Isn't that what's-his-face? Celebrity cameos are everywhere

by Erik Tanouye | 2/8/99 6:00am

We invest our dreams in the vicarious lives of our movie stars, but in return, they must give up a piece of themselves and their private identity. They cannot expect to walk through the local mall without causing a disturbance and distracting other patrons. They need to realize that their fame will cause the public's heads to turn and necks to crane.

The same logic should apply to movies themselves, but it doesn't, not yet at least.

George Clooney must know by now that he cannot walk through an airport or attend a movie premiere without being recognized and approached. He has complained about the tabloids and photographers invading his privacy. Which makes one wonder why he thought he could waltz through the end of Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" without being a distraction.

His appearance, along with a cameo earlier in the film from John Travolta, serves little purpose other than to distract the viewer at a crucial moment in the film. It interrupts the flow of the film by breaking the viewer's suspension of disbelief. Instead of thinking, "There's a general preparing to invade Guadalcanal," the viewer thinks, "Hey there's John Travolta playing a general preparing to invade some island."

On the other hand, John Travolta was well cast in "A Civil Action," where he plays a brash, egotistical lawyer. That film, however, is marred by a last-minute cameo from Kathy Bates. She plays a judge in what would be the climactic scene for Travolta's character, if the viewer weren't so distracted by Bates's sudden appearance.

What these three celebrity casting mistakes have in common is that the stars' personas bring nothing to the roles they are briefly playing. Travolta brings an easy-going coolness to all his work; Clooney has a sexy swagger; Bates usually shows a reluctant motherly nature.

But the WWII general at Guadalcanal shouldn't be hip, Clooney's army officer shouldn't be sexy and Bates' judge shouldn't have any character at all.

But even well-cast cameos can be detrimental to a film, if they do not mesh with the spirit of the movie.

Ted Danson looked and acted perfectly for the role of a tired fatherly commander in "Saving Private Ryan," but his appearance is still jarring to the viewer, since Spielberg went through such great pains to present a realistic, non-Hollywood version of the war. Danson would not have been as jarring if he appeared at the beginning of the film, but once the documentary-style movie is really going, Danson's appearance can only hurt by reminding the viewers that they are watching a Hollywood film about war.

Similarly, while Robert Duvall was the only actor who could have portrayed Karl Childers's father in "Sling Blade," his unbilled, surprise appearance disrupted the flow.

Movie star cameos work best in films that have a high level of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Michael Keaton's work in "Out of Sight" is successful not just because he's a strong actor with great comic sense who can take advantage of a small amount of screen time, but also because he is playing the same character he played in "Jackie Brown." This casting in-joke links "Out of Sight" to a fictional world depicted in "Jackie Brown" without detracting from the fun and frenetic pace of "Out of Sight."

So should the question be whether you simply hire the best actor available for the role or whether you take the audience's preconceptions and reactions into account?

It should be, but it isn't.

Nobody would argue that Sarah Michelle Gellar was either perfectly cast or that she brought some magic ephemeral quality to the non-speaking role of a student in the cafeteria in "She's All That," but she was there nonetheless.

Are Gellar's fans going to see "She's All That" for the brief glimpse of the actress they think is dreamy?

It is hard to imagine that even the biggest George Clooney fan would sit through three hours of hell in the Pacific just for a glimpse of their man giving orders and cocking his head to and fro. And yet, the audience members who do make the commitment to Malick's journey though Guadalcanal with C Company are greeted at the other end of the battle by Clooney barking orders to his men. I think the men's faces were probably showing revelation and epiphany, but I was too busy admiring Clooney's movie star aura to notice.

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