Is Bruce Lee the most technically adept kung fu practitioner ever to shoot action films?
I don't know. Would Lee, to use the martial arts vernacular, have gotten his ass handed to him by Iko Uwais or Tony Jaa or Jean-Claude Van Damme? I have no idea. (Let's hope not in the case of JCVD.) But is Bruce Lee the best kung fu actor of all time? You bet your flying sweat droplet he is. And I can prove it to you. It only takes 10 seconds. Watch this (starting at 0:13):
Quivering? Laughing? Pumping your fist in the air? If your first thought was "That is the best thing I have ever seen because of the way he for no apparent reason goes through one long arc from angry, to exalted, to crying, to triumphant, to … is that disappointed or something?", then read on, my friend. For you – like me – are a true fan of overacting.
It's not easy to define overacting. It sure is easy to find, though. There are plenty of great overactors in film, and like Ozymandias their littered works are plentiful. Tom Hulce's jacked-up titter in Amadeus. The earlier, shoutier work of Gary Oldman. Anything starring Jim Carrey.
It's not simply overacting, however, that gives me the shivers. It's a particular subgenre – call it mannered or stylised acting. It's Peter O'Toole in the desert, rather than Viggo Mortensen at the gates of Mordor; it's Shatner, not Olivier. If what Olivier does is acting, what Shatner does is schmacting.
In The Matrix, Hugo Weaving delivers a masterclass in schmacting. Agent Smith is a piece of software. There is absolutely no reason for Agent Smith to have any personality at all, let alone launch into a rambling speech about humanity being a virus. But Weaving sees the truth: that Agent Smith is a dick. So he gives us a mannered, perfectly inflected performance of condescending, obnoxious, over the top dickery. Other than Keanu's "Whoa", the best line in the film belongs to Weaving: "It's the smell!" (3:14) – proof it takes true skill to overact.
Indeed, overacting is a classic bad-guy technique: from Vader's breathing (which takes him from evil to tragic), to Bane (was I the only person who really liked that weird high-pitched voice, which made everything sound like he was on the verge of just murdering everyone in a hysterical fit?), to Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which provides us with this useful 10-second lesson in the advantages of overacting vs underacting. (It's also a comedy technique – Stewart Lee's pauses spring to mind – but it's in drama that I really love it.)
Sometimes the script itself has the overacting written right in. David Mamet made a career of it, in fact – the great American overplaywright. Going to lunch has never seemed as ominous as it does in Glengarry Glen Ross. Or listen to Alec Baldwin in the least inspirational inspirational speech in film: "Put that coffee down. Coffee is for closers only. You think I'm fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I'm here from downtown. I'm here from Mitch and Murray. And I'm here on a mission of mercy. The leads are weak? The fucking leads are weak? YOU'RE weak."
Who the hell are Mitch and Murray? What exactly are the leads? What are they even actually selling? The script makes sure there is no way NOT to act this in a stylised manner. That's true style: the content, the shallow and superficial narrative, is irrelevant. What matters is character. What matters is schmacting. Story? Story is for closers only. Another good one in the "stylised script" category is Brick, and if you were feeling particularly OTT – and I know we are, right? – you could argue the career of Wes Anderson is based on this very idea. The Royal Tenenbaums: super-stylish. But what's the plot? No? Not ringing any bells? Great film, though, right?
Apocalypse Now deserves a nod for featuring not just Robert "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" Duvall, who manages to yell even his quiet, introspective lines, but Marlon Brando in his most famous role, as a soldier going wildly off course – and an actor doing the very same. Another deserving contender is the Indian superstar Rajinikanth, who dominates the search results for "stylised acting" in YouTube.
Above all, however, we must pay homage to Heath Ledger's Joker. His self-conscious metalaugh ("Hoo, hee, ha ... "), the way he licks his lips, his 8-year-old-boy-doing-something-wrong voice – it's all of it better than the best of Jack Nicholson (widely praised for his own overacting in the Tim Burton Batman). Why is it better? Because Ledger, though he is milking the hell out of every line, believes in the Joker. Somehow – and here we come to the paradox at the heart of overacting – the most stylised way to play a character is to inject the lines with so much psychological realism they're almost bursting. Ledger delivers a line-reading worthy of Lear (at 2:00, the way he says: "No I'm not. No. I'm. Not."), a psychologically true character as cartoonish as O'Toole's Lawrence. If you truly believe in a character, you can act the hell out of it – you can stretch that rubber band as far as you can, because you know it's not going to snap. Overacting is believing.
I'm eager to hear more examples: and I'm aware all mine are men. I haven't seen August: Osage County, but apparently Streep marinates, grills and then devours the furniture – and there must be plenty more good female overactors.
But even if you refuse to suggest examples of your own, and you think my entire theory of schmacting is nonsense – at the very least, you have to admit: it does explain the career of Nicolas Cage.
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