The grand tradition of scenery chewing is vital for cinema. Whether it’s the most over-the-top acting, a performance of genuine talent and ability, or something truly awful, scenery chewing is a broad church. In this list you’ll find all of the above – a performance qualifies as scenery chewing if the actor is demonstrating to you that they are acting, and that you need to feel the power of their acting.
It’s amazing stuff, and all of our favourite thespians are guilty of it, even during what are considered their best performances. So enjoy the below, and suggest some more below..
50. Christopher Lee – Count Dracula (1970)
Let’s start with a man who’s chewed scenery with aplomb for decades. Whether as the Prince of Darkness, Scaramanga, Count Dooku, or Saruman, Lee has imbued all his roles with a power that only the very finest can achieve. He has two lines in the above clip, but that’s the only two lines you’ll care about. Which really, is what scenery chewing should be about – making an impression and making sure everyone else knows you’re acting your socks off.
49. Crispin Glover – River’s Edge (1986)
For a large part of my life, I only really knew Crispin Glover as mild-mannered George McFly. So it came as a surprise when I first saw his infamous Letterman interviews, and then followed that up by checking out his song Clowny Clown Clown (watch it here if you dare). It was then I knew this man was a special talent, and luckily I was rewarded after I discovered this bravura performance in River’s Edge. Thank you, Crispin.
48. Ashton Kutcher – The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Ashton Kutcher is definitely one to watch in the years to come. I hear whispers of a good performance as Steve Jobs in Jobs, and coupled with his obvious ability to over-act when needed, it suggests that he’ll probably get some sort of Oscar nomination in a few years’ time. But the important thing to remember is to start young. You must practice your scenery chewing in order to hone it into something beautiful. This is a good start, but it’s only a start.
47. David Caruso – CSI: Miami (2002-2012)
This man was paid to just utter endlessly shit one liners at the end of every show. He made a genuine living from scenery chewing week in week out. How can you not respect that? It’s incredible. Oh Caruso, I like that you knew better than to attempt anything else.
46. Donald Pleasance – You Only Live Twice (1967)
Well how can we not have the ultimate Bond villain? Every line he delivers oozes a theatrical menace, and even with his limited screen-time you know he’s the biggest bad there’s ever going to be in the Bond universe. Which is pretty incredible when you think about it. Although portrayed by several actors over the years, it is Donald Pleasance’s perfectly pitched OTT performance that wins the day and earns him a spot on this list.
45. Johnny Depp – Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005)
Sometimes, scenery chewing just results in something terrible. Here’s a prime example of that. Depp was clearly going for ‘wacky’, but sadly his shtick in Tim Burton movies started to wear thin at exactly this point. No amount of zany posturing from an increasingly manic eyed Depp could help what was an actor struggling to find a performance in an over-acting role. Full marks for trying Johnny, but come back next time.
44. Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained (2012)
I had an absolute blast with Django Unchained. Some may point out that it’s a little too long, and they’d have a point. It also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on closer inspection (just why did they need such an elaborate plan to rescue Broomhilda? Hmm, maybe I should have put this in my plot holes article…) but for pure enjoyment it’s hard to beat.
However, one small bit of scenery chewing had me baffled, although it’s hard to forget. And that’s Tarantino’s bizarre turn as the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co employee. It’s a performance that’s so at odds with everybody else I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. Is he meant to be that bad? Where the hell is that accent from? Is he purposely trolling us? This scene above sadly cuts off most of his lines, so it’s well worth getting a hold of the full film and checking it out.
43. Hayden Christensen – Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones (2002)
Reading the list of actors who auditioned for Anakin is a bit like being told, ‘here’s what you could have won’ after missing out on the main prize in a game show. Poor Hayden, hamstrung by both a lack of decent script and poor direction, he nevertheless still failed to convincingly sell Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, leaving you annoyed that Darth Vader was such a snotty little kid. But it wasn’t for lack of trying, whether he “Wishes he could wish away his feelings” (my personal most hated line in the film) or getting really, really angry about murdering sand people – a scene that on paper read powerfully, but here, not so much.
42. Colin Farrell – Alexander (2004)
Maybe it was the blonde wig. Maybe it was the unadulterated Irish accent. Whatever it was, it’s ensured that Colin Farrell’s magnificently barmy performance as Alexander the Great was always going to be a focal point of Oliver Stone’s misfiring epic. He literally gives it his all, and it’s a valiant effort. I’ve always had time for Farrell. But this was never the right role for him, and no matter how much scenery chewing he does, he was never going to be great. Ha, did you see what I did there?
41. Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks took an unusual tack when portraying the simple Forrest Gump in Robert Zemeckis’ well loved movie. If he’s not doing an almost comedy southern accent, he’s spitting out metaphors for life, saving lives, meeting famous people and changing history, and just being Forrest. It’s a role which required Hanks to go big, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. It verges on the border of being heartfelt and believable, and ridiculous and slightly offensive. Which is just what all good scenery chewing should aspire to be.
40. Elizabeth Taylor – Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
Lost among all the talk and tales of her personal life is the fact that Dame Elizabeth was an absolutely superb actress, who could lift any scene and more than match the magnetism of Richard Burton as they sparked off each other. Key to this was her ability to turn a script into something more than words being recited. That wasn’t enough for her – everything had to be more. Even if it’s just seeing someone’s place for the first time and eating a bit of chicken, she’s decided that it’s going to be the most intense chicken eating ever.
39. Michael Shannon – Premium Rush (2012)
I was late to the Premium Rush party. It’s the type of film that truly belongs in the 90s, and not just for its weirdly out-of-date cycle courier hero. In fact, I didn’t even know that Michael Shannon was in it. So imagine my surprise when he popped up, as a truly bonkers baddie. This was the same guy who’d be quietly rising to character acting prominence and known for his ‘serious’ roles (see Take Shelter for a superb example of this). But here he was, being an absolute loon. My favourite part is the ambulance sequence, with his brilliant laugh. Sadly though, finding clips online is a bit tricky – so instead here’s the NYC car chase. Shannon gets a few good bits in it though, and you can see why Zack Snyder thought he’s make the perfect General Zod – a role made for scenery chewing.
38. Marlon Brando – The Island Of Dr Moreau (1996)
It was a real toss-up between young Brando and old Brando. Young Brando showed his scenery-chewing class in A Streetcar Named Desire, stealing every scene before it was cool to do so. But the trouble with it is that the performance hovers too close to being flawless – he pulls it back when needed to create a genuinely believable character. It would take until old Brando before he could fully unleash his true over-acting power – with the incredible Island Of Dr Moreau providing a final curtain call on his talent. Here he is being savaged by his out of control beast-men.
37. Cate Blanchett – Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
I didn’t think Cate Blanchett had it in her. She always seemed so nice. So colour me surprised when she produced this epic performance as Galadriel. Of course we should have seen it coming – you can’t exactly play an immortal elf queen who’s seen world shattering wars without being a bit over-the-top. But she knows exactly when to chew the scenery and when to pull back. Her temptation by the ring scene is almost comical, which is exactly what the best scenery chewing should be. Almost too much, but just enough to leave you impressed.
36. James Stewart – Harvey (1950)
How can you convincingly portray a man whose best friend is an imaginary giant rabbit? By dialling up your acting several notches. Jimmy Stewart was never an actor to be afraid of a role, but in Harvey he attacks what should have been an impossible task with gusto. It’s sheer brilliance, and one of the finest pieces of acting in cinematic history, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s chewing the scenery a bit on order to sell the concept of the rabbit as a real character.
35. Jeff Bridges – Iron Man (2008)
Jeff Bridges is best loved for his under-acting masterclass as The Dude. It’s an iconic role, and shows just how much you can do by not doing much. However, maybe he felt a little left out when he saw how much scenery was getting chewed up by his compatriots. And is it just a coincidence that he finally won his Oscar after letting loose in Iron Man, and screaming about Tony Stark building an Arc Reactor in a cave? No, I think not. Proof positive that we love over-acting. In fact we demand it in our best.
34. Gerard Butler – 300 (2007)
“Hey Gerard, we need you to play Leonidas, the King of Sparta. Just one thing though, we need you to basically roar your entire way through the film. Sound good?” Sounds amazing.
33. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
He’s on-screen for an apparent 16 minutes (although please feel free to correct me) and won an Oscar for his troubles. It’s held up as the greatest villainous performance in the history of cinema. Yet in reality, it’s just a huge exercise in scenery chewing. Oh yes, it’s scenery chewing of the highest order, but watch Hopkins gobble up all that script – yum, yum, yum. It’s skills he would later demonstrate in Thor, as the mighty Odin, but here his talents lie in darkness. Enjoy.
32. John Travolta – Battlefield Earth (2000)
Simply magnificent. He really believed in this film, and that makes this bit of acting all the more impressive. He was trained to conquer galaxies while you were still learning to spell your name by the way.
