, and Montalban knows exactly what he's doing: boldly going where no Star Trek villain had gone before.

Say hello to my little friend

When Al Pacino burst into the mainstream as Michael Corleone, he was one intimidating dude, but he played the part with understated menace. He was quiet, low key, and constantly simmering. But as Pacino got older, he also got louder. These days, if you do a Pacino impersonation, you might take the Dog Day Afternoon route and shout, "Attica! Attica!" Or maybe you'll go gruff and gravelly with Scent of a Woman's "Hoo-ah!" But if you really want to capture that blustery Al Pacino attitude, you've got to fake a Cuban accent and let loose with the crazed war cry of "Say hello to my little friend!"

Directed by Brian De Palma (a director who's not exactly subtle himself, and we mean that as a compliment), Scarface is one of the greatest gangster movies ever made, and that's thanks to Pacino's performance as Tony Montana. The man is legitimately brilliant, constantly teetering on the verge of way too much, but never falling into camp. With that outrageous accent, Pacino bullies his way through every scene, dripping with venom as he drops epic lines like "I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I'm going to carve him up real nice."

The more cocaine he snorts, the crazier his performance becomes, and Pacino is absolutely mesmerizing as he staggers through a restaurant, telling the terrified patrons to "say goodnight to the bad guy." Of course, his tour de force moment comes in the film's climax, as the drug-addled kingpin grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down an army of rival gangsters. It's an incredible scene, big and bloody and unbelievably bonkers, just like Pacino's coked-out performance.

Game over, man!

The first four Alien films were all anchored by Sigourney Weaver's lean, mean, and fantastic turn as Ellen Ripley. It's the kind of performance you need in a series full of androids, space jockeys, and evil extraterrestrials. But while Weaver plays a strong, spartan hero, Bill Paxton takes things in a slightly more eccentric direction in James Cameron's Aliens. As Private Hudson, Paxton plays the ultimate dude bro who think he's the ultimate badass.

Hudson has a big, dumb grin, a cocksure swagger, and he walks around like a John Wayne wannabe. If there was an Oscar for obnoxiousness, Paxton would've picked up the prize. But when the xenomorphs show up, all that frat boy bravado scurries away, leaving a wide-eyed Hudson in permanent freak-out mode. As the situation escalates, so does Hudson's voice. All that bluster gives way to abject terror, and nobody does out-of-control wailing quite like Bill Paxton. All that fear eventually leads to the actor's most iconic line — "Game over, man!" — a moment that Paxton actually improvised.

There are times where Paxton wigs out so much that you want somebody to punch Hudson in the face. But honestly, Paxton's performance might be the most realistic one in the movie. Sure, he's screaming at the top of his lungs, but Paxton is basically a stand-in for everybody watching the film. When Hudson is reduced to a whimpering wreck, that's probably what most people would act like. Like it or not, we're all Private Hudson, and Bill Paxton knew it.

Over-the-top Hopper

David Lynch movies often feel like dreams, which means Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet is a monster from the world's worst nightmare. Hopper channeled all his rage into the character of Frank Booth, a small-town criminal with big-time appetites. It's a terrifying performance, all madness and no morals, and from the moment he shows up at Isabella Rossellini's apartment, he's throwing punches and screaming obscenities.

But when Frank pulls on the gas mask, Hopper morphs into a completely different creature. According to Hopper himself, whenever Frank is sucking down that gas, it's supposed to be something like nitrous oxide or amyl nitrate, substances that mess up your mind. And after a few huffs and a few puffs, Hopper unleashes the animal. He plays Frank Booth as the raging id, completely unchecked by anything resembling a conscience. He's nothing but lust and aggression with two legs and a fondness for Pabst Blue Ribbon, and no matter what crime he's committing, this guy only wants to inflict pain.

In perhaps Hopper's best scene, he takes a couple of hits from his gas mask and assaults Rosselini's nightclub singer, as a distressed Kyle MacLachlan watches from the back seat of a car. Hopper ditches any shred of humanity, begging, barking, and eventually biting. When MacLachlan's character finally makes a move, Hopper absolutely melts down. He's got so much anger that it's going to rip out of his skin. Throughout the film, Hopper cries, gasps, and moans like a monstrous baby, giving us something dark and disturbing from the late-night dreams of David Lynch.

Hail to the king, baby

One of the fun things about the Evil Dead franchise is watching the tone change over time. The original film is legit horror, the sequel perfectly balances laughs with gore, and the third is is a straight-up screwball comedy. And while Bruce Campbell's performance as the unfortunate Ash Williams was pitch perfect in Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness lets the man go absolutely wild. There's nothing holding him back here, and The Chin is having the time of his life, playing the world's hammiest hero, a guy dropping one-liners that are oozing with cheese.

The plot finds Ash trapped in the Middle Ages, surrounded by barbaric knights, the living dead, and a bunch of angry demons. With all those monsters running around, Campbell is given ample opportunity to hurl himself against walls, spin around in circles, and stagger all over the set. When he fights a witch in a watery pit, Campbell plays the part like a WWE star. And when skeletal arms start popping out of a cemetery, his little dance through the graveyard — dodging a bunch of bony fingers — is downright delightful.

If there's a weird way to grunt or scream in pain, you can bet Campbell gives it a shot. The highlight reel of his over-the-top abilities comes when he battles an army of pint-sized Ash monsters, finds a demonic creature growing out of his shoulder, and then goes up against a full-sized Ash clone. It's an incredibly bizarre sequence that finds Campbell cackling like a psycho, doing an Irish jig, singing "London Bridge Is Falling Down," and acting like a combo between Jim Carrey and the Three Stooges. It's wonderful, schlocky fun, and when it comes to over-the-top performances, well, hail to the king, baby.

They let anybody into this century!

Hyper, violent, and almost impossible to kill, Simon Phoenix is a Looney Tunes character come to life. He's a cryogenically frozen criminal with bleach blond hair and out-of-date overalls, and when he wakes up in the politically correct future of 2032 — where cursing is illegal, and the police act more like kittens than cops — Phoenix is well on his way to ruling the world.

And honestly, you kind of want this guy to succeed. After all, in a city full of goody two-shoes, Phoenix is played to psychopathic perfection by Wesley Snipes, an action star who's having a great time karate chopping fools and talking to himself like he's the only interesting person in the room. (And honestly, he is.) Snipes plays this criminal as a guy who truly loves his job...and his job happens to be killing people. Hurling people through glass plate windows gives him a good laugh, and shooting people point blank is one of life's greatest pleasures. But he never comes off as some sort of sick serial killer. That's because Snipes injects the character with so much zest, so much joie de vivre, that you can't help but laugh as he tries to murder Sylvester Stallone's monotone super cop.

Snipes' greatest moment comes when he shows up at a museum, looking for weapons. In 2032, nobody carries firearms, so when he stumbles upon an entire collection of old-timey guns, he's like a kid in a candy shop, jumping up and down, rubbing his hands together, and cackling like a crazed chicken. The man is even over-the-top when it comes to his movements. He's constantly strutting around like a god among mere mortals, and his fight scenes are a joy to behold. He chuckles and grins with every punch, and Demolition Man is worth the watch for this exuberant bad guy alone.

You don't have a lucky crack pipe?

Nicolas Cage is the undisputed king of overacting. With few exceptions, the man always plays an eccentric. Sometimes that creates garbage like The Wicker Man, but sometimes it leads to gold like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Despite his spotty filmography, Cage is a fantastic actor, and his turn in Bad Lieutenant is a legitimately great performance, one that's both complex and completely crazy. He stars as Terence McDonagh, a corrupt police lieutenant who's hellbent on breaking every law he comes across. And it doesn't help his surly attitude that he's hooked on painkillers and cocaine. In other words, we've got a drugged-up Nicolas Cage running around with the world's biggest revolver. The results are pure magic.

When this cop confronts two elderly ladies, Cage turns into a homicidal monster, waving that pistol around while screaming, swearing, and slapping the terrified grannies. When he starts going hard and heavy with a party girl in a back alley, Cage gets a little too excited, especially as he's shouting out words like "molest!" Just watching McDonagh try to get a prescription filled is an absolute treat. But coked-up Cage is definitely the best Cage, whether he's laughing at breakdancing ghosts or rambling about his lucky crack pipe. Once he takes a hit, he starts flying hard, and he never slows down, giving us one of the scariest, silliest, and most astonishing performances of his insane career.

Your heart is pure! Rejoice!

Horror movies are rarely nominated for big-time awards, which is a real shame, especially when a movie like Split comes along. James McAvoy is a real beast here, playing a guy named Kevin Wendell Crumb who secretly hosts 23 different personalities. There's the pervy Dennis, the menacing Patricia, and the eager-to-please Hedwig. McAvoy is a menagerie of accents and tics, and every time he shifts into a new a personality, you can tell he's a new character before he opens his mouth by the way he holds his head and positions his shoulder. Seriously, this is Oscar-level stuff, and when McAvoy needs to play it quiet and understated, he's not afraid to keep it low-key.

Of course, in a horror film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, you're not exactly going for grounded realism, and McAvoy is more than happy to explode with animalistic rage. Playing Hedwig, he pulls some truly freaky dance moves that are equal parts horrific and hilarious. Before everything gets super scary, there's a moment when Kevin's personalities are battling to control their poor host, and McAvoy cycles between six distinct voices in the space of a few minutes.

But McAvoy revels in his over-the-top powers when Kevin's 24th personality takes over: the cannibalistic, wall-climbing Beast. In the film's climax, McAvoy screams with deep guttural anger, playing the Beast like a tiger with the ability to speak. Every time he opens his mouth, he's screaming through pain and hunger, until that incredible cageside monologue when he's literally howling at the camera. He's covered in gore, gritting his teeth, and preaching a bloodsoaked sermon that will go down as one of McAvoy's most brilliant moments.