Film: There's no caging these 'schmactors'
Pacino, Cage, O'Toole, Nicholson, Hopkins – why the masters of hamming it up should never be put down
I came across a fantastic new word the other day that perfectly describes a very special kind of film acting. 'Schmacting' refers to a performance that sails so far over the top it somehow achieves a kind of demented brilliance. There's good overacting and bad overacting, of course: Charlton Heston seemed overripe in practically every single film he made because he was a bad actor, plain and simple, and one who was often cast in roles far beyond his limited capacity.
'Schmactors' aren't bad actors at all, and in fact are often brilliant ones driven to take big risks that might not always pay off but are hugely entertaining anyway. I'm talking about people like Nicholas Cage, Peter O'Toole, Sir Anthony Hopkins and even – in his later years – the great Marlon Brando himself.
These are actors who tend to ignore the film around them and give way more to a scene than it might actually need. In a way, their acting subverts the projects they sign up for, but schmactors entertain us in a unique and special way.
Early schmactors had a good excuse: they came from the theatre, where shouting and exaggerated gestures were the order of the day. The great Charles Laughton was definitely prone to schmacting: his debauched monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII was a grotesque but fascinating caricature, and no real person has ever looked as drunk as he did in David Lean's woozy 1954 masterpiece Hobson's Choice.
Shakespearean actors are endemically prone to schmacting. Sir Laurence Olivier is remembered as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but definitely had his riper moments. That Nazi he played in Marathon Man never seemed quite right to me: he over-pronounced everything and spoke very loudly for an incognito war criminal. But then maybe that famous scene in the dentist's chair with Dustin Hoffman needed a spot of schmacting.
James Dean was one of the first big method actors, a tradition steeped in character and research that seems like the polar opposite of schmacting. But Dean was a schmactor, no question about it, and so were many of the method men who followed him.
Despite his obvious talent, Dean always looked to me like an actor who overthought everything he did: his speech patterns were hopelessly mannered, full of odd pauses and mumblings, and he frowned and pulled at his head as though in the grip of a permanent migraine.
His performance in Rebel Without a Cause is a masterclass in schmacting, but you never took your eyes off Dean on screen whatever he did.
The late Dennis Hopper was a friend of Dean's, and would go on to achieve schmacting greatness himself. You could argue that his portrayal of Frank Booth in David Lynch's thriller Blue Velvet was either brilliant, or hopelessly undisciplined, but you could never deny it was a lot of fun to watch.
Al Pacino came to schmacting late. In his earlier films, like The Godfather and Serpico, he gave grounded, sober and naturalistic performances that won him praise and several Oscar nominations. But somewhere in the mid-1980s, Al started getting hammy, and harder and harder for terrified directors to control.
If there were such a thing as a schmacting Oscar, Al would surely have won it for his operatically over-the-top portrayal of Satan opposite a stunned-looking Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate (1997).
Even in good films, the older Al has struggled to contain himself: for instance someone should have dissuaded him from breaking into song in the middle of Heat. But would we want him any other way? We would not.
And what about William Shatner, the master of the unnecessary pause? The Canadian-born actor started out doing Shakespeare, and God knows what he must have been like on stage because he approached his role in the 1960s TV space opera Star Trek like it was Hamlet.
His James T Kirk found places to pause mid-sentence where no one had paused before, and Shatner wildly overacted even the most mundane of scenes. It was great fun, though, and Shatner's eccentric portrayal of monomaniacal attorney Danny Crane in the cult TV drama Boston Legal was a thing of beauty.
Peter O'Toole wrote the book on schmacting: he always brought a little more than was necessary or desirable to his roles, a tendency that spun wonderfully out of control in his later years.
He started solidly enough, restraining his natural tendencies to an extraordinary degree in his breakthrough film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and opposite another occasional schmactor, Richard Burton, in Peter Glenville's Becket (1964). But there was a plummy ham in O'Toole just screaming to get out and, from the early 1970s on, his acting became fruitier and fruitier.
Sometimes his grand delivery and wild gestures suited the parts he played. He roared his way outrageously through The Ruling Class (1972), but then again he was playing an upper-class lunatic who thought he was Christ; and he was superb in Richard Benjamin's 1982 comedy My Favourite Year – as a boozy ham actor.
But O'Toole's performances were too big for inferior productions: he was ludicrous as a louche Roman general in the 1980s TV mini-series Masada, and has to be seen to be believed in the 1970s musical Man of La Mancha. But everything Peter O'Toole does on screen is fascinating.
Like O'Toole, Jack Nicholson could turn on the schmacting if he felt the occasion demanded it. He was thoroughly preposterous as ruthless US Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992), but also by far the best thing in the film. And was his turn as demented caretaker Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980) a brilliant performance or a dreadful one? I've never quite been able to decide, but The Shining wouldn't have been half as much fun without him.
For me, though, the best and most consistent schmactor of them all has to be Nicholas Cage. The nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, Cage nailed his schmacting colours to the mast pretty early on. With his wavering voice and mad eyes and sudden increases in volume, Cage abandoned the respectable safety of naturalistic acting for something altogether riskier and more interesting.
He has called his acting style 'nouveau shamanic', but I have no idea what that means and neither I suspect does he. He makes questionable career choices and has appeared in some real stinkers, but attacks every role as if his life depended on it and has never been dull or forgettable in anything.
When you buy a ticket to a Cage film, you know you're not about to see anything ordinary, and when he occasionally teams up with a directorial kindred spirit, he can be an extraordinarily effective screen actor. His compelling performance in as a corrupt, drug-addicted cop in Werner Herzog's crazy 2009 crime drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was the best thing Cage had done in years. But it was still schmacting, wild and loose and gloriously unpredictable.
And who needs sensible actors anyway? Let's thank God for Cage and all these other heroic schmactors: the world would be a duller place without them.