31. Jennifer Jason Leigh – Single White Female (1992)
Now this is the type of brilliantly unhinged performance I can get behind. In fact it made the film so well known, that the term single white female entered popular culture to mean crazy psycho stalker. Jennifer Jason Leigh is purely responsible for this, with her wild eyed threats, accusations, and sobbing remorse all in one scene. She’s acting for all she’s worth, and it’s beautiful to behold.
30. Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike (2012)
Now he’s been fully rehabilitated as a movie star in recent years, and will headline Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, it’s clear to see that we were fools for not appreciating the scenery chewing of Matthew McConaughey over the years. He wasn’t just a bad actor; he was in fact just acting on a totally different level to his fellow thespians. But finally proof was delivered to us in Magic Mike, as he grabs the throat of the film with a truly outrageous execution of a role. It’s just glorious.
29. Ian McDiarmid – Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (2005)
The thing I like best about the prequels (yes, I like other things too. Umm, I can’t quite remember them right now…) is that Ian McDiarmid is clearly acting in a completely different film series to everyone else. He obviously decided to disregard the notes from Lucas about stilted and restrained performances, and just go for what he felt was right – and boy does it really lift the film. Whether or not he’s cackling with evil glee, or practically winking at the camera to let us know that ‘yes, it’s me who’s the baddie!’, there’s never a moment where you don’t wish he was back on-screen. Thank goodness he wins.
28. Russell Crowe – Les Miserables (2012)
Can you call singing in a musical film scenery-chewing? Well bugger it, I have – and as it’s my list you’ll have to accept it (or call me out in the comments below). Anyway, Les Mis is a not particularly good film unfortunately, but totally rescued by Russell Crowe’s barnstorming big performance as Javert. He knew he was up against triple-threat Hugh Jackman, so decided he would out-bellow him, and anybody else, any chance he got. Spectacular work Mr Crowe.
27. Jim Carrey – Batman Forever (1995)
It’s almost too easy to put this one in here. It’s a purposely over-the-top performance in an over-the-top film. He’s wearing a green lycra suit with bright red hair. He’s Jim Carrey! However, in a long list of ‘zany’ Carrey performances, this is the one where he not only steals the film, but steals it from a desperately mugging Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face. The final act may as well just have been them too shouting in each others faces for all the notice you took of, y’know, Batman. It’s glorious, and if the Nolan bat-trilogy was missing one thing, it was a villain in a lycra suit.
26. Jeremy Irons – Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
While I’ve tried to defend scenery chewing in this article, and tried to point out that it’s often quite necessary to make what we consider an iconic performance, sometimes it’s just a well-regarded actor taking a pay cheque and putting on a pantomime level of acting as they ham it up. Here’s Jeremy Irons doing just that.
25. Ray Liotta – In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2006)
I think Ray Liotta looked at the fine acting work money Jeremy Irons got for Dungeons & Dragons and figured, ‘I want a piece of that’. But what he didn’t want to do was bother dressing up in fantasy clothes for this forgotten entry in Jason Statham’s career (it’s so bad that even our resident Stath-meister Duncan Bowles can’t watch it) so instead he just acts in his jeans in several scenes. Which may or may not be de rigueur for evil magicians in this world.
24. Kevin Spacey – House Of Cards (2013)
It’s been a long career of out-acting everybody else in the room for Kevin Spacey. He’s dropped some incredible scenery chewing turns, from Swimming With Sharks, to Superman Returns. But it’s his most recent role that has truly given him license to ham it up with delicious villainous charm as Senator Frank Underwood in the remake of House Of Cards. When you’re up against the original masterful performance of Ian Richardson, there’s only one thing to do – and that’s go big in your asides to the camera, threatening colleagues, rib-eating, and general behaviour to everyone in your life. And Spacey is up to the challenge.
23. Tommy Wiseau – The Room (2003)
Proof positive that scenery-chewing can elevate you and your film into something else. It’s been suggested that Tommy Wiseau’s acting in The Room is just bad. But it’s something more than that. He attacks his own script with a deranged passion, and audiences responded to it, turning it from a so-bad-you-have-to-see joke into an international sensation. Which obviously you still have to see in order to believe it.
22. Harvey Keitel – Bad Lieutenant (1992)
He’s so crazy that he made Nic Cage’s follow up turn seem positively restrained by comparison. He also really hates Jesus it seems. Excellent howling from Keitel, in an almost animalistic piece of over-the-top acting which involves mainly cursing at the Son of God for quite a while before finally crawling on his hands and knees to beg forgiveness.
