Hoo-boy. I just made the mistake of going on Twitter and asking people to send me their picks for Great Moments in Screen Overacting, and now my phone is buzzing off the table every other second. Is there anything more cringingly fun to talk about, if not actually experience, than a truly bad performance?
Ellen Burstyn hardly gives a bad performance in the current Netflix drama “Pieces of a Woman” — after six decades in the business, I don’t think she’s capable of one — but the actress does have a scene midway through the movie that has prompted me to present her this year’s Anne Bancroft Award for Scenery Chewing Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. Burstyn plays the mother of Vanessa Kirby’s character, who has lost a baby in a grueling childbirth sequence early in the film; in this scene, the mother delivers a dramatic pull-yourself-together monologue that invokes the Holocaust, her own closeness to death as an infant, and a doctor’s prediction that if the baby lifted her head, she’d survive.
The monologue builds and builds in intensity to a pay-off line — “I. Lifted. My. Head!” — that’s delivered with the kind of bravura ham that has some audiences tossing bouquets and others hiding beneath their seats. Not surprisingly, Burstyn is in the running for best supporting actress from a number of Oscar odds-makers. Also not surprisingly, that line has already found its place on the pop-culture timeline of unintended camp classics. It’s not up there with Faye Dunaway shrieking “No wire hangers ever!” in “Mommie Dearest” (1981), but give it time, give it time.
A word about the Anne Bancroft Award — it’s not a thing, really. The designation started as a joke among the members of the Boston Society of Film Critics in the 1980s or ’90s — instigated by the late David Brudnoy, perhaps, in reaction to Bancroft’s, uh, enthusiastic performances in movies like “Agnes of God” (1985). By the time I joined the Society, in 2003, it was a running gag at the annual awards meeting: What storied actor gave the most shameless, award-baiting turn of the year? We never actually awarded an Anne Bancroft Award. But maybe we should have.
Burstyn would be a contender this year, but Glenn Close as Mammy Yokum — sorry, Memaw — in “Hillbilly Elegy” might give her a run for her money. Previous year’s winners could include Anne Hathaway for “Les Miserables” (2012) and, yes, an Oscar and a Bancroft Award can co-exist. Look at Al Pacino, for pity’s sake, finally bagging a best actor trophy for “Scent of a Woman” (1992), whose “I’m in the DAHHHK heah!” scene is enshrined in a thousand Internet memes as a moment of Peak Bancroft.
Honestly, where do you start with Pacino? He’s a candidate for the Anne Bancroft Hall of Fame, from “Scarface” (1983) through “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) and on into the modern era. He’s the ham that keeps on hamming. So is Nicolas Cage, with so many people responding to my Twitter request with so many different Cage-goes-gonzo moments that it’s impossible to pick one. Many opted for “Oh, no, not the bees!” from “The Wicker Man” (2006), but since I’m a purist (and a fan) my choice for quintessential Cage-ian line reading goes to the alphabet sequence from “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988). [All these scenes can be found on YouTube, with various cries of dismay and appreciation in the comments.]
Others mentioned Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” (2000), a film superficially similar to “Vampire’s Kiss.” But there’s the difference: Bale is intentionally going over the top as a soulless yuppie who doesn’t quite know how to act human. Same with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” (1986), another oft-cited example: There’s no way to underplay the most evil man in existence. True overacting, the kind you watch between your fingers with queasy fascination, is rarely self-aware. It just is.
Some make a career of hamboning: Pacino, Cage, Rod Steiger, William Shatner. Gary Oldman, sweet holy Jesus. Some slide into it as their star personas ossify over time: Jack Nicholson as the Joker in “Batman” (1989) or barking “You can’t handle the truth!” in “A Few Good Men” (1992) was a far cry from the smart, nuanced actor of “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) or “Chinatown” (1974). (“Here’s Johnny!” from “The Shining” may have been a critical turning point.) By the way: compare Nicholson’s Joker with Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight” (2008) for an excellent primer in overacting versus finely-tuned big acting.
Some indisputably gifted actors just seem to turn on the voltage when they’re cast as villains in franchise dreck and figure that art is for the birds. How else to explain class acts like Jude Law as Vortigern in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (2017) or Eddie Redmayne as a lunatic intergalactic Emperor in “Jupiter Ascending” (2015), both of whom seem to be channeling late-period Joan Crawford. Charlize Theron shredding the wallpaper as the evil queen in “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012) falls into this category, as does the granddaddy of the subspecies, Jeremy Irons as Profion in “Dungeons and Dragons” (2000). Irons’s interpretation of the script’s “Let the blood raaiiinnn from the skyyyyy!” handily beats the previous title-holder for Single Worst Line in a Performer’s Career, Sir Laurence Oliver’s “I hef no son!” in the 1980 Neil Diamond remake of “The Jazz Singer.”
Some readers ventured classic examples: Patty Duke in “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), Audrey Totter in “Lady in the Lake” (1946), Susan Hayward’s entire career, God bless her. Others pulled out of obscurity a marvelous clip of Pierce Brosnan in “Taffin” (1988), bellowing the single word “here” at top volume for what appears to be half the film’s running time. Curiously, few brought up James McAvoy, who in movies like “Victor Frankenstein” (2015) and “Split” (2016) actually has managed to turn joyous, spittle-flecked scenery chomping into its own form of creative craftsmanship. How can you tell he’s doing it on purpose? He’s having fun. Whereas with all the other nominees for an Anne Bancroft Award, only we are.