In the world of cinema and theater, there are countless terms and phrases that are thrown around, some of which may be unfamiliar to the average moviegoer.
One such term that has piqued the interest of many is “chewing the scenery.” But what does it mean, and where did it come from? Let’s delve into this fascinating aspect of performance art.
Definition: Chewing the Scenery in Acting
“Chewing the scenery” is a term used to describe an actor’s over-the-top, exaggerated, or hammy performance. It’s when an actor takes their role to the extreme, often overshadowing other elements of the production with their dramatics.
When an actor chews the scenery, they call excessive attention to themselves and their performance. Their emotions are conveyed in a very pronounced, almost cartoonish way, with lots of flailing arms, wild facial expressions, shouting, and other exaggerated mannerisms. Think of someone acting angry by violently throwing things around the room or acting sad by collapsing into loud sobs and wails.
While sometimes criticized as being too much, it can also be a deliberate choice, either for comedic effect or to convey intense emotion.
Origin of the Phrase
The phrase “chewing the scenery” is believed to have its roots in theater. The exact origin is somewhat murky, but the consensus is that it refers to actors who are so engrossed in their performance that they appear as if they could “chew” on the set pieces or “scenery” around them. It’s a metaphorical way of saying that the actor is consuming everything around them with their intense energy and presence.
Notable Examples in Movies
Over the years, many actors have been accused (or praised) for their scenery-chewing performances. Here are a few notable examples:
Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman” – Pacino’s portrayal of the blind, retired Army officer Lt. Col. Frank Slade is often cited as a masterclass in scenery-chewing. His famous “Hoo-ah!” catchphrase and impassioned speeches are unforgettable.
Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” – Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford, the legendary Hollywood actress, is one of the most talked-about performances in film history. Her intense depiction of Crawford’s tumultuous relationship with her adopted daughter Christina is both chilling and dramatic. The infamous “No wire hangers!” scene is a quintessential example of scenery-chewing, with Dunaway delivering her lines with such fervor that it’s impossible to look away.
Nicholas Cage in… well, many of his films – Cage is known for his intense and often over-the-top performances. Films like “Face/Off,” “Vampire’s Kiss,” and “The Wicker Man” showcase his unique ability to chew the scenery like no other.
Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” – While Streep is known for her nuanced performances, her portrayal of the icy fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly is a delightful exercise in restrained scenery-chewing. Every line delivery is a treat.
Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” – Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance, a man descending into madness, is both terrifying and captivating. His famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene is a prime example of effective scenery-chewing.
Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” – Davis’s portrayal of the deranged former child star Jane Hudson is both haunting and over-the-top, making it a classic example of scenery-chewing.
“Chewing the scenery” is more than just an acting term; it’s a testament to the power of performance and the impact it can have on an audience.
Whether it’s used for comedic effect, to convey intense emotion, or simply as a stylistic choice, scenery-chewing performances remain a topic of debate and discussion among film and theater enthusiasts. While some may see it as overacting, others view it as a bold and memorable approach to character portrayal. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, there’s no denying that these performances leave a lasting impression.