In Plain Sight: The Funny Thing about Cameos

A cameo is the term given to describe an item of jewellery, typically oval in shape, which is engraved with a profiled portrait. Dating as far back as antiquity, cameos have been a common feature of the art world throughout history; Elizabeth I is known to have given courtiers cameos baring her own personage as a means of reminding the recipient of where their true loyalties lie. In the context of a film blog, however, a cameo is the small appearance of a well known actor within a film. For example, the word ‘however’ made a cameo in the previous sentence. It would seem that binge-watching Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events has left me somewhat obsessed by definitions. For which I apologise.

Sticking with the media of film and its cameos, linked linguistically to the former as an appearance within a larger whole, the placing of a cameo is a funny thing indeed. Usually literally so, as in the form’s long standing association with The Muppets – John Cleese making a particularly glorious appearance in The Great Muppet Caper for instance (‘I’m having the time of my life dear’). There is, however, very occasionally more to the significance of a cameo than meets the blink-of-an eye. Sure Bill Murray’s the best thing about Zombieland and Tom Cruise was almost certainly having a blast in Austin Powers in Goldmember, but what about the cameos that are meant to carry meaning? What of those with a more telling angle? Take Billy Wilder’s ‘waxwork’ appearance in Sunset Boulevard. That the film is about a former Hollywood star (Gloria Swanson)’s almost tragicomic fall from the spotlight (‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!’), the appearance of the once dominant Wilder as one in a group of ’dim figures you may still remember from the silent days’ is heartbreaking. His one line – ‘Pass’ – within a game of cards is undoubtably evocative of the way sound cinema ended the careers of so many. Here Wilder’s inability to enter the conversation is manifest in his inability to join the play.

More subtly sad, but perhaps more politicised, would be the role a cameo may have in commercialising a film. Take Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave of 2013. Produced in part by Brad Pitt, many had doubts over the film’s ability to perform at the box office given its gruelling subject matter: slavery in nineteenth century America is no La La Land in terms of joie de vivre. What did you notice about the previous sentence? Perhaps it’s the almost oxymoronic pairing of Pitt with the concept of not being able to perform in ticket sales? No. It’s that even my choice to open the sentence with Pitt is indicative of the real point to be made here. Pitt’s role, as a good willed Canadian, is a small one: a cameo. Maybe he wanted ‘in’ on such a potentially significant work? Regardless of the actual motivation (more likely is that a film starring Hollywood’s own certainly would attract more attention from investors), controversy arose as it transpired that Lionsgate were, via its Italian distributors, using posters of Pitt to advertise the film. That in itself might seem a minor issue but what was actually happening here was that Pitt, along with co-star Michael Fassbender – also white, was being elevated deeply problematically to the level of lead over the true star – and black – Chiwetel Ejiofor. Lionsgate themselves denied involvement but regardless of the who’s and why’s of blame, the incident is merely a symptom within a much broader scale. For another example we might look at the more recent Suffragette (2015) directed by Sarah Gavron. Heavily promoted with only the slightest of roles was the multi-multi-award winning Meryl Streep. There are two sides to this coin because whilst Streep’s appearance does lend a genuine and necessary sense of celebrity to the role of Emmeline Pankhurst, allowing the audience to gain a notional perspective of what meeting her may have been like for these women, it is hard not to see the casting as economically necessary. That’s not to say that the film is necessarily at fault here but, when so much of the marketing for Suffragette proclaimed Steep’s presence in the film, the nature of it does rather tip over into the realm of a somber reflection to a society that distributors believe would not look twice at a film about suffrage – or slavery – were it not for the cameo.

A comparable cameo that was not trumpeted, and thus proving that it can be done, came in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) – skip this paragraph if you’ve not seen it… Whilst Anne Hathaway has a strong popular presence and 2014 was, arguably, peak-McConaissance for Matthew McConaughey, the biggest ‘name’ in the film is surely Matt Damon. Damon appears late in the film in the role of Dr Mann, a lost NASA scientist abandoned whilst in search of new habitations of distant planets – essentially The Martian, yes, but bleaker. Entering the film with no knowledge of Damon’s casting, a fact even excluded from the introductory paragraph on the film’s Wikipedia entry, allows for one of Interstellar’s strongest thrills. As a means of grabbing our attention, the effect is superlative. Nolan here plays on Damon’s likability and reputation to wrong-front the audience making for a tremendously chilling sequence. Think back to how Pitt’s character in 12 Years was defined by his goodliness. Would the impact have quite hit so brilliantly home had Damon’s role been forewarned? I don’t think so. Predictability has ruined many a film and there’s nothing quite like a surprising cameo to shake things up – as any who saw last year’s Rogue One well know (I’m spoiling nothing there). Similar ‘wait-what?’ moments are talking points and create a buzz that’s important even now for the survival of the ‘big screen experience’. Who saw David Bowie popping up in Zoolander? It’s a funny film if not a spectacular one but Bowie steals the lot in one sequence.

There is one other form of cameo that ought to gain a nod before I close; that being the Easter egg. For those not aware, an Easter egg is essentially the ultimate in-joke. Whether it be a hidden message, witticism or cameo, this is game that you’re not meant to notice but you are encouraged to find. Some of the finest of these include Daniel Craig’s appearance as a Stormtrooper in The Force Awakens – under a mask of course – and to any Disney fan the glancing shot of Belle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (among many other animated cameos across the canon). Also disguised beyond recognition is Cate Blanchett through her Hot Fuzz cameo as Simon Pegg’s soon to be ex-girlfriend, with Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, Steve Coogan and Garth Jennings also appearing in uncredited roles. The master of the Easter egg in films has to be Hitchcock however. Appearing in an impressive thirty-nine of his films in a cameo role – from man on bus to man in window via silhouettes and newspaper ads. The best thing about this tease may even be the possibility of a cameo that hasn’t even been spotted yet. You’re unlikely, meanwhile, to miss Quentin Tarentino in his film cameos or Stan Lee’s comparable reappearances in every new Marvel film.

Ultimately, cameos are fun and that’s great. They toy with their audiences in a deeply rewarding game and, when they work, unload a brilliant payoff. They can see people steal the show in one scene – I’m talking Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction, Robert De Niro in American Hustle, even Emily Blunt in The Muppets. Caution should be taken, however, before assuming that they are always no more than whimsical. How random my opening discussion of Elizabeth I’s cameo manipulations must have seemed, how pertinent it must now be understood.




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