Lately, for work, I’ve had to take a long hard look at a handful of movies. Yes, I know that sounds awful. Somehow I got through it. The latest movie I’ve had to study is Zombieland, a fantastic film in its own right–made even better by its surprise cameo. It made me think of cameos I’ve enjoyed, and ones I didn’t realize I was seeing until later someone says to me, “You know, the crappy waiter/Buddy Holly impersonator in Pulp Fiction was actually Steve Buscemi? He was supposed to have a big part, but scheduling got in the way and all he had time to film was one scene. He wanted to be involved, hence, he’s the cameo.
I didn’t know that. Even after having seen the film many, many times and being a big Buscemi fan, I didn’t know it. What else is surprising? And what ranks as the best cameos in film history?
Cameo, as a term, actually comes from the old cameo jewelry, the ones of a person’s profile emblazoned on a necklace or brooch. As the jewelry piece is supposed to make someone’s face instantly recognizable, the cameo appearance in film serves the same purpose. You recognize the face, but it takes you a minute to realize what’s happening.
The first (and still best known) master of the cameo was renounced director Alfred Hitchcock, who eventually cast himself in 37 of his own films, a technique borne out of necessity at first (needing extra people in scenes with limited time or budget), but eventually becoming an enjoy game for his fans. He put a signature on them, as well, often carrying a musical instrument in the scene. Since then, cameos have evolved from small walk on roles to what some may consider a guest spot (think Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder).
Musicians are often featured in movie cameos. Sometimes they’re involved in the film via the soundtrack or through mutual friends. Notable instances include Jon Bon Jovi, who recorded his first solo album under the Young Guns II Soundtrack (commonly known as Blaze of Glory), even though every song was his. His involvement on the musical end of the Western ended up with him playing a small part as an inmate who gets shot back into the prison pit. This ended up kickstarting a real acting career for the rocker, who has gone on to co-star with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore.
The nineties were ripe for rock cameos, with Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum playing Winona Ryder’s slacker boyfriend in Reality Bites, or the plethora of grunge acts secretly featured in Singles. Director Cameron Crowe is a music fan’s music fan. He really knows his stuff, and for this 1992 flick, he featured Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and more. (Singles has another cameo tidbit, as the one and only Tim Burton has a bit role). The only major grunge act of the day not to have some form of cameo in the film was Nirvana.
Perhaps the award for most cameo’d (is that a word?) musician in film goes to David Bowie, whose Wikipedia page lists him as having eight cameos (in addition to several fully credited film roles).
Here are my top 5 cameos:
Wayne and Garth are hard partying young rockers. They secure backstage passes to Alice Cooper and are ready to throw down! It’s Alice Cooper man! He’s killed birds onstage! Alas, Alice schools them on the origins of the word “Milwaukee” and they party less like rock stars and more like history teachers.
Bob Saget is forever burned into many an early thirtysomething’s brain as the dad from Full House. Danny Tanner. Just say that name and you immediately think fuzzy sweater geekdom trying to parent the blonde cherubs while dealing with their well meaning, mulletted, immature uncles.
So, when Half Baked came out in 1998 (three years after Full House ended), no one, and I mean, no one expected Danny Tanner to reprimand Dave Chappelle for a mere marijuana addiction, as he’d “blankety blanked” (real words: sucked dick–feel free to insert–not sure the Bizarre Bytes etiquette) for coke.” Wow. And now, no one, and I mean, no one thinks of Bob Saget as a mere sitcom dad.
Similarly to Saget, actor Neil Patrick Harris was known for most of the 1990s and early 2000s as “Doogie,” as in the 1989-93 series Doogie Howser, M.D. as the child prodigy/surgeon. What he did in the interim, I don’t know. I’m sure something. Then, with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle came out in 2004, and NPH is suddenly a e-swallowing, skirt chasing, dude, everything changed. He’s now five years into a similar role on How I Met Your Mother. Cameo=Comeback in this case.
Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was the hottest thing around. With movies like Top Gun and Risky Business, he combined the classic charm of screen idols past, with a dash of bad boy lothario (succeeding predecessors like Clark Gable and Warren Beatty). He rode waves of success throughout the 1980s and 90s. Then he jumped on a couch and everything crashed down around him. Fast forward two years, and a cameo involving a potty-mouthed, balding movie exec with secret dance moves brought Cruise back to the top.
Bill Murray’s cameo appearance in Zombieland is the winner. First of all, it’s a surprise cameo, as Murray isn’t listed in the IMDB Synopsis or on the movie posters. Second, the way his cameo is written into the storyline: playing himself, but not exactly himself, makes the audience all the more suprised at what ultimately becomes of his character. I won’t spoil the awesomeness that is this particular cameo. However, it’s #1 status should tell you something.