When rumors surfaced that Bill Clinton would be appearing in The Hangover 2, movie fans must have experienced cameo fatigue. While it’s not every day that a former POTUS shoots a scene for a sequel to a film known for its dick jokes, Clinton was the project’s fourth high-profile booking in five weeks. It started with Mel Gibson, fresh off a busy summer of making racist phone calls, taking a small, pivotal role as a Bangkok tattoo artist, until the offer was rescinded amid cast protests. Liam Neeson stepped in to replace him, then Paul Giamatti reportedly accepted a minor part.
Such telegraphed cameo-barrages are by now all too common. Lady Gaga and Jack Black are said to be doing cameos in the forthcoming Muppet movie. According to the Daily Mail, Dame Judi Dench will be “ravished” by Johnny Depp in a sequence in the next Pirates of the Caribbean. Brad Pitt may pop up in Angelina Jolie’s pending directorial debut. And so the surprise cameo has become no surprise at all: What was once a treat for the paying moviegoer is now picked over by (or fed to) film bloggers and their readers, who obsessively analyze appearances months in advance. It makes for good cocktail chatter, but it’s no good for the movies themselves.
It wasn’t always so. Alfred Hitchcock helped pioneer the form, making his first blink-or-you’ll-miss-him cameo in 1926’s The Lodger and ultimately appearing in more than half of his 53 movies. Together, 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days and 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World introduced the more-cameos-the-better approach, each featuring enough surprise guests to fill two Anchorman fight scenes. Over time, the trick was perfected. Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, Jack Nicholson in Broadcast News, Bruce Springsteen in High Fidelity, Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar, and, yes, Mike Tyson in The Hangover—the well-executed cameo winks at the viewer while flattering his intelligence (you have to recognize the person, and persona, to be in on the fun). The problem is that a wink loses its charm when you know it’s coming.
Along with bloggers and studio marketing execs, there’s another culprit here: the celebrity publicists using guest spots as a cynical image-resuscitation tool. As Gibson’s team surely noted, a box-office-troubled, couch-bouncing Tom Cruise pulled this off perfectly in Tropic Thunder, slapping on a bald cap and a fat suit to play potty-mouthed movie producer Les Grossman. Rumors of his scene-stealing turn—and accompanying photos—were all over the web long before the film debuted. By Tropic Thunder’s premiere, there was already a consensus that the performance was his most likable in half a decade. Never mind that this strategy also cheated filmgoers of discovering a gnomish, furry-chested Tom Cruise for themselves.
Earlier this year, Cruise resurfaced as Grossman in a bizarre song-and-dance at the MTV Movie Awards. Wouldn’t you know it: It was part of the advance PR blitz for the Les Grossman movie now in the works. Perhaps there’s a spare role for a certain unhinged Australian. If so, here’s betting we’ll hear all about it ahead of time.
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