This one’s not just about cameos—brief walk-ons in movies—but more specifically, cameos that add an intangible but palpable something to the films they grace.
That’s why the following list includes Mickey Rourke in The Pledge—incarnating the grief and rage that power the movie’s plot—but not Barbara Billingsley in Airplane!, who was funny as hell, but definitely just one kernel in Zucker-Zucker-Abrams’ popcorn machine. Just so we’re clear, I’m giving myself and commenters some wiggle room as far as screen time. A couple of my own choices are not, strictly speaking, one-scene parts; the character is seen elsewhere, albeit briefly and in a capacity that’s not central to the scene or the movie. The important thing is that the cameo player occupies center stage in one vivid, sustained scene that’s integral to the film’s plot or themes. I’m looking for a cameo that is not mainly a sight gag (like legendary mime Marcel Marceau’s cameo in Silent Movie), but that strengthens a great film, improves a good one, or briefly makes a bad film bearable.
1. John Malkovich, Jennifer Eight (1992). This thriller’s writer-director Bruce Robinson debuted with the ’60s-era drug farce Withnail & I and followed it with the freakish satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising, both starring human bile duct Richard E. Grant. Unluckily for him, the third time wasn’t the charm. Jennifer Eight—about a big city cop named John Berlin (Andy Garcia) who moves to the boonies, tries to catch a serial killer of beautiful blind women and falls for one of the killer’s likely victims (Uma Thurman)—is mostly convoluted and dumb. If not for the rapturously gloomy photography and uniformly strong supporting performances (standouts include Lance Henriksen as the hero’s brother-in-law, and Kathy Baker as his sister) there would be no reason to watch past the 20 minute mark, except to glimpse Thurman’s body double bathing in a pitch-black room.
John Malkovich appears about 90 minutes in. He plays St. Anne, an F.B.I. agent assigned to to interrogate Garcia’s cop, who is nonsensically accused of committing one of the film’s many killings. St. Anne is immaculately dressed, he’s imperious and cranky, and he’s suffering from a head cold. Malkovich actually had a cold on the day the scene was shot, and he and Robinson decided to use it. This was a smart choice. It makes the F.B.I. agent’s animus more than a “bad cop” affectation, and humanizes St. Anne in a down-to-earth, funny way. He’s clearly an aggressive, egotistical fed who came to work that day even though he felt like shit, and now finds himself locked in a room with a smug city cop who swaggered out to the sticks and got in a heap of trouble. St. Anne hazes Berlin with insinuating questions, cruel comments and withering expressions. He denies him the professional courtesy of treating him as an equal and impugns his detective skills, his personal judgment and his honesty. He doesn’t even offer Berlin, a heavy smoker who’s diligently trying to quit, the courtesy of a hot-box cigarette. He’s a magnificent asshole whose sadism remains a bit mysterious. You can’t be sure if he truly despises Berlin, or if he’s just brutalizing him to distract himself from wishing he was at home under quilt, eating chicken soup and watching The People’s Court.
2. Dame Judith Anderson, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) A significant 20th century actress, Anderson, born in 1897, spent most of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s on Broadway, then moved into screen acting, notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (as Mrs. Danvers), in Jean Renoir’s Diary of a Chambermaid (as Madame Lanlaire) and in many televised plays, including two versions of Macbeth, in 1954 and 1960. (Anderson played Lady Macbeth in both, and won an Emmy each time.) In her autumn years, she played Minx Lockridge on the long-running soap Santa Barbara. This sample of her resume helps explain the gravitas she brings to her walk-on as a Vulcan High Priestess who completes the resurrection of Mr. Spock at the end of Star Trek III. Anderson appears at the endpoint of a two-film story of death and rebirth. The scene’s weight rests on her words and expressions, photographed by director Leonard Nimoy in unfussy dissolves. She recites Vulcan incantations in a ringing voice that seems to draw energy from every molecule in her body and transfer it to the title character. There’s no winking here, no sense that Anderson is an overqualified bit player hired to add class to a cornball summer blockbuster. She’s a shaman from an ancient civilization, performing a sacred rite.
