January 7, 2011 10:14 pm

The List: Stars playing themselves

You’re no one in Hollywood these days unless you’ve played yourself at least once. It’s partly the last bulwark of the showbiz elite against the encroaching democratisation of reality TV, and partly self-love disguised as self-knowledge. From Olivia Newton-John as a celebrity judge in Glee to Bill Murray in Zombieland – holed up in his Beverly Hills mansion while the streets run wild with the flesh-eating undead – the well-judged self-playing cameo has become an art form in itself. As Matt LeBlanc makes his latest bid for a post-Friends resurgence with Episodes, a new meta-sitcom in which he plays Matt LeBlanc, here are five landmark instances of stars playing themselves.

1. The Beatles ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)

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Playwright Alun Owen spent several weeks on the road with John, Paul, George and Ringo before writing the script for Richard Lester’s cinematic celebration of Beatlemania. The effortless charisma with which the Fab Four inhabited the film’s heightened version of their own already fairly stratospheric reality would inform all the best subsequent collective self-portrayals, from Kiss in Kiss Meets The Phantom (1978) to the Spice Girls in Spiceworld (1997).

2. Alice Cooper ‘Wayne’s World’ (1992)

When erstwhile shock-rocker Alice Cooper launched into an erudite speech about the history and sociopolitical culture of Milwaukee in Mike Myers’ hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch spin-off movie, he inaugurated a paradigm shift. From Tony Blair in The Simpsons (2004) to Mike Tyson in The Hangover (2009), the self-mocking celebrity cameo now offers even the most tarnished reputation a momentary flash of renewed lustre.

3. John Malkovich ‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999)

Just as writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson elevated Tony Hancock to the comic pantheon via a merciless exposition of his personal foibles, so Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s phantasmagoric voyage into the internal workings of John Malkovich’s head ruthlessly exploited the Oscar-nominated actor’s reputation for prickliness and self-love. The scenes in which Malkovich enters his own brain are the most metaphysically daring exploration of the pitfalls of celebrity culture committed to celluloid.

4. Robert Lindsay ‘Extras’ (2006)

America always seemed more at ease than Britain with the idea of comedians playing themselves. They had Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, Kelly Monteith, Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. We had Hancock and Eric Sykes. But in the graceless guise of extra-turned-sitcom-star Andy Millman, Ricky Gervais somehow made the UK the global epicentre of showbiz self-examination. Robert Lindsay’s egotistical harrying of a sick child beat off stiff competition from Kate Winslet and Robert De Niro (among many others) to take the honours in this two series-long festival of A-list self-loathing.

5. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon ‘The Trip’ (2010)

This fearlessly acerbic pairing had already mined their mentor/protégé relationship in Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation, A Cock And Bull Story (2005) but the same trio’s BBC2 sitcom laid ever barer the exquisitely subtle dynamics of Coogan and Brydon’s antagonistic friendship. The dysfunctional ballet of mutual self-excoriation has rarely been so elegantly realised, or so much fun to watch.

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