Five (Not So) Film Favorites: Actors Who Try Too Hard

The idea for this piece came from the tail end of conversation between radio host Bob Edwards and Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten. For whatever reason, the final few minutes of their hour-long conversation turned to the acting abilities, or lack thereof, of one Victor Mature. Weingarten observed that Mature always looked as though he was trying too hard. While I am not familiar enough with Mature’s work to verify Weingarten’s analysis, this observation of Mature as an actor embedded itself in my mind.  It took root, I think, because it is the perfect criticism of bad acting.  While acting, in cinema or the theatre, requires tremendous talent, labor, and practice, good acting should appear effortless.  The exertion should not be visible.  If the actor makes the exertion visible, then he is not doing it right. (And, yes, this is a male list.  I might at a later date produce a list of actresses who try too hard.)

Victor Mature might very well belong on the list of actors who try too hard, but below is my own personal recollection of actors who, despite their efforts, or maybe because of them, have appeared to have tried much, much too hard. Without further ado, my five (no so) favorite actors who try too hard.

Daniel Radcliffe in the final three Harry Potter films.

I suppose trying to kill Voldemort would make anyone tense up.

When he was originally cast as Harry Potter, Radcliffe was a little boy who had a bright smile and looked the part.  And as small boy, he did not need to carry the film.  As the series progressed, more was required of him, and, in my judgement, Radcliffe simply was not up to carrying this film franchise on his back.  He looked overmatched compared to the Alan Rickmans and Michael Gambons who surrounded him, but, he did give it the old college try. Unfortunately, the old college try usually involved tensing his face and neck muscles to convince us that Harry actually was experiencing the emotions that the director asked him to express.  Go back and watch some of those last Harry Potter films.  Radcliffe is always tensing up his neck and face. Tense neck and face muscles are to acting what ALL CAPS are to persuasive internet writing.

John Phillip Law in Death Rides a Horse (1967).

This is the only film in which I have witnessed Law’s acting, and I should thank fellow James River Film Journal writer Peter Schilling for reminding me of him and the film in a prior Facebook chat.  Death Rides a Horse, directed by Giulio Petroni, is a truly terrific Italian Western, and Lee Van Cleef, whose effortless grace and style directly oppose Law, is magnificent as always.  The film’s greatness can be measured by the fact that it overcomes Law’s rigid portrayal of a vengeful man.  Schilling described Law’s performance as “stiff as a board.”  Actually, a sun-baked two-by-four would be supple and sinuous compared to Law. I suspect that Radcliffe learned that neck tensing trick from Law. 

Matthew McConaughey in films in which he takes off his shirt.

McConaughey’s chest is giving Kate Hudson its full attention.

Despite many of McConaughey’s characters being laid back and “cool,” McConaughey has still always seemed too tight and tense, as if he is desperately trying to convince us that even as a laid back bro’, he is still a quality actor.  To my eyes, McConaughey never seems comfortable in his own skin, which is odd since he so often removes his shirts, but his shirtlessness seems like an act of last resort. He bares his skin in an attempt to bare his emotions. His chest, unfortunately, cannot adequately communicate pathos.   

Bradley Cooper in films in which he stares into the camera and/or utters the phrase “Woooo!”

He is looking at you in an intense manner.

I think the burden of having two last names forces Cooper to over exert himself in an effort to convince everyone of his character’s emotional state.  Cooper’s laborious efforts are easily witnessed in the constant staring contests he seems to have with someone or something.  He is always staring intently.  I assume that someone challenged him to a staring contest, and, as a macho stud, he cannot refuse.  Or he is convinced he can fire Superman-like lasers out of his eyes.    While Cooper does not tense his body in ALL CAPS style, he often speaks in ALL CAPS.  Phrases such as “Wooo!” and “Holy Shit!” are delivered at the same decibel level regardless of the situation.  Apparently, actions that are as varied as flying tanks and playing black jack elicit the same emotional response.

Sylvester Stallone in most films made after 1980.

He will soon be very tired.

It is hard to imagine that at one point Stallone was a respected Hollywood figure who had been nominated for Oscars.  Sometime during the 1980s, Stallone must have become convinced that the more winded one is, the better one is at acting.  He is always huffing and puffing through a monotonous list of exercises: shooting arrows, running, chopping wood, boxing, rock climbing, scaling snow-covered peaks, hiding behind trees, etc.  The problem with Stallone’s acting is that he, not his character, actually looks out of breath.  I want to see the character’s emotional, psychic, and physical reactions, not the actor’s reactions.  According to the Stallone logic of film acting, one could produce an award-winning performance by simply walking briskly up twenty flights of stairs.

Please feel free to add to this list in the comments.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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2 Responses to Five (Not So) Film Favorites: Actors Who Try Too Hard

  1. Ted says:

    “I’m not an actor, and I have sixty-four pictures to prove it.”
    Victor Mature

    I actually have grown to appreciate many of his performances – he’s underrated.

  2. Todd Hunter Starkweather says:

    Ted, I honestly have no basis to really form a judgement on Mature. I am just glad that Weingarten’s critique of him gave me the seed for a blog post.

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