“Chewing the scenery,” an American phrase coined in the late 19th century, refers to dramatic, theatrical overacting. Watching performers chew the scenery can be excruciating, except when it’s an excellent actor or actress working with top-notch material – then it’s fun. Here are four films – two with dysfunctional workplaces, two with disintegrating marriages - that feature actors at the top of their game chewing the scenery.
Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a wicked film based on the novel What Was She Thinking by Zoë Heller. Sheba (Cate Blanchett) is an art teacher who winds up in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student; meanwhile, her colleague Barbara (Judi Dench) is at first her confidante but has alterior motives that could destroy Sheba, her career and her family. Melodrama like this is rarely seen in contemporary cinema, and with lesser actors, scenes like the showdown between the two leads would have devolved into camp. But Blanchett and Dench (both nominated for Best Actress Oscars for their performances) are perfect in their portrayls of two women whose lives are devoured by secrets, bitterness and cynicism.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), based on David Mamet’s play (Mamet also wrote the screenplay for the film) examines life in a real estate office. The office’s salesmen – Ricky (Al Pacino), Shelly (Jack Lemmon), Dave (Ed Harris) and George (Alan Arkin) – battle for leads and their livelihoods as they are berated and threatened by office manager Mr. Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and corporate representative Blake (Alec Baldwin). This film is all about the dialogue, which the stellar cast (especially Pacino, in an Oscar-nominated role) sinks its teeth into. The desperation among these men is palpable.
Husbands and Wives (1992) is Woody Allen at his most brutal. Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce they’re splitting up, shocking their best friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) and sending their own marriage into a tailspin. It’s impossible to watch this film without acknowledging that Allen’s real-life marriage to Farrow was falling apart, and his subsequent relationship with adopted daughter Soon-Yi is nearly a mirror to Gabe’s troubles with Judy and his subsequent relationship to the much younger Rain (Juliette Lewis). The film contains some epic fights, and Judy Davis steals the show in an Oscar-nominated performance.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), directed by Mike Nichols and adapted from the Edward Albee play, is the grandaddy of them all. George (Richard Burton) is a history professor at a university; his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) is the daughter of the university’s president. One night they invite new professor Nick (George Segal) and his shy wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for a drink, and they get sucked into the horrors of George and Martha’s twisted relationship as the night progresses and they get more drunk. Daring in its time, it’s still a shock today to see how bitter they are to each other and their guests. Oscar nominations went to everyone involved with the film, with wins for Taylor and Dennis.