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When People Play Themselves On-Screen

9 min read
When People Play Themselves On-Screen

Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

We've seen him play soldiers, assassins, hard-edged cops, a treasure hunter, a Marvel superhero, and he has a portrayal of Dracula about to go before cameras. But soon, we'll see Nicolas Cage like we have never seen him before: as himself.

Well, a version of himself anyway. Yes, Cage will next be taking to our screens in The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, becoming the latest actor to put his ego on the line in service of an exaggerated fashion of himself. It looks to be Cage like we've never seen him before, offering more Cage for your buck than anything else he has done across his vast filmography.

In the film, a debt-ridden Cage accepts a million dollar offer to attend the party of a rich mega fan, played by Pedro Pascal. He's a fanboy to the extreme, even housing a museum of Cage memorabilia, complete with uncanny waxworks and the dual golden pistols from Face/Off. There is a catch however, this superfan is also a notorious drug lord, and before long Cage is forced down a wild and crazy path where he is forced to face the roles of his past and reflect on the weight of his legacy, and of course his massive talent.

Directed by Tom Gormican, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent also stars Tiffany Haddish, Sharon Horgan, Lily Sheen, Jacob Scipio, Ike Barinholtz, Neil Patrick Harris and Paco León.

It is a deliciously metaphysical concept that seems like a perfect fit for Cage's eccentric star persona, with the trailer promising an oddball adventure set to show Cage as both an anxiety riddled movie star and completely unhinged all at once. Now if that doesn't sound like a perfect celebration of all things Cage, I don't know what is.

Cage joins a long line of performers who have been willing to poke fun at their own personas – or in some cases feed their ego and star image – by portraying themselves on screen in service of a meta-narrative, ranging from brief cameo appearances to lead roles. To celebrate Cage's dive into the metaphysical, we take a look back at some of the most famous examples of actors playing themselves on screen in major roles, where the line between performer and character becomes blurred and in some cases disappears entirely; it's like looking in a mirror, only not.

1. – A Hard Day's Night (1964) & Help! (1965)

The Beatles-starring films of the 60's directed by Richard Lester remain some of the most influential pieces of British pop culture to ever be committed to screen. Doubling down on the decade's Beatlemania, both A Hard Day's Night and Help (but particularly the former) are highly energetic, inventive and exhilarating comedies with a personality that comes directly from the Fab Four's camaraderie.

Lester's kaleidoscopic visuals and off-beat editing techniques also make for a pretty exhilarating adventure, particularly in the case of A Hard Day's Night, as the boisterous editing and hand held camera work put you right in the midst of Beatlemania.

While fans have become even more acquainted with Paul, John, George and Ringo in Jackson's Get Back docu-series in recent months, there's nothing that can quite match the sense of mania in their 60's movies to truly express the magnitude of the group's popularity. It also cannot be stressed how influential Lester's films remain to this day, from the similar music group based movies from the likes of The Monkees, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Spice Girls and Tenacious D to the comedic stylings of spoofs like This Is Spinal Tap.

2. – Last Action Hero (1993)

John McTiernan's Last Action Hero may not have been a box-office smash upon release – a certain Dino attraction got more bums in seats that summer – but it has gone on to have a beloved cult following – and it's not hard to see why.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as both himself and his latest action hero Jack Slater, who young fan Danny gets to meet in the flesh when he gets his hands on a magic movie ticket that transports him into the world of the latest Jack Slater action movie. What follows is a madcap satire of action movie tropes, but what is even more satisfying is Schwarzenegger's well calibrated comic performance.

The biggest action star even at the time, Arnie shows a great willingness to poke fun at his own star image, and there's something very humorous about the way he plays Slater's existential crisis as he discovers he is a character in a movie, particularly when he comes face to face with the ‘real' Schwarznegger in the film's final act.

3. Michael Jordan and LeBron James – (1996) and Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

Much more an exercise in brand management than other titles on this list, the Space Jam movies on the surface are a very bizarre combination: the biggest basketball stars in the world and the Looney Tunes.

The original had a narrative much more entwined with the reality of the sports star at its centre, with the film explaining that Jordan's decision to return to Basketball and the Chicago Bulls was thanks to inspiration of Bugs, Daffy and co after they recruit him to help them defeat a race of aliens threatening them with enslavement as an attraction at an amusement park. Jordan himself is no actor, but for those that grew up with it, Space Jam remains a nostalgic and oh-so-very-90's treat that uses the public image of Jordan to comical effect.

Its belated sequel – which features LeBron James instead – is barely about the public image of James. It's much more focused on Warner Bros using the film as an excuse to roll out their IP catalogue of characters from movies to TV and video games. The fact that LeBron James could be anybody means it has nowhere near the sense of fun the much more self-aware original has, quickly becoming a headache of over-crowded CG, with little interest in exploring the personality of one of the world's biggest sports stars.

