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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: "Wait... Was that who I think it was?"

Hitchcock makes one of his famous cameos alongside a 
befuddled Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.

It has been said that there are two types of movie stars: the film actor and the film personality. It could be argued which category is more vital to cinema. The "actor" star is more commonly commended for his performance skills, but monetarily speaking the "personality" star is the one drawing in the big bucks. This is not to say that the latter persona lacks talent, but he essentially-- at least according to public perception-- plays himself in every role rather than becoming various characters. Cary Grant was a personality star, so were Gable and Harlow. Marlon Brando was a film actor whose adamant refusal to become a personality star made him one anyway (at least in the tabloids). The pure film actor is more difficult to label. Lon Chaney, who notoriously underwent great metamorphoses from role to role, could be added to this category, but his publicly contrived persona as the "man of mystery" too made him famous. Modern actors are easier to peg: Daniel Day Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, and Meryl Streep-- though famous-- are more easily labeled as actors and not personalities. And what of our monthly star, Orson Welles? If ever there were a personality, this guy was it. He played incredibly varied roles over his career, but through it all, he remained Orson. His presence always dominated a film more than his actual performance. One never forgets while enraptured by Charles Foster Kane's personal disintegration that he or she is watching Orson Welles.

I bring this up to illustrate the impact of the Hollywood Cameo Role, which only truly works with a personality star. Over the years, celebrities in small cameo roles have become a linchpin in American cinema, particularly in comedies. Why? The mere presence of a well known face produces all sorts of mental and emotional connotations to viewers. A brief cameo moment on film makes things more exciting; it is a private joke between the filmmaker and the audience-- and between the star and his or her fans. Actor stars can still make a non-starring appearance in a motion picture to effect, but normally this only works when the more decorated thespian appears as one of his or her more famous characters. The aforementioned Mr. Hopkins, for example, would typically make less of an impression on fans than would his Hannibal Lecter. On the other hand, Clint Eastwood-- everyone's favorite squinting bad ass-- could deliver a line as Clint Eastwood and the audience would eat it up. The appearance of George Clooney or Ricky Gervais would equally be more effective than an appearance by Frances McDormand or Joseph Gordon Levitt. The use of star power is profound, and the use of it in a cameo role is always entertaining, simply because there is no agenda or product to sell. Whether meant to add an extra laugh or lend extra weight to a scene, a short cameo can go a long way.

Charlie Chaplin tries to collect autographs from William Haines 
and Marion Davies in Show People.

One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon that I have witnessed occurred in the silent comedy Show People, starring Marion Davies and William Haines. The very nature of the plot opened up a myriad of possibilities to use Tinsel Town to its best effect. Marion's character, Peggy Pepper, is an aspiring actress who finds herself working in Hollywood alongside the biggest stars of the day. MGM, thus, took viewers behind the scenes, making a movie about making movies. A great cameo moment occurs at a banquet when a table of stars are shown eating together: Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, William S. Hart, etc. While audiences got to see these faces all the time on the silver screen, seeing them out of character and as themselves-- before the days of tabloid TV and instant internet access-- was a thrilling moment. It brought them a little closer to their idols. An even funnier moment occurs when Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance, only to go unrecognized by Marion. He asks for her autograph for his "collection," and she stands in annoyance while William Haines stands agog at the Hollywood giant before him. Charlie leaves Marion behind, who faints in Billy's arms upon her final realization. In effect, while Charlie greets these two fellow actors, he has said hello to his fans as well.

Speaking of silent films... The aforementioned situations were all very comical, but sometimes the use of different actors is applied for a more serious effect. Gloria Swanson's role in Sunset Boulevard was by no means a cameo, but the casting was a strategic move by Billy Wilder, for Gloria's natural embodiment of all the grandeur and history of old, silent Hollywood conveyed more than mere acting could. Her performance as the aging, faded movie queen thus elevated the film to another level, bringing the audience in on a continued discussion, whereas a random actress, capable as she may have been, would have had to invent all of the things that Gloria innately was. Wilder used this same casting tactic when he pulled in some other big names into cameo roles. As Norma Desmond's butler, ex-husband, and former director, he cast Erich von Stroheim (left with Gloria and Bill Holden) which perfectly indicated the continuing theme "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." Gossip columnist (and former actress) Hedda Hopper too makes an appearance as Norma makes her infamous final cascade down the staircase, amidst much camera-flashing, lending further gravity and realism to the event.

As Gloria's group of comrades playing bridge, aka the "waxworks," Wilder cast former actress Anna Q. Nilsson, silent, stone-faced comedian Buster Keaton, and the original Jesus Christ himself, H.B. Warner. (Initially, Gloria had asked William Haines to be part of this group as well, but he declined). The appearance of these individuals, especially in such a simple, dark, and strangely macabre scene, added to the pity and discomfort of film fans, who recognized the sharp contrast of the former Gods once sitting high on their Hollywood thrones and now sitting glumly around a table playing cards. To add more gravity to the game, the ever stoic and silent Keaton mutters only one word: "Pass," just as time had passed him over. Finally, Cecil B. DeMille's cameo as Norma's favorite, former director (right) too added an extra layer to their scene together, for educated audiences knew that Gloria and Cecil had worked together; that he had once called her his "little fella" and had made her a star. His empathy for her is thus more easily felt, but the audience too recognizes that the career the duo had together has long since passed, and Norma's continued delusion makes this encounter incredibly painful to watch. Cecil took these scenes very seriously, even rewriting some of his own dialogue to get it right. Wilder was so excited to have him working on the project that he completely deferred to him in the scene and let the old director take control. It was a gamble that worked brilliantly.

Most often, celebrity cameos aren't this in depth and exist purely as quick bits of humor that wink at the audience. Thus, the line between fact and fiction is gamely overstepped. Here are a few such moments worth mentioning:

One wonders what it was about The Muppet Movie that appealed to Orson Welles, but then one wonders about a great many things that went on in that Boy Wonder's head. Whatever the attraction, be it financial or comical, Orson did make a brief appearance in the film as top dog mogul Lew Lord (left). While at first, this may make one shudder at the fall of such a great idol, we too have to remember how big the Muppets were, and in addition, how many other big names made appearances in their films, from Steve Martin to Bob Hope. So, Orson wasn't really sullying his reputation by taking the project on; he was hopping on the gravy train! His bombastic, domineering personality was put to good use as the threatening producer Lord, who has Kermit shaking in his webbed feet. As an imaginative, overgrown child at heart, one can only imagine that Orson enjoyed himself.

Marlene Dietrich also added a little flavor to Paris When It Sizzles. As William Holden's character struggles to invent his latest screenplay plot, which Audrey Hepburn painstakingly tries to transcribe, he comes up with many failed vinettes. One of his imagined scenes begins with a fancy, ever-changing car pulling up to a curb. The door opens, two perfect legs emerge, and it is quickly revealed that they are attached to the glamorous Ms. Dietrich. End scene. Many women could have been used for this brief moment, but since Marlene was known to have the best pair of gams in Hollywood (see right), her casting gave it a little extra "oomph." In addition, using a big name like herself also indicated Holden's character's intention to write a big star vehicle. The film includes several other cameos, including a couple by Tony Curtis, and is, like Show People and Sunset Boulevard, a great look at Hollywood behind the scenes. Interestingly, as in Sunset, Bill is again playing a screenwriter! Clearly the cameo ploy works best in movie-themed movies!

The friendship of British thespians Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton is legendary. Two handsome men, both vastly talented, physically dissimilar, but equally caddish, they appeared in Becket together in 1964 to great acclaim (left). It appears that they remained pals when they separated and took on other various projects, for they were quickly reunited-- albeit briefly--  in What's New, Pussycat? a year later. Woody Allen's wild and outlandish script needed little help in the laugh department, but, somehow or other, another guffaw was concocted. During a scene in a bar, Peter is wandering around when he bumps into an old pal-- Burton. If you aren't paying attention, you can miss the moment completely due to the haze of smoke and the dark lighting, but the duo greet each other and quickly part, at which point Peter shouts out, "Say 'hello' to what's her name!" He is indicating, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, Dick's wife, which in essence makes it a double cameo.