21. Robert De Niro – Cape Fear (1991)
What an excellent scenery chewing performance De Niro gives here as Max Cady – it’s not only one of his finest, but also one of his most berserk. At no point is this a performance rooted in any sort of reality, and that’s exactly what is needed in order to provide a truly terrifying villain – and one who gave rise to what should surely be considered one of the finest ever Simpsons episodes. I only wish De Niro would over act like this again, and not in the way he does as Fearless Leader in Rocky & Bullwinkle.
20. Sean Connery – Highlander (1986)
It’s almost as if years of punning as Bond was nothing more than a warm-up for this incredible role as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, chief metallurgist to King Charles V of Spain. Now I know many people have mocked Connery in this for using a Scottish accent while playing a Spaniard, but do you know anything? He’s actually Egyptian by birth! So yeah, problem sholved. You could also include his crazy costume in Zardoz on its own merits here, as it over-acts all by itself.
19. Dennis Hopper – Everyday life
Somewhat blurring the line between scenery chewing, and just being absolutely crazy in day-to-day life, Dennis Hopper almost epitomises the New Hollywood era of the 70s, when people just wanted to shake shit up and produce great movies. When else would such a nutter as Hopper not only be allowed to make films, but be celebrated for his ‘fearlessness’ too?
This is the man who would consume half a gallon of rum, 28 beers, and three grams of cocaine every day, and once stabbed a Chicago mobster and then tried to blow himself up with dynamite. Hopper channelled his inner crazy in some truly unhinged performances – he was never one for a studied portrayal of masculine sensitivity, and brought an intensity to everything. Season one of 24 included.
18. Willem Defoe – Boondock Saints (1999)
Time and time again this film comes up when I ask people what their favourite movie is. Now please understand, it’s a terrible movie (although the documentary about its making, Overnight, is truly fantastic) and these people are severely misguided (er, in my view anyway). What it does have though, is one of the greatest pieces of overacting ever, in Willem Defoe’s brilliant, gay, but emotionally deranged FBI Agent Smecker. He’s responsible for me watching the film more than once, and it’s a delight to watch him at work. “There was a fire fight!”
17. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)
Another king of acting who’s not afraid to scenery chew. Which begs the question, is scenery chewing necessary in order to achieve what we consider true greatness in acting? I think so. The ability to prove you’re acting, and not just in a naturalistic unshowy way. We like, or even need, our actors to showboat – to overawe us with their power and range (even if that range is just varying decibels of roaring) and make us realise they’re performing. That aside, no one performs like Day-Lewis, and nowhere does he chew scenery to our delight better than in There Will Be Blood.
16. Al Pacino – Scarface (1981)
The mighty Al Pacino may be regarded as one of the finest actors of all-time (S1mone and Sky adverts excepted) but surely part of his majesty is his ability to absolutely freak out and over-act when the occasion calls for it. I particularly like his dedication to just shouting his way through many, many dramatic scenes when he feels like it. Perhaps his finest hour was his portrayal of Tony Montana in Scarface, but a man of Pacino’s talent deserves something special – much like this incredible supercut video essay of his best moments. Al Pacino – Full Roar.
15. Gary Oldman – The Fifth Element (1997)
Oldman, you mad bastard. Bringing an insane charm to so many roles, it’s almost impossible to choose which one to highlight as his finest. Is it his psychopathic cop Stansfield, killing to classical music in Leon? Possibly. His turn as villainous Dr Smith in Lost In Space? An outside bet. No, I hold up his other bad guy turn as Jean-Baptisite Emmanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element. Menacing, comical, dangerous, and pathetic. All in one movie. What a champ.
14. Alan Rickman – Robin Hood: The Prince Of Thieves (1990)
For many of you reading this, I suspect, Alan Rickman pretty much defined scene-stealing. I remember going to see this film as a tiny child, and wishing the Sheriff of Nottingham had won instead. Rickman cemented his career thanks to an entire movie full of scenery chewing, and set the template for years to come. Think over-the-top baddie, and you think Alan Rickman. Every cry in this magical clip is a strangled scream of pure pantomime.
13. Terrence Stamp – Superman II (1980)
Well, of course, there’s only one contender here – kneel before Zod! Out of work for around a decade, Stamp had major reservations about taking the role. So of course he did what anyone would do and consulted a Dutch baron, who told him to go for it. And go for it he did, producing one of the iconic super villain performances of all time. The key to it is deciding to be fearless, and realising subtlety was not the way to go.
12. Jack Nicholson – The Shining (1980)
Oh Jack, you’ve managed to build an entire award-winning career out of chewing the shit out of any scenery on display. You love it! Whether it’s throwing a bowl of cocaine at your face, or asking us if we’ve ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, there’s no stopping you. Not even hiding behind a bathroom door. Director Stanley Kubrick was known for his restraint, so allowing Jack to go full on mental was a true stroke of genius.