4. – Private Parts (1997)

Howard Stern was and continues to be one of the most listened to radio personalities in the United States, known for his occasionally brash comedic stylings but incredibly active interview techniques. Millions upon millions continue to turn into this show, as well as buy his memoirs.

The first of those three memoirs, 1993's Private Parts, went on to form the basis of his biopic, in which Stern plays himself in the account of his own rise to fame. When it comes to stroking egos, Private Parts is (perhaps fittingly) the most guilty of it among this list, and not just because it's Stern playing itself in a narrative about how good he is and what he does.

It's hard to take any of the facts here at face value here, but it is undeniably entertaining with a strong sense of humour that proves to be a pretty pure distillation of the kind of man Howard Stern is, if hardly an objective take on the larger than life future.. He may not always be likeable, but this is a pretty decent litmus test for whether or not Stern is someone you would find palatable or not as he plays up his persona to often funny, sometimes even moving effect.

5. – Being John Malkovich (1999)

When struggling puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a portal in a New York office building, he could never guess where it leads: into the mind of Hollywood actor John Malkovich. Spike Jonze's surreal fantasy from one of Charlie Kaufman's first screenplays is an off-kilter, very funny and oddball exploration of star persona and the often crippling sensation of a lack of fulfilment.

It is a highly original and imaginative concept brought to eccentric life by Jonze's direction and a wildly engaged cast, from Cusack to a wonderful Cameron Diaz and an exceptionally game John Malkovich. Iit is often impossible to predict just where this mind-warping comedy will go next, with one sequence in which Malkovich goes into his own brain standing as one of the most comically unnerving sequences put to celluloid.

6. Bruce Campbell – My Name Is Bruce (2007)

Bruce Campbell will always be known as Ash from The Evil Dead franchise. It is a character he has revisited countless times since the original 1981 movie from Sam Raimi, both on screen and in various other pieces of multimedia, from comic books to video games and a TV show. So, it would make sense that the film in which Campbell plays himself should be so entwined with the chainsaw wielding sugar-giving deadite busting hero from Raimi's trilogy.

In the comedy horror My Name is Bruce, the ‘faux Cambell' is a B-movie star who is kidnapped by a fan who has unwittingly unleashed the Chinese god of the dead, and is hoping his movie hero will be able to assist them in reversing the mistake.

It's a very Three Amigos/Galaxy Quest set up, one which throws the actor into a situation where he is called upon to be the kind of hero he so often plays, yet proves to be woefully inept at answering the call. It's certainly not as successful as those two efforts, as despite a more than game Campbell willfully poking fun at his own B-movie actor reputation, the film is a little short of inspired jokes or thrills, slightly hampered by a limited budget while never quite embracing the silliness its star is so willing to indulge in.

7. Jean-Claude Van Damme – JCVD (2008)

If you're going to watch any of these films in preparation for Nic Cage's own deconstruction of his star image then may I stress it be JCVD, the action drama with an award worthy performance from Jean-Claude Van Damme at its centre.

The film shows Van Damme as a washed out and down on his luck actor, broke, out of work and estranged from his ex-wife and daughter. He returns home to Brussels where one day he is taken hostage among with the customers of a Post Office; is this the moment where Van Damme can become a real hero and reclaim his glory?

What sounds like the setup for a kick-ass self-aware action flick never once plays how you would expect it to. It often plays with genre expectation and instead of an action star becoming a real hero, it is more about a man at the end of his tether, desperate for something to go right, often putting himself and others in more danger rather than ever taking control of both the situation in the post office or his own life.

Van Damme himself is exceptional, incredibly raw and displaying a side of himself hitherto unknown. In one quite startling moment, he breaks the fourth wall to deliver a monologue about his own failings and anxieties that rings with a genuine sense of pain and honesty, An overlooked gem, and a high point when it comes to actors examining themselves on screen.

8. Pretty much the whole cast – This Is The End (2013)

In the stoner comedies that have come to make up the output of his Point Grey productions company, it can sometimes be hard to separate Seth Rogen from a number of the characters that he plays, given his open easy-going stoner public persona. So it is unsurprising then that he and many of his pals – including Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and James Franco – would remove the middle man at some point.

This Is The End sees the famous apls all having to face the rapture, as many are left behind to face the post-apocalyptic landscape as civilization crumbles around them. Some of them are more exaggerated than others – Jonah Hill's sycophantic passive aggression is a highlight – but at its core there's quite a sweet story of friendship inspired by a genuine rift between Seth and Jay during their early days in Hollywood.

Everyone involved seems to be having a ball at their own expense, with a number of memorable cameos dotted throughout as some of Hollywood's funniest people revel in making themselves the butt of the joke. While never quite as creatively meta as some films on this list, This Is The End is certainly one of the most fun, one where there is very little ego on display and a fun high concept at its core. And anything that ends with a group dance with the real Backstreet Boys is ok by my book.

Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate