There’s a great story Minnie Driver tells about the director Joel Schumacher, who responded dryly after a co-star complained that Driver’s performance in “The Phantom of the Opera” was too over the top.
“Oh honey,” Schumacher replied, “no one ever paid to see under the top.”
I’ve thought about that bon mot a lot during this movie season, where so many stars seem to be swinging for the fences. Think of Lady Gaga and Jared Leto, who go so daringly big in “House of Gucci,” or Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as televangelists in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” where they pitch their performances nearly as wide as Tammy Faye Bakker’s mascara-laden eyes.
In “The Last Duel,” Ben Affleck has outrageous fun playing his costume-drama blowhard to the hilt, and the fact that he does it all in a blond wig and a nu-metal goatee makes the role even more over the top. And then there’s Kristen Stewart, who eschews her trademark minimalism for the awfully maximalist “Spencer,” where she is asked to wobble, shout, dance and heave, sometimes all within the same scene.
After the last Oscar season celebrated the quiet, naturalistic “Nomadland,” it’s a kick to see so many of this year’s prestige dramas go in a different direction and embrace enormousness. In an era dominated by superhero movies, perhaps smaller films now need a performance that feels event-sized. Or maybe, after a period when so many of us have led circumscribed lives, it’s invigorating simply to watch actors shake off their shackles and go for broke.
Whatever the case, it’s working. “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is animated by Garfield’s gusto as the composer Jonathan Larson, a man who operates at an 11 at all times. Watching him, I remembered the “30 Rock” joke where Jenna Maroney lobbied the Tonys to add a category for “living theatrically in normal life.” And this month brings a double dose of big Cate Blanchett performances in “Don’t Look Up,” which casts her as a terrifyingly “yassified” cable-news host, and “Nightmare Alley,” in which she treats the film’s eye-popping production design as if it were all custom-made for her femme fatale to slink on.
I don’t mean to suggest that these outsize performances are a miscalculation. Quite the opposite: An actress like Blanchett is as tuned in to the tone of her movies as a singer who asks for the intended key and then begins belting. When a skilled performer is able to hit all those high notes, it’s more than just technically dazzling: It makes the softly played notes to come feel even more resonant.
But hey, there’s nothing wrong with simply being dazzled for the sake of it. It’s fun when Bradley Cooper shows up in “Licorice Pizza” to terrorize the young leads with wild, nervy electricity: Just when it feels like the film is coming to a close, Cooper adds enough of a jolt to power “Licorice Pizza” for 30 more minutes. Part of the thrill of watching such a big performance is that you know how much derision is at stake if the actor fails to nail it. Just think of poor Ben Platt in the film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen”: His crying jags, so potent on the stage, proved unfortunately memeable in the movies.
And sometimes, the most fascinating thing about a film is the frisson between a performer who goes big and co-stars who don’t. The first time I saw “The Power of the Dog,” I’ll admit I didn’t connect with Benedict Cumberbatch, whose performance as the sadistic cattle rancher Phil Burbank felt far too broad. After all, his primary scene partners are Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, a real-life couple who happen to be two of the best practitioners of American naturalism: They can do anything onscreen and not only will you believe it, you’ll hardly even catch them doing it. Up against them, I found Cumberbatch too mannered, like an actor determined to show his work.
But the second time I watched the film, I realized all of that artifice is perfect for Phil, who is concealing more than just his silver-spoon upbringing and degree from Yale. Put the pieces of his back story together and you’ll realize that Phil’s grime-covered cowboy act is all shtick, a performance of machismo so fraught that an interloper like Dunst threatens it because she doesn’t have to put on any sort of act at all. It took nerve for Jane Campion, the movie’s director, to assemble that sort of cast and trust that it would work, just as it took nerve for Cumberbatch to push things just a little further than some actors would deem comfortable.
And hey, at least those bigger-than-average performances will make for some good Oscar clips. Many of the stars who’ve gone for broke have been earning awards attention, though I do want to go to bat for Affleck, who is delicious as the pompous count in “The Last Duel” and deserves serious supporting-actor consideration. The Golden Globes instead nominated him for his low-key work in “The Tender Bar” — a mistake, since the only thing Affleck has done this year that’s even comparable to “The Last Duel” is the contribution he made to pop culture as one half of Bennifer 2.0.
Maybe that’s part of the fun of these supersized performances: They’re finally scaled to the level of celebrity that we count on someone like Affleck or Gaga to serve. So often, Hollywood has asked the stars who live largest to shrink themselves down for critical acclaim. But where’s the fun in that? They made that screen big for a reason.