3. Paula Prentiss, The Parallax View (1974). Warren Beatty’s alcoholic investigative reporter, Joe Frady, dominates this paranoid thriller by director Alan J. Pakula, thinking, drinking and brawling his way through an investigation of the shadowy Parallax Corporation, which Frady believes is the subcontractor for assassinations and terrorist attacks commissioned by the U.S. government. But Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s terse script still carves out space for memorable supporting roles. First among equals is Paula Prentiss, who plays fellow muckraker Lee Carter, an ex-girlfriend of Frady’s who, like our hero, witnessed a senator’s assassination in the restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. Carter visits Frady at his apartment. She’s spooked. She tells Frady that four witnesses to the assassination have died of supposedly natural causes, and she could be next. Her fear is so solid that Beatty’s intellectual bad-boy charisma can’t dent it—and that’s as it should be, because Carter has achieved a dark enlightenment that Frady can’t fathom. The masterstroke of Prentiss’ performance is her refusal to play the character as weak. Lee Carter is not a damsel in distress. She’s Cassandra of Seattle—an afflicted soothsayer pronouncing a truth that others are too naïve to accept. (Side note: Prentiss’ scene leads to one of the most shocking transitional hard cuts in ’70s cinema, elegantly analyzed in an article by Reverse Shot contributor Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega.)
4. Gregory Peck, Cape Fear (1991). Who knew Peck was funny? He’s hilarious as the defense attorney for ghoulish rapist Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s histrionic remake of Cape Fear. Scorsese, the eternal film buff, cast his sicko cover version with key players from J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original: Peck, who was originally cast as the hero, Sam Bowden; Robert Mitchum, who played Cady in the ’62 version and who shows up here in a more fleshed-out supporting role as the town’s police chief, and Martin Balsam, who played the chief in the original and cameos as a judge here. Peck is a hoot as Cady’s mouthpiece, the ice-cream-suited grandstander Lee Heller. Heller represents the cracker Terminator when he tries to go after Bowden for trying to end his campaign of terror against Bowden’s family by hiring three punks to kick Cady’s ass. The cameo triumphs on at least three levels. First, there’s the sight of Peck, usually cast as a paragon of virtue, hamming it up as a sleazebag lawyer who will do and say anything to get his client off. Second, the role is an ass-backwards but cogent critique of the film’s hero, Sam Bowden, a defense attorney who once represented Cady and withheld evidence that might have spared Cady a prison term because he knew Cady was guilty. (In the 1962 Fear, Bowden was the straight-arrow prosecutor who put Cady behind bars.) Heller may be disreputable, but he’s a more dedicated lawyer than the mealy-mouthed Bowden, who abdicated his oath to defend his clients by any means necessary. Third, Peck is sending up his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch, the saintly hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, a white liberal lawyer defending poor black man wrongly accused of rape. In Fear, Peck’s Foghorn Leghorn accent and come-to-Jesus enunciations deface the role that sealed his legend. When I interviewed Peck for the Star-Ledger in 1998, he said his Cape Fear walk-on was one of the most enjoyable experiences of his career, because it let him poke fun at his goody-two-shoes image. He played Heller, he said, as “Atticus Finch gone to seed.” Given Scorsese’s meta-fictional tendencies, Peck’s film history-conscious take on the role didn’t just suit the project; it defined it as forcefully as the film’s score, an earsplitting re-orchestration of Bernard Herrmann’s original Cape Fear themes by Mockingbird composer Elmer Bernstein.
5. Mickey Rourke, The Pledge (2001). Rourke’s appearance in Sean Penn’s thriller The Pledge ranks with his best work. He plays wheelchair-bound janitor James Olstad, the father of a girl who went missing three years earlier, and who is presumed to have been killed by the psycho that the film’s obsessive hero, retired cop Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), has sworn to catch. Olstad’s one-scene emotional arc justifies Black’s quest to solve a case that the world considers closed. After Black introduces himself and states his reason for visiting, Olstad looks pissed and demands, “You find her dead or something?”—the subtext of which is, “Nothing has changed in three years, man; unless there’s new information, I’d rather not relive what happened.” Asked by Black to describe his daughter, Olstad says, “She must be different now,” and his voice has an even-tempered, philosophical timbre, like a man who is managing the pain of not knowing, but hasn’t given up hope. Then, in a reverie, he says, past tense: “She’s was so pretty.” And then he falls apart. Rourke’s scene runs about three minutes. It’s as perfect as Don McClean’s song “Empty Chairs.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of The House Next Door.