Actors playing nightmarish versions of themselves in cinema – ranked!

Keanu Reeves’s cameo in Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe – as himself, yet absolutely ghastly – is a showstopper. But what about those other stars who have parodied themselves on screen?

10. Al Pacino in Jack and Jill (2011)

The collision of high and low culture that occurred when Al Pacino appeared as himself in Adam Sandler’s lamentable cross-dressing comedy must have been visible from space. Pacino falls in love with Sandler in drag but the sorest indignity comes when he rechristens himself Dunkaccino to star in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial in which he raps mangled lines from Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Part II and Scarface (“Say hello to my chocolate blend”).

9. Cate Blanchett in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Jim Jarmusch’s portmanteau film features various celebrities from music and cinema, among them Alfred Molina being fobbed off by Steve Coogan (in an early instance of the comic playing himself prior to A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip). Blanchett gives an intriguing double-performance as both herself and her own cousin, Shelly, who resents Blanchett’s glamorous life, in an episode that demonstrates the actor’s effortless versatility.

8. Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2 (2008)

Ever wondered what happened to the star of Leaving Las Vegas, Cocktail and Adventures in Babysitting? Turns out she jacked it all in to become a nurse in a Tucson fertility clinic. That’s the conceit of this comedy starring Steve Coogan as a pretentious drama teacher with delusions of talent. “I got sick of the business, sick of all the horrible people,” Shue explains when he recognises her. “It’s all about being a fucking celebrity now.”

7. Michael Cera in This Is the End (2013)

Michael Cera in This is the End
Michael Cera in This is the End Photograph: PR Company Handout

Michael Cera already had experience playing Michael Cera in Paper Heart. But he ditched his winsome, milk-and-cookies persona spectacularly for the apocalyptic celeb-fest This Is the End, in which he gropes Rihanna, snorts cocaine and has a bathroom threesome. “Michael was just ready to fucking rock,” said the co-writer and co-director Evan Goldberg. “All the other actors knew he was probably going to be the one who stole the movie.”

6. Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Stories abound of Keanu Reeves’s widespread beneficence, which only makes his auto-cameo as a self-satisfied bore in this Asian-American Netflix romcom all the more delicious. Sitting down in a restaurant, he asks the waiter: “Do you have any dishes that play with time? The concept of time?” Then he sobs as he eats venison while listening on headphones to the sounds of the deer in happier times. He also settles the table’s $6,400 bill (“Less than a residuals paycheque for my hit movie Speed”), shows off his knowledge of Chinese dignitaries and claims that his childhood crush was Mother Teresa.

5. Most of French cinema in Grosse Fatigue (1994)

This comedy by the actor-writer-director Michel Blanc won the screenplay prize at Cannes and deserves recognition for its ingenuity and prescience in blurring the life/film divide, with the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Carole Bouquet and Philippe Noiret playing themselves. But if the movie was in poor taste in 1994, it looks excruciating now. Blanc, as Blanc, is chagrined to find he has been accused of crimes trivial (blagging Gérard Depardieu’s hotel suite) to heinous (raping the actor Josiane Balasko). If the revelation that there is an imposter in his midst – also played by Blanc – scarcely sweetens the pill, the presence of Roman Polanski may make it downright unpalatable to modern viewers.

4. Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)

Bill Murray in Zombieland

One of the few blips on Bill Murray’s CV is the 2004 Garfield movie, for which he provided the voice of the languorous feline. Murray signed up for it in the mistaken belief that the script was by one of the Coen brothers (close: Joel Cohen, writer of Daddy Day Camp, had a hand in it). Still, it was worth the error when he got the chance to play himself in the comedy-horror Zombieland. Asked on his deathbed whether he has any regrets, he sighs: “Garfield, maybe?” Perhaps in the upcoming Zombieland follow-up he will reveal why he went on to appear also in the Garfield sequel.

3. Anna Faris in Keanu (2016)

The joy of Anna Faris’s cameo as a drug-crazed, samurai-sword-wielding psychopath in this Key and Peele vehicle lies in our initial assumption that she is playing a role. Only once she is complimented for her work in The House Bunny does the penny drop. The director Peter Atencio told her: “Don’t play a different person, but do play what you would be like if you were insane and doing a bunch of blow.” It’s just one scene but the pleasures are twisted and numerous, from Faris trying to convince Tiffany Haddish to shoot Jordan Peele (“Come on, show us what death looks like!”) to Peele begging for his life: “This is black-on-black violence! Don’t fucking let Anna Faris tear us apart!”

2. Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here (2010)

Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here

Separated from the accusations of sexual harassment levelled during production at its director Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here represents a staggering feat of orchestration. Joaquin Phoenix really did capsize his career temporarily by becoming a mumbling, bearded wreck and announcing his retirement from acting to focus on rapping. (Spoiler: he couldn’t rap.) The whole thing was a wheeze that lasted more than a year, all for the purposes of this mockumentary. Part of the fun is seeing the mischief spill over into reality: the car-crash interview with David Letterman, or Ben Stiller mocking Phoenix at the 2009 Oscars. The film is let down only by a limited emotional range that permits its star to be a nitwit or a boor and nothing in between.

1. John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich (1999)

“Malkovich?” Watch John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich

Charlie Kaufman’s mind-boggling screenplay marked the first time the concept of auto-performance had been put so squarely, and so bizarrely, at the centre of an entire movie. John Cusack is the office worker who discovers behind a filing cabinet a portal leading into the head of John Malkovich; anyone who ventures inside can enjoy a full 15 minutes of seeing the world through the actor’s eyes before being dumped unceremoniously next to the New Jersey Turnpike. Malkovich’s essence, combining the recognisability factor with a highfalutin haughtiness, is crucial; Being Tom Cruise wouldn’t have had the same effect, but then nor would Being Frank Langella. “It was never going to be anybody other than Malkovich,” Kaufman confirmed. The film’s reach and influence has been wide and eclectic – Paul Giamatti (in Cold Souls) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (in JCVD) are among those to have been Malkoviched – yet the film stands bald-head and shoulders above the rest, every bit as seductively peculiar as Malkovich himself.


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