In It's a Great Feeling, Doris Day's character, a waitress, goes through the gamut while Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan try to make her a star (all three right). In the end, she leaves it all behind to become a wife. The duo track her down to her wedding, where they watch the procession. Smirking and snarling through a window at how their prodigy has betrayed them, they volley back and forth about the mistake she's making, and how she'll regret being tied to some old "cornball." Then, her groom is revealed: Errol Flynn-- lecher, ladies' man, and Lothario. Errol was brought in tactically to indicate to the audience that Doris was in good hands-- at least sexually speaking. Clearly, her character is not going to be living a boring life. All this is communicated simply by showing the audience Errol's handsome face and crooked smile, which carries a plethora of connotations. (Gary Cooper also has a cameo doing his token "yup" routine).

Another type of cameo that the audience sometimes doesn't even pick up on is that of a celebrity's child in a minor role. Orson, who always had a distant and complicated relationship with his children, was at least proud enough of a Papa to cast his eldest daughter, Christopher, in his 1948 adaptation of MacBeth as Macduff's child. Liza Minnelli made her film debut in the final scene of In the Good Old Summertime opposite her mother, Judy Garland, and Van Johnson (left). And Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward cast their own daughter, Nell Potts, in a brief role in Rachel, Rachel as the heroine in her youth. The physical resemblance between mother and daughter probably made that decision a no-brainer. Cecil DeMille too cast his daughter Cecilia from time to time in various film roles when he needed to throw a kid into the mix. She appeared in both The Squaw Man and The Virginian, among others.

The King of Cameos is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, who probably needs no mention here. Fans started to look forward to Hitch's blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances in his films, which added a fun puzzle on top of a puzzle to his mysterious capers. It began in The Lodger-- when he is seen in the crowd, with his back to the camera as an editor, and allegedly also as a corpse-- and continued through all of his following films. Some were more obvious than others, such as the scene in To Catch a Thief when Cary Grant looks beside him on the bus and sees his director sitting stoicly. The moment is meant to be recognized, for rather than just passing it over, Cary takes an obvious look then does one of his classic bemused expressions. He, Hitch, and the audience therefore have a good "ha ha" before returning to the business at hand. Hitch had to get more creative sometimes, including the curious way he had to integrate himself into Lifeboat. Clearly, this was going to be no easy task. It would completely take his audience out of the moment if he were to randomly float by in the middle of the ocean, so instead, he placed himself in the weight-loss newspaper ad William Bendix is reading (right). He more accurately appears twice: in the before and after pictures. This provided a double laugh since Hitch was always struggling with his weight in real life. Hitch had no qualms about advertising himself, even emblazoning his name on his inter-titles in his early silents, and rumor has it that his penmanship found its way into many of his films as well. These moments became ways for Hitch to ingratiate himself to his audiences, who became just as familiar with his face as those of his stars-- no easy feat for a behind-the-scenes filmmaker.

The list of these quirky little moments could go on ad nauseum, but I will let it rest here... for now! The most fascinating thing about Hollywood, beyond the film-making of course, is the star-making. The concept of, evolution of, and implementation of celebrity into our culture, in the end, says much more about the viewers than it does the players. Those we choose to latch onto, the perceptions we place upon them, and the roles we give them in our own minds, lock them steadfastly into an identity that very often is not their own nor of their own creation. However, there are some that did contribute wholeheartedly to their screen selves, purposely encouraging their false image's mutation into societal fact. Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich, for example, both adhered to their own mythology. It is these larger than life personae that make cameo moments that much sweeter. To see a big star, acknowledging and playing with his or her own largess, poking fun at and equally embracing the facade of this stardom, is a way of agreeing to continue to disagree with the audience: "Yes, this is all a ruse, but we both enjoy it, so let's keep playing." After all, it's all in fun. Game on!


  1. I always get alot from your blog. I never knew DeMille had a hand in Bracketts and Wilder's script. I wonder how or where Billy Haines would have fit in. Could have been interesting. All's I can say Mer is : "Hearts". Thanks