Cameos

8 10 2009
'Looking for Eric'

'Looking for Eric'

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in a movie line waiting to see Bergman’s Face to Face. Behind them, a man in a tweed jacket pontificates loudly to his date about the ideas of cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan and the failings of Fellini. When challenged by Woody, he proclaims himself to be an academic who teaches a course on media at Columbia University and who thus has plenty of valuable insights into such matters.

Woody responds by bringing Marshall McLuhan out from behind a pillar. “You know nothing of my work,” he tells the unfortunate academic. “How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” 

The scene is from Annie Hall and the cameo is the way that cameos used to be: brief and to the point. Whether it was Hitchcock walking a couple of terriers in The Birds or Richard Branson being frisked at an airport in Casino Royale, the point of the cameo was to provide a little, usually comic, diversion from the main narrative.

Recently though, this seems to have changed. In films like Being John Malkovich, JcVD and now Looking for Eric the cameo has become the narrative, with stars taking leading roles in films about themselves and using the opportunity to examine, unravel and poke fun at their own celebrity status.

In Looking for Eric, Steve Evets (seemingly the world’s first palindromic film actor) plays a depressed Mancunian postman called Eric. After a botched suicide attempt, and far too much weed, Eric starts to receive visits from his idol Eric Cantona. In a typically philosophical manner, the footballer sets about helping the postman to overcome the various problems in his life, which include trying to steer his teenage son away from a local gangster and having to face the woman who he walked out on twenty years before.       

Cantona’s performance is certainly broad, but he gets away with it: he is after all playing a figment of Eric’s imagination. Like John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, he and director Ken Loach have obviously realised that a certain amount of self-parody is essential in such a set-up. “I am not a man. I am Cantona,” says the footballer at one point, just about managing to keep a straight face.

Of course, this being a Loach film, having a celebrity imaginary friend only gets Eric so far. In the end, as he recovers his self-esteem, it is by acting collectively with his friends and workmates that he solves his problems. Cantona is left to fade away, in the way that imaginary friends always do.

JcVD, in pensive mood.

JcVD, in pensive mood.

In 2008’s JcVD, director Mabrouk El Mechri takes a slightly different approach, allowing an all-too-real Jean-Claude Van Damme, 47 and divorced, to get caught up in a botched post office heist. For the most part, the film plays as a comedy-thriller, showing us the kind of low-level adulation that Van Damme experiences in his native Belgium (“You’re much nicer on the screen” one woman tells him) and exploring the distance between action movies and real-life ‘action’ situations. In one scene though, ‘the fourth wall’ crumbles, and Van Damme delivers what feels like a heartfelt monologue on the realities of fame and wealth. He talks about growing up in poverty, going to Hollywood, drug addiction, women… The monologue is filmed in one take and Van Damme, never a natural actor, is often close to tears.

Less revealing perhaps are the cameos that film directors make in their own work. Hitchcock famously appears for a couple of seconds in each of his films – here carrying a tuba, there winding a clock – but these appearances hardly require him to act or tell us much about himself.

Martin Scorsese, on the other hand, picked one of the nastiest roles in Taxi Driver for himself, as the gun-toting fare who is about to murder his wife and her lover. Other American directors – Spike Lee, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino – have chosen to play similarly unsympathetic or ridiculous characters in their films.

Of course, when directors give themselves acting roles, things can go very wrong indeed. Perhaps emboldened by his brief cameo as the nose-slicing hoodlum in Chinatown, Roman Polanski cast himself as the lead in 1976’s The Tenant, a would-be psychological thriller that is completely ruined by its star’s limited range. Even if he beats the child sex rap, Polanski should probably do some hard time for his performance here. 

Some things are, after all, best left to the professionals. 

 

Looking For Eric is out DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 12th October

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