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9 Great Scenery Chewers

Over-the-top doesn't have to be a bad thing.

By Loren Dean     February 22, 2011

9 Great Scenery Chewers
© Paramount Pictures/Robert Trate
Every once in a while you come across a performance that's just stunning. You sit in gape-jawed disbelief as an actor, often a very very good actor, a critically-acclaimed actor, an award-winning actor, goes completely off the rails. He turns it past 11 in a climb so far over the top it wallows in nearly grand guignol hysteria. You wouldn't be surprised if, in a fit of histrionics, he snaps a piece of scenery off and EATS IT--he's that out of control.
And you can't look away. You're glued to it. You can't turn it off. You can't turn it down. Part of you wants to turn it UP. It's hypnotic, and will burn itself into your memory irreparably. It will become part of your worldview, percolating into the memes that define your geekery ... forever.
Weep, mortals! Love these performances and Despair!

The Performer: Ricardo Montalban

The Performance: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Man, this should almost have been subtitled "The Wrath of Thespians". Between Shatner's now-ubiquitous "KHAAAANN!" scream and Montalban's incessant Moby Dickisms, this is a scenery chewing masterpiece--and STILL the best Trek movie ever. Ultimately this whole baby is Montalban's, reprising a role from a couple decades previous and diving into every line with villainous relish.
Say it with us: "He tasks me! He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!"

The Performer: Frank Langella

The Performance: Cutthroat Island

Pirate movies tend toward broad performances anyway, and Cutthroat Island embraces every scenery chewing cliche it can get its hands on. Pretty much everyone's overacting in this movie, but way out in front is Frank Langella as Dawg Brown, channeling every villain he can think of into one uber-maniac. He threatens a guy with a live eel, man! He's got a serrated sword, man! That's crazy, man!
Say it with us: "Come back on board. I'm gonna split you wide open."

The Performer: Alan Rickman

The Performance: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

It's a Robin Hood movie, but the Sheriff of Nottingham absolutely steals this show. Alan Rickman owns this movie, and struts and preens through it unrepentantly. Nobody can hold the screen with his flailing hands, quick turnabouts, and snarling delivery (poor Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is stuck with him the most, and all she can do is look helpless in the face of Hurricane Alan). When he snatches his scribe's hat off to clean a vandalized statue of himself, we half expect him to actually take a bite of the leather. It's that crazed. And that masterful, all at the same time.
Say it with us: "THAT'S it, then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!"

The Performer: Jeremy Irons

The Performance: Dungeons & Dragons

Look up "Excessive" in the dictionary. Go ahead, we'll wait ...
Back? Did you notice that there's no entry? Just a picture of Jeremy Irons as Profion? Yeah, we know. It would be easy to call this the most scenery-chewing performance ever, and it'd be tough to argue to the contrary. This is a performance that's so insane that even after it's over you have to look at your buddy and ask "did that actually just happen?". Irons is so far over the top here he LAPS the rest of the cast. 
Say it with us: "Now is your time, to DIE!"

The Performer: Jack Nicholson

The Performance: The Witches of Eastwick

The devil gets a lot of play on screen. Maybe he's easier to sympathize with--maybe we understand his motivations better. Or maybe we just like watching high-caliber actors go completely berserk doing a satanic rant. Bill Cosby did it. Al Pacino did it. And Jack Nicholson, sweet sweet mercy did he ever do it, too. Darryl Van Horne's cherry pit-spewing spastic arm-waving manic episode at the end of Witches of Eastwick is scenery chewing taken to an art form.
Say it with us: "So what do you think? Women? A mistake? Or did HE TO IT TO US ON PURPOSE?!"

The Performer: Jack Nicholson

The Performance: Batman

It's a two-fer! Because really, if you're going to look at great scenery chewing on film, Jack Nicholson is your golden boy. And since the Joker is just one big devil motif, it makes a degree of sense for ol' Jack to come and give it a spin. Who didn't think this was casting genuis? Nobody! And had Heath Ledger not come along and won an Oscar for doing the Joker even crazier, it would still be hailed as the greatest casting decision ever.
Say it with us: "This town needs an enema!"

