Serious, focused performances are great. One of the greatest privileges of being a cinema lover is watching when an actor truly gets his role and is able to communicate every intricacy of it, every conflict and mannerism, its deepest desires and most terrible contradictions.
Those are great performances, no doubt, but they are not the only type of great performance – there’s also some kind of art in the process of “turning schlock into Shakespeare”, as one journalist once said in a tribute to the great Christopher Lee.
This list is the moment to celebrate overacting at its best, scenery chewing at its most sublime, dramatic exaggeration at its peak. And since they usually come when great actors take on villainous roles, here are the 10 best kitsch, over the top villain performances of all time.
10. Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981)
This one almost doesn’t require any introduction. Ever since its release in 1981, Frank Perry’s adaptation of Christina Crawford book about the nightmare of growing up with Joan Crawford as a mother has become somewhat of a cult classic, markedly for its exaggerated portrait of the Hollywood star’s control-freak, psychotic tendencies. But Faye Dunaway’s performance in it remains in equal measures terrifying and hilariously iconic.
As Joan Crawford, she sneers and shouts her way through two whole hours of horrifying child abuse, creating a slew of unforgettable moments that the internet as taken full advantage of (much to the movie’s loss, I must say).
Dunaway is what makes Mommie Dearest tick as a cult classic so many years after its release – by acknowledging the kitsch appeal of the story, the character and the film, she makes it weirdly enjoyable.
9. Ian McDiarmid in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005)
There’s not much to love about the Star Wars prequels, released between 1999 and 2005 by George Lucas. What’s to hate, though, it’s mainly the contrived and completely misdirected performances – with one true exception. Going back to the role of Palpatine, Ian McDiarmid seems to ignore everything and everyone around him and lose himself in his grandiose, ridiculous performance. The only thing that’s missing is a cutaway to Palpatine winking at the camera and saying “secretly, I’m evil”.
The fact is, in a galaxy with dampened emotions as directed by Lucas, McDiarmid’s Palpatine is such a welcome bit of theater, a throwback to when Star Wars was an adventure chock-full of references to old space-themed movie serials and TV series. He’s the only thing in the 1999-2005 movies that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in the 1977-1983 ones, and he mostly keeps us going through the whole trilogy.
8. Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (1992)
Michelle Pfeiffer has three Oscar nominations on her career, but what’s the role she will be remembered by the most? That’s right, the one where she paraded around in a tight latex suit, robbed jewels and brilliantly flirted with Michael Keaton. In Tim Burton’s excellent Batman Returns, she’s the definitive Catwoman, so much so that not one, but two actresses have failed to make a (positive) impression on the role since.
She even managed to obfuscate a fairly overacted performance from Danny DeVito – as Catwoman, Pfeiffer is not simply sexy or provocative. She’s positively crazy, yes, but there’s also something else in the fire of her eyes and her body language. It’s independence, defiance, villainy with a strong personal purpose. She’s magnetic, vibrant and unforgettable. “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar”, she famously says. Oh, we heard you, Mrs. Pfeiffer.
7. Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
This is a prime example of a kitsch, over the top villain performance salvaging an otherwise forgettable (and rightly forgotten) film. Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is tiresome, overtly serious and reckless with its casting. That is, except for Alan Rickman’s absurdly fun performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham, the classic villain of the Robin Hood stories.
By investing the legendary bad guy with energy, pageantry and circumstance, the always brilliant Rickman ascended to the heaves in which reside all the villains that makes us root for them. I remember getting out of my first Robin Hood session wishing the Sheriff had won – morality aside, you can’t blame me: this is guy is so much more fun than Kevin Costner not even bothering to put a British accent on.
6. Terence Stamp in Superman II (1980)
Superman II had a huge responsibility in 1980: being the sequel of one of the first and most successful superhero movies of all time. That’s before it decided to introduce the second most indelible villain of the Man of Steel’s rogue gallery: General Zod. Thanks God the legendary Terence Stamp took on the role, completely embodying it in a purposeful and commanding performance that came to be the drive of what made the movie even better than the first one.
It’s hard to look at Michael Shannon’s performance of the same character in 2013’s Man of Steel and feel they belong on the same sentence. Thankfully, that’s not really Shannon’s fault, as the 2013 script barely gives him time or leeway to command the screen the way Stamp did, or create the same sense of danger, even if Shannon’s Zod proves to powerful on the climax. Not unlike Catwoman, there can only be one General Zod.