Not the first actor or actress to take on the demanding role of ‘himself/herself’ in a movie, Gloria Swanson nonetheless set the template for the self-serving nature of the ‘recursive performance’ in Airport 1975, where the script-writers practically conferred sainthood upon her as a ‘real’ character shoe-horned into a fictional plane-disaster movie.
Larry David, having ushered many real-life guest-stars into Seinfeld, made playing a carefully-flawed version of oneself positively fashionable in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the appeal of the role is undiminished for any actor, since the trade-off between realism and ‘good sport’ kudos is inevitably in the performer’s favour….
n.b: We’re not counting guest spots in cartoon shows, because that list just goes on forever…
10: Wolfman Jack – American Graffiti (1973) This legendarily gravel-voiced DJ played himself a few times in movies (Midnight) and on TV (The Return Of Bruno, Married With Children), but never more effectively than in the retro hit that ultimately got Star Wars financed. His gruff tones punctuate American Graffiti as the perfect sound of ‘cool’ from the radio ether, part of the background miasma for the fifties kids trying to make it to adulthood – and through their own rites of passage – in one piece. Towards the end of the movie, Wolfman finally steps out of the shadows for a life-changing chat with Richard Dreyfus, and the force of his personality overcomes his limited acting range.
9: Stephen Hawking (Star Trek: The Next Generation)“Not the apple story again…” groans Hawking at Isaac Newton during a holo-deck poker game with data and Albert Einstein at the start of the TNG two-parter ‘The Descent’. The most famous living physicist seems to have been filmed in his living room and the one take spliced into the scene (the absurdism of which raises it above the general level of Data-mocking in the show). Hawking was clearly a TNG fan at that time; when given a tour of the Enterprise’s engineering-room set during the launch of ‘A Brief History Of Time’, he is reported to have commented on the non-functional warp core: “I’m working on that”.
8: John Malkovich – Being John Malkovich (1999) For his multi-faceted role as multiple Malkovich – which paints the great actor’s life as rather studious and solitary and him as an awkward date to boot – Malkovich had himself credited as John Horatio Malkovich, rather than using his true middle name, John Gavin Malkovich. This added another layer of distance between screen ‘real life’ Malkovich and real ‘real life’ Malkovich. Funny, I keep writing ‘Malkovich’. I’ve never written ‘Malkovich’ so many times. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich…
7: Tom Jones – Mars Attacks (1997) Most ‘as themselves’ roles find the actor or actress in question peripheral to the central action, but our Tom really gets involved in the sci-fi shenanigans in Tim Burton’s oft-roasted paean to 1950s alien-invasion films. Caught up in the destruction from the Vegas end of the alien onslaught, the Welsh warbler helps Annette Bening, Jim Brown and Janice Rivera to safety, and demonstrates his piloting skills too. Cheesier than a quattro formaggio, and consequently irresistible.
6: Billy Zane – Zoolander (2001) “Listen to your friend Billy Zane. He’s a cool dude. He’s trying to help you out.” Ben Stiller lampoons Hollywood’s willingness to deify actors who are playing themselves by mentioning Zane’s complete name more times than even the most sycophantic script could possibly demand it, and Billy comes off as a true hero and friend to his male-model chums here. It’s a nice cameo, but it’s still an awful film, though leavened by a particularly perverse Milla Jovovich and a genuinely hilarious ‘petrol fight’ among the cavorting clothes-horses.
5: The cast of Taxi – Man On The Moon (1999) It was unbelievably audacious of Milos Forman to re-assemble the cast of the late 70s comedy hit in order to tell the short-lived story of combustible comedian Andy Kaufman, who enjoyed early success as eastern-European immigrant mechanic ‘Latka’ in the show. Taxi veteran Tony Danza skipped the cinematic reunion (where Jim Carrey played the central role), reportedly because he never got on with Kaufman back in the day, but everyone else is there; as is David Letterman, who refused to wear a wig or make-up to recreate his 1980s self. The actors who portrayed ‘craggier’ types in the original show – such as Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd and Danny De Vito – fare best, whereas Marilu Henner’s recreation of her glam days was a bit of a reach. But Jeff Conaway must be a fucking vampire…
4: Peter Falk – Wings Of Desire (1987) I am on the record as a great fan of Wim Wenders’ wistful tale of angels in 1980s Berlin, and the few laughs it tries for are the more effective for their infrequency. Most notable of these is the moment where some wandering youths walk past Peter Falk and say ‘Isn’t that Columbo?’. Falk reveals in Wings Of Desire that he, like angelic central protagonist Bruno Ganz, was once an angel, and his scenes at the mobile coffee-bar – talking about how good it is to feel cold and drink coffee – are a total joy. I’d like to think there’s something of Falk in the role…
3: Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) How can we not mention Larry David again? Along with colleague Jerry Seinfeld himself, he has more screen-time playing himself than any other actor has had or will probably ever have again. His screen incarnation is the most monstrous of any self-playing role (with the possible exception of #1, see below), as David drives his loved ones and half of Hollywood mad with his OCD antics, compulsions and ability to turn any social disaster into a catastrophe, often with an actual body-count.
2: Steve Coogan – Coffee And Cigarettes (2003) You need a fair bit of coffee to get all the way to the end of Jim Jarmusch’s typically episodic love-letter to caffeine and nicotine, but there are a few treasures on the journey. The best of these is the meeting between actor Alfred Molina and actor Steve Coogan. Molina has heard that Coogan was in Hollywood and invited him for a coffee and a chat because he admires him, but Coogan proves an utter self-centred twat in every imaginable way, damping Molina’s enthusiasm. It’s a funny and ambling scene that paved the way for Coogan’s similarly self-harming portrayal of himself in Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story (2005).
1: Merv Griffin – The Man With Two Brains (1983) For those of us outside the states, this is all we know Merv Griffin for, but none the worse for that. Comedy shows or films that reference non-international US celebs are hard work for us bad-toothed limeys, and this was one of the (many) factors that made The Golden Girls insufferable. But Merv endeared himself to us in Carl Reiner’s comedy classic, and we got that he was basically an analogue of Michael Parkinson, Russell Harty or – these days – Jonathan Ross. In Man With Two Brains, Griffin reveals himself to be the ‘Elevator Killer’, a serial killer who murders with a lethal syringe. When Steve Martin asks him why he does it, he replies:
“I’ve always just loved to kill. I really enjoyed it. But then I got famous, and – it’s just too hard for me. And so many witnesses. I mean, everybody recognized me. I couldn’t even lurk anymore. I’d hear, ‘Who’s that lurking over there? Isn’t that Merv Griffin?’ So I came to Europe to kill. And it’s really worked out very well for me.”
Honourable mentions:Almost everyone in The PlayerAnna Nicole Smith (Be Cool)Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Action Hero)Bernie Mac (Seinfeld)Bill Clinton (Contact, but they kind of cheated)Billy Idol (The Wedding Singer)Bob Barker (Happy Gilmore)Brett Favre (There’s Something About Mary)Bruce Campbell (My Name Is Bruce)Burt Bacharach (The Spy Who Shagged Me, along with Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and many others)Burt Reynolds (Silent Movie, along with James Cann, Paul Newman and many others)Dan Marino (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective)Erin Moran (Dear God)Fritz Lang (Le Mépris)Holly Marie Combs (Ocean’s 11)Howard Stern (Private Parts – along with M.C. Hammer, Ted Nugent and many others)Jerry Springer (Domino and various other films and shows)Kurt Loder (Airheads, among others)Marlene Dietrich (Follow The Boys)Patty Duke (Call Me Anna)Raquel Welch (Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult)Robert Englund (New Nightmare, along with Heather Langenkamp, Wes Craven and many others)Sophia Loren (The Sophia Loren Story)Stan Lee (Mallrats, though in many of his Marvel films appearances he could arguably be playing himself)Steve Carell (Knocked Up, along with Jessica Simpson and many others)The Beatles (Beatles films)Topher Grace (Ocean’s 11/12)Tori Spelling (Scream 2)