The Performer: Kenneth Branagh

The Performance: Wild Wild West

Any genre property (film or television) that repeats a word in the title is bound to rate a little high on the chew-o-meter. This isn't just the wild west. It's the wild WILD west. It's more wild, see. And was it ever. The old tv show wasn't ever content with typical, and the film took it even further; from the set design to the script to the acting, everything was turned to maximum volume. Branagh's Arliss Loveless epitomizes the whole vibe. He's not just a mad scientist in a wheelchair. It's a steam-powered wheelchair! Even his facial hair was over the top, like the typical bad-guy goatee just wasn't enough. Wow.
Say it with us: "Let the party begin!"

The Performer: Chris Tucker

The Performance: The 5th Element

There are almost no words to describe this performance. Just when you think The 5th Element can't get any zanier, Chris Tucker comes sliding into the corridor with phallic hair and a skin-tight leopard-print bodysuit and turns the volume WAY past 11. Every scene Ruby Rhod is in deserves a spot in the overacting hall of fame. It's so far over the top it comes back around to the start line. Weep, you overactors, because from 5 to 7 Ruby Rhod owns you all.

Say it with us: Let's be honest. You can't say it. All you can do is watch in disbelief:


The Performer: Anne Ramsey

The Performance: The Goonies

We may as well wrap this up with one from the ladies. What, you thought women didn't ever chew the scenery? Did you see The Goonies? Once again, everybody here is playing it over the top, and while Jeff Cohen's Chunk almost steals the show, Ramsey's Mama Fratelli is the queen bee here, waving her revolver around like a symphony conductor and making the whole movie dance to her tune.
Say it with us: "Hit puree!"

Honorable Mention: Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate; Nicolas Cage, in pretty much everything he's ever done. 


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fatpantz 2/22/2011 12:46:13 AM

Thank you for Tucker in 5th Element.....what an obscene yet entertaining performane.....lol

I want to add the entire cast of Clue the Movie from 1985 as well as Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future movies.

Johnnyathm1 2/22/2011 2:28:47 AM

Khan, will be forever etched into my geekdom.

 I would also like to throw Linda Hamilton into the mix, for her performance in T2.

TayDor 2/22/2011 3:16:57 AM

Most of these, while over the top, weren't too distracting from the movie.  But OMG, jeremy Irons as Profion.  I was wondering if he'd had any acting lessons.  Of course, his henchman was pretty over the top too.

Dodgyb2001 2/22/2011 4:06:01 AM

Clue should definitely get the group award. One of my favourite movies of all time, filled with great actors speaking very funny lines incredibly quickly.


johnwhitetoledo 2/22/2011 4:26:24 AM

 You dare put the abomination that is D&D in the same room with all those decent movie? Repent now!

rgtchtiger 2/22/2011 5:56:00 AM

I might have a different definition of scenery chewing in my head, but two timeless roles immediately came to mind when I saw the headline before actually reading the list.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Unless this article is defining chewing scenery as simply overacting (and really, such an argument can easily be made since Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element is on this list), then I don't see how either of these roles can be left off.  I was especially shocked to see the wrong Alan Rickman role on this list!  Sure, he was great in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, but Hans Gruber is one of the all time greatest movie villains ever.

And speaking of all time great villains...

It is a travesty that Hannibal Lecter isn't on this list.  He was only on screen in Silence for about 15 minutes, but he OWNED every single scene he was in.  Even while he was behind bars for half those scenes, he was still intimidating.  That's true scenery chewing, in my opinion.

goldeneyez 2/22/2011 6:02:39 AM

How about Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, or Samuel Jackson in just about anything top picks for me might be Gator from Jungle Fever or Jules from Pulp Fiction... actually almost any character from a Quentin Tarantino movie might fit the bill.

Wiseguy 2/22/2011 6:13:10 AM

I'm down with rgtchtiger and goldeneyez.

I'd add Denzel's Alonzo from Training Day

TheFuzzyDan 2/22/2011 6:15:47 AM

A good list but you picked the wrong Frank Langella performance.  His turn as Skeletor in the abysmal Masters of the Universe movie makes Jeremy Irons performance in D & D look tame.


HudsonTaco 2/22/2011 6:17:00 AM

The reason I think they left out Rickman's Hanz Gruber is that while a brilliant performace its not crazy over the top, his Prince John was. I do agree however that Hannibal Lector not being on this list is a huge oversight, and why are you using anything from Dungeons and Dragons, who even remebers that movie, it was terrible.

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