The James Clayton Column: Calm down, dear! It’s only a cameo!

Madonna in Die Another Day? Keith Richards in Pirates Of The Caribbean? James ponders the importance of celebrity cameos in the movies…


This article contains spoilers for Burke And Hare and other cameos, if you’ve not yet seen the films.

Wow! This article begins with an appearance from Bill Murray! Oh, he’s missed the train and is now left behind on the platform and we’re already heading down the line of no return. I guess the narrative isn’t following him. Never mind. On with the journey…

(If this means nothing to you, you clearly haven’t seen The Darjeeling Limited and I recommend you watch it. For a start, you get to see Bill Murray missing a train.)

Back on track and I’d like to talk about cameos. This concept is a curious phenomenon unique to the motion picture and television realms.They didn’t have cameo appearances before the invention of cinema. Sir Walter Raleigh once drunkenly stumbled on stage during a private performance of Hamlet and Bill and Ted’s Wyld Stallyns once travelled back to play a short set during the siege of Troy, but those are exceptional oddities which we’ll ignore.

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Moving forward to our present postmodern age of multi-platform mass media and pop culture, we end up with recognisable figures having miniature moments in texts that aren’t really about them. In fact, they are only there for the audience’s benefit, to raise a laugh or a self-satisfied nod. Wink wink, nudge nudge. I know that face and get that reference.

They may also be there for their own amusement, to lend an industry buddy a hand or, if they are really lucky, pick up a paycheque for next to no work. It’s a harsh world out there. Any ego boost or extra income is welcome.

Though they can be ill-conceived, distracting and ruin the immersion process, cameos are generally fun and rewarding for film buffs. In fact, sometimes they can even be the best part of the movie. I’m thinking Zombieland, alien bustin’ Tom Jones in Mars Attacks! and Keith Richards playing Cap’n Jack Sparrow’s dad in the third Pirates Of The Caribbean flick.

Playing ‘Where’s Hitch?’ is an essential part of watching Alfred Hitchcock films (Look! He’s wearing a stetson!) and, likewise, the same is true for ‘Spot Stan Lee in Marvel Comics Movies’.

There are awful ones (Ricky Gervais doing his Extras act in Stardust really jars) and there are downright atrocious ones (Madonna fencing with 007 in Die Another Day), but I’d say that, in general, cameos work out.

They add to the texture and fabric and flavour the experience for spectators who like to feel like smug smartarses. If you share a joke with your audience, they will like you. You are directly appealing to them, pushing their buttons, and thus, turning them into putty that you can manipulate. If that means you drop in a cult figure for a few frames to cause a stir and kick viewer resistance into touch, then so be it. You’ve breached their defences with two minutes of Arnie. They’re all yours now.

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Chopsocky connoisseurs are bound to get a kick out of Sonny Chiba’s roles in Kill Bill and anime enthusiasts appreciate Totoro’s appearance in Toy Story 3. Likewise, action fans, Internet meme addicts and redneck types who like to dropkick pickup trucks probably thrill at the Chuck Norris thumbs up scene in Dodgeball.

Cameos are fun, which partly explains why Burke And Hare, John Landis’ black comedy return to big screen direction, is such an enjoyable romp. It’s chock full of them and if you let your attention slip for just a moment you’re likely to miss a famous mug popping up to chew the magnificent period scenery. (Huge credit to the production team for recreating 1828 Edinburgh in all its squalid glory. If the cameo turns do draw away from the immersion process, then the sets and aesthetic details pull the audience straight back into the story’s own twisted bygone ‘reality’.)

First and foremost, it’s essentially Simon Pegg’s show and he’s the distinct standout as an appealing everyman version of William Burke. The film is fundamentally his and Hare’s tale with a touch of medical science history told in light-hearted, revisionist style and that’s the main emphasis.

What the cameo roles do, however, is underscore this caper of bungling and brutality, add to the comic texture and give audiences an extra something to smile about (and an audience smiling is better than an audience snoring or muttering “This is no fun. I should’ve gone to see Saw 3D instead.”).

Saying a brief hello in Burke And Hare, then, we find British comedy luminaries such as Bill Bailey, Paul Whitehouse, Reece Shearsmith, Stephen Merchant and Ronnie Corbett in an extended role as captain of the Edinburgh militia. Landis also makes a nod to An American Werewolf In London by giving Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine small parts.

Christopher Lee, he who hath been Dracula, Saruman and Lord Summerisle, is in there as well, as is master of stop-motion animation Ray Harryhausen for the amusement of schlock B-movie buffs. It’s also hilarious to see a scene in which Death Wish director and car insurance advert star Michael Winner (“Calm down, dear! It’s only a commercial!”) ends up as the victim of a highway accident.

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Perhaps the most interesting cameo, though, is one which comes in the end credits in the shape of a skeleton. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the real William Burke is now dead and that his remains are now kept in the Edinburgh University Museum. Anyway, said bones and their display case make an appearance at the movie’s close and that kind of wraps it all up nicely. It says: “This is what’s left of the man the film is based on and this is what it ultimately all comes down to and is all about. Death.”

Maybe there’s a nice precedent being set here where the deceased subjects of biopics or perished personalities from the past get their chance to shine regardless of their condition. It’ll remind viewers that it’s a true story that genuinely happened. It reiterates that the real heroes aren’t Hollywood hacks or impersonators and may prompt life-affirming realisations of the fragile nature of mortality. Acknowledge the truth in all its morbid glory for just a minute and don’t forget the dead.

Smilin’ Stan Lee would, no doubt, approve. Death shouldn’t deny his shot at immortality and obligatory cameo he makes in every Marvel Comics movie. I reckon this is a good idea, and symbolically, the sight of a skull makes the perfect climax. The End… Oh, look! Bill Murray!

James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie-spoof comics and they can be found here.

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