The Hidden Meaning in the Glass Onion Cameos

Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is filled with cameos, but they represent more than just the filmmaker’s acquaintances.

Cast of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Photo: Netflix

This article contains Glass Onion spoilers.

Agatha Christie once famously said, “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.” Perhaps that’s why in Rian Johnson’s latest whodunit, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the filmmaker has littered the screen with pals. If Benoit Blanc—who is winsomely as ever played by Daniel Craig—is a pursuer of the truth, and the vigilant hound dog chasing hidden murderers wherever they may dwell, surely he is then conscious of the company he keeps? There might even be some murderers in his midst… or at least fellow detectives.

Indeed, Johnson and Craig use their second Benoit Blanc picture to invite a lot of real-life friends to come out and play, and many of whom’s appearances have hidden ulterior motives that only the most eagle-eyed sleuths might notice. Let us explain…

Angela Lansbury in Mame 1966

Angela Lansbury

Among the first and most fan-pleasing cameos is the collection of friends Benoit is revealed to keep over Zoom. During Craig’s first scene in Glass Onion, which is set back in the hellacious early days of the pandemic, we learn Blanc has spent weeks in the bathtub, wallowing in an existential funk and desperate for a new case to engage his mind. His pals try to cheer him up by gathering on Zoom to play Among Us, a mystery deduction game intended to be played with besties online. It’s not helping.

Ad – content continues below

Still, it’s nice to see the old gang, which includes Angela Lansbury! In what amounts to Lansbury’s final screen appearance, the Tony and Oscar winning actor is one of Blanc’s best buds. This is also the most knowing wink to audiences since Lansbury is the star of what’s arguably the most popular murder mystery TV show of all time, Murder, She Wrote. From 1984 to 1996, Lansbury starred as Jessica Fletcher, a modern day Agatha Christie who initially fancies herself a fiction writer, but in all her many weekly adventures in amateur sleuthing finds herself becoming something closer to a true crime author.

For Gen-Xers like Johnson and older millennials, Murder, She Wrote is one of the formative gateways into “whodunit” fiction—it is also a show we catch Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) watching in Knives Out. Lansbury of course also has a larger, storied career on stage and screen, appearing in other famous tales of murder where she did the killing, such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber the Fleet Street, the latter of which was a sinister Stephen Sondheim musical where she originated the role of a woman who ground victims up into meat pies. And speaking of Sondheim…

Stephen Sondheim on the streets of New York

Stephen Sondheim

Yep, it appears that Blanc (and Johnson) can count the legendary Broadway composer among their BFFs too! Sondheim is likewise on Zoom with the bathing Benoit, trying to convince his friend to stop being so morose. This also marks Sondheim’s final screen appearance after a lifetime of cameos and working behind the screens, including last year’s West Side Story remake where he altered lyrics at Steven Spielberg’s request. Sondheim passed away shortly afterward at the age of 91. In a bit of a curious coincidence, Johnson has been the director of four legends’ final big screen performances to date: Lansbury, Sondheim, Christopher Plummer in Knives Out, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

However, Sondheim’s appearance in Glass Onion is more than a winking cameo; it is also a humble acknowledgment to Johnson’s forebears. In addition to being one of musical theater’s brightest luminaries, Sondheim also co-wrote with Anthony Perkins (yes, of Psycho fame!) one of the most underrated whodunit movies ever made: The Last of Sheila (1973). We already unpacked here how the setup of Glass Onion is inspired directly by Sondheim’s deeply cynical satire. In that film, a group of old showbiz friends gather on a yacht in the Italian Riviera to play games and do drugs. Yet things are not as they seem, even before a person or two winds up dead.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at They Call Me Magic Premiere

Kareem-Abdul Jabbar

Another of Benoit’s most intimate friends—in fact, the most intimate as Kareem reveals the mysterious Philip (more on him in a bit) warned him of Blanc’s malaise—is the esteemed basketball star and talented polymath, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Best remembered for his astonishing 20 seasons in the NBA, during which time he helped win six NBA championships and obtained the title of NBA Most Valuable Player for a record six times, Jabbar is also a distinguished author and activist.

In terms of writing, this includes dabbling in the realm of murder mysteries. On the page, he’s written or co-written an eclectic range of fiction and non-fiction alike. This can include shining a light on the forgotten heroes of the Black soldiers comprising the 761st Tank Battalion… and penning with Anna Waterhouse three detective novels about Mycroft Holmes, the older brother of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps not incidentally, he also contributed to writing the 2019 one-season revival of mystery TV show Veronica Mars.

Ad – content continues below

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll Season 2

Natasha Lyonne

In what might be a more current reference to mystery fiction is Natasha Lyonne’s appearance as the fifth friend in Blanc’s Among Us Zoom party. Known for a number of movies and television shows, from Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019) to American Pie (1999), Lyonne is best known these days as the star, producer, and co-creator of Russian Doll. At a glance, that Netflix series appears to be a riff on the Groundhog Day formula where Lyonne’s Nadia discovers she’s trapped in a time loop where she dies at the end of each day and is sent back to the same lame party. However, the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that there is a nefarious game afoot that’s trapped her inside this nightmare.

Hugh Grant In The Undoing

Hugh Grant

In the most delightful surprise cameo, Glass Onion waits until the third act to double back to Benoit Blanc’s domestic life, revealing Philip is more than just a friend or valet: it is Benoit Blanc’s partner (and maybe husband?)… and he’s played by Hugh Grant!

The still dashing Grant is best known for a string of romantic comedy classics (and a few also-rans) during the 1990s and 2000s, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003). However, the actor’s talent is far more varied, which he got to display again with the recent limited series whodunit, The Undoing (2020). On that HBO show, Grant plays a successful oncologist named Jonathan who is married to the even more successful psychologist Grace (Nicole Kidman). But after an acquaintance winds up dead, the police begin to suspect Grace’s husband as a potential killer… and Grace does too.

Still, we have a good feeling about Philip being A-OK!

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Ethan Hawke

We’ll admit that we had to take a moment to be sure we weren’t crazy… Yes, that is Ethan Hawke as the unnamed valet of Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the duplicitous billionaire with his own island. Hawke’s manservant appears at the dock where Blanc and Miles’ other guests are about to sail from to reach Miles’ private Greek estate. Hawke then gives each guest a mysterious spray that qualifies them as “good.”

Hawke has appeared in a number of films at least adjacent to mysteries in his career: Training Day (2001), Taking Lives (2004), and even arguably Gattaca (1997). In one of these films, he even played the surprise killer! However, we suspect his cameo really is just because he’s a friend of Johnson’s and loved turning up in Greece to shoot this bit.

Ad – content continues below

Yo-Yo Ma performing with Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Yo-Yo Ma

Sometimes a cameo is just a cameo. And yep, it’s pretty funny to see American cellist and the National Medal of Arts recipient Yo-Yo Ma throwing down at a party hosted by Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) at the beginning of Glass Onion. He’s also there to demonstrate for the audience the stupidity of modern pop culture when influencer Birdie Jay would rather take the word of her Shazam app over Yo-Yo Ma about what piece of classical music is playing in Miles Bron’s mystery box. Just one thing though: Ma, where’s your mask?!