11. Charlton Heston – Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Well if you’re going to chew scenery, you might as well do it in the one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. After barking his way through scene after scene of this sci-fi classics, dispensing zingers with ease (‘Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape), Heston saves his best for last. How do you sell discovering the ape ruled planet you’ve been trying to escape is in fact a future version of Earth that we ourselves have destroyed? Just like this…
10. Michael Sheen – Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt 2 (2012)
For those who have yet to watch Twilight, it’s worth it just for Michael Sheen. While Robert Pattinson increasingly looks like a deranged clown throughout the series, Sheen realises exactly what he’s got himself into and just rolls with it, saving his very best for this scene in the final film. I’ve tried at home and got nowhere near producing this amazing laugh.
9. Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast (2000)
This man was Ghandi.
8. Christopher Walken – Gigli
Oh, Walken, you mad bastard. Since the very early days of Annie Hall, he’s shown an intensity that just cannot be matched. Sometimes it’s in the service of good. Sometimes, it’s in the service of evil. Gigli is one such demon spawn, and Walken shows up for one scene just to be entirely mental and then bugger off. Which is a shame, as if you’d made the story all about his police detective and his love of pie, I suspect it may have been a far more warmly regarded movie.
7. Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns (1992)
It seems obvious, but playing a comic book baddie really does bring out the scenery chewing best in some great (and not so great) actors. It also allows them to ham it up where other roles may have necessitated them to tone it down. But more importantly, it allows them to be a bit more free and have fun. At the end of her career, what role do you think Michelle Pfeiffer will be most remembered for? Yes, that’s right – the one where she dressed up in a leather cat suit and said the words, “I am Catwoman, hear me roar…”
6. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Batman & Robin (1997)
If there’s one thing Joel Schumacher failed to do in his first Batman film, it was to give you epilepsy. Luckily, he managed to rectify that with his follow-up, the flashing neon masterpiece nightmare that is Batman & Robin. So how to overpower the visuals? Well how about paying Arnold Schwarzenegger the GDP of a small country to put on a sci-fi costume and make shit puns for the length of the film? Perfect. You can tell the former Governator is loving being freed from any previous constraints he’s been under to actually act realistically, and just gives such a mammoth performance you don’t know where Mr Freeze ends and Arnie begins.
5. William Shatner – Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
Shatner is sometimes regarded as a bad actor with a weird line delivery. I think that’s grossly unfair, as his long career and success in an iconic role didn’t just happen by chance. When called upon, Shatner could produce heart-breaking moments, as well as ridiculous over the top hamming, all in one film. The Wrath Of Khan is one of my all time top five favourite films, and Shatner is a big part of that. His roar is so loud it echoes into space.
4. John Malkovich – Con Air (1997)
John Malkovich is an actor known for his range and complexity of performances. He’s a man who convincingly portrayed what it was like to journey inside your own head. But his finest performance surely came in Simon West’s masterful action film. Not content with putting a lot of big egos in one place, West really upped the ante when he cast Malkovich as Cyrus the Virus. It’s magnificent.
3. Faye Dunaway – Mommie Dearest (1981)
It’s a difficult thing playing someone else, especially when that someone else was a real person, and not only a real person, but an international icon at that. So congratulations to Faye Dunaway for her performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The allegations in the book which inspired the film were momentous, revealing Crawford to be a complete mental wreck and probably one of the worst mothers ever.
So kudos to Dunaway for channelling that madness into something compelling, sad, and terrifying all at the same time. She’s like something out of a horror film at times. But fair enough, wire hangers aren’t the best things for your clothes – remember to put your favourite pieces on a nice wooden one, kids.
2. Jon Voight – Anaconda (1997)
Is this my personal favourite bit of scenery chewing? I think probably yes. Voight completely owns this film, and makes the entire movie worth watching. Which is surely the whole point of classic over-acting? What’s the high point though you ask? Is it the leer? Surely yes. It’s the leer. So much without words.
1. Nicolas Cage – The Wicker Man (2006)
In the company of gods, one man stands tall. No one, and I mean no one, compares to the majesty of Nicolas Cage in full bat-shit crazy flight. This is the man who doesn’t know the meaning of underplaying a scene. If it’s not turned up to 11, he doesn’t want to know. But where do we even start with his performances? Is it his performance as both himself and Travolta in Face/Off, his loony turn in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans, or his early legendary role in Vampire’s Kiss? All are worthy, but this is Den Of Geek, and there will forever be a special place here for, “Not the bees!”