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Overacting (also referred to as hamming or mugging) refers to acting that is exaggerated and overblown, usually in the pejorative sense. There are numerous theatrical euphemisms for overacting. "Chewing the scenery"[1] or "scenery chewing" refers to extreme overacting, with the purpose or effect of dominating other performers at the expense of the production. A "ham" refers to an unskilled actor who resorts to overacting, and thus overacting can be called "hamming".


Some roles require overly-exaggerated character acting, particularly those in comedy films. For example, the breakthrough roles for Jim Carrey (in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask) saw him portray the lead characters in a very flamboyant fashion, as the script demanded. This has led to his being classed as an "overactor",[2] even though he has played several "straight" roles since.[3]

Overacting may be used to portray an outlandish character, or to stress the evil characteristics of a villain. Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman was almost immediately typecast as a criminal in his film career,[4] and the necessity to express villainous characters in an overtly physical manner led to the cultivation of his 'big' acting style,[5] which hearkened back to his classical theatre training and would become his trademark. This encompassed "playing everything" via layered performances that vividly express each character's emotions and internal conflicts.[6] Oldman has conceded that he often overacts on screen, and said: "[I]t's my influence on those roles that probably they feel bigger than life and a little over-the-top. I mean, I do go for it a bit as an actor, I must admit."[7]

Oldman's co-star in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger, received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of The Joker. It was hailed as one of the best performances of the decade, with some fans claiming it was 'realistic' and 'scary'. Nonetheless, the choices he made with his facial expressions, speech patterns, and mannerism - including his repeated licking and making noises with his lips, frantic arm movements, and the way in which he walks - are all over-theatrical and, in fact, common for action movie villains (for example, Agent Smith in The Matrix, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and all the villains in the original Spider-Man trilogy) as well as for some anti-heroes, such as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange - a character Ledger said inspired him during filming[8] - and Beetlejuice - a character whose appearance resembles The Joker's.[9] Moreover, with other actors being more subtle in their deliveries (including Gary Oldman), this led to "chewing the scenery", as the focus was (often unintentionally) on Ledger in every scene in which he appears.

Nicolas Cage is perhaps one of the most notable over actors. Although his filmography lists many poorly received films, [10] his acting has more often than not been seen as the high point. With many fans watching just to laugh at his bizarre performances. Roger Ebert Stated

"Cage is a good actor in good movies, and an almost indispensable actor in bad ones." [11]

Notable performances include Vampires Kiss, Deadfall, Con Air and The Wicker Man.

Another actor sometimes said to be a 'scenery chewer' due to his deliberate overacting is Daniel Day-Lewis.[citation needed] Others,[12] however, consider him to be the greatest actor of his era.

Tom Hulce received an Academy Award nomination for his deliberately exaggerated role in Amadeus.

Vittorio Gassman in his long career was sometimes criticised for his overacting, but he was also praised for it in his best movies, such as L'armata Brancaleone.

One of the most famous works of intentional overacting for comic effect was played by the actress Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show in 1977. She took the role as the wife of a supposed wealthy kidnapped financier and art collector, and was being interviewed by a TV reporter. After several retakes with much tension and little to no comedy, the scene explodes with massive overacting.[13][14]

See also[edit]