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Cameos Make a Comeback as Audiences Get the Inside Joke

Filmmakers show they know we know the score with a rash of star surprises this summer.

July 26, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cameos are mushrooming at the movies this summer, and nowhere do they crop up in greater abundance than in "Austin Powers in Goldmember." The film is the latest installment in the tongue-in-cheek spy franchise built around a protagonist lifted from London's swinging '60s, who has already oscillated his way through two blockbusters in the last five years.

Notable for its onslaught of pop culture references, the series also is known for roping celebrities for blink-and-you-miss-them appearances--Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello and Woody Harrelson have done the honors in the past--but the current episode goes for broke. A slew of bona fide Hollywood stars take turns in support of the orthodontically challenged hero.

Attentive moviegoers can attest to the roster of celebrities whizzing through several recent films: Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart and Peter Graves sashayed through "Men in Black II," while John McEnroe, Al Sharpton, Rob Schneider and Steve Buscemi popped in and out of "Mr. Deeds" in sequences meant to elicit knowing chuckles from the audience.

Using cameos by well-known personalities in a joking way is nothing new. But in current features, they assume a particularly self-referential quality and depend heavily on an audience steeped in movie culture and more than a little familiar with the inner workings of show business. In a sense, cameos these days are used to establish a conspiratorial relationship with the audience--to give them the satisfaction of partaking in an insider's joke.

"The use of cameos is part of our pitch to the audience," says Jay Roach, who directed all three Austin Powers movies. The fact that A-list Hollywood celebs appear in "Goldmember" is a jibe directed at Hollywood itself, the filmmaker explains. "We are aware of the fact that we are a cameo-oriented series, and we wanted to be cheeky--wink at the audience and say, 'Look at us, we are gonna pretend like our strange, goofy series has penetrated the Hollywood culture.'

"So we had to get some of the most Hollywood of the Hollywood people. In each case, the person was carefully cast for the part," says Roach, adding that the sequence was intended not only to meet, but to trump the expectations of a public accustomed to over-the-top Hollywood productions.

Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know who's among the cameos, stop here.

The surprise guests include Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, who all appear in a sequence that explores the possibilities of Austin Powers going Hollywood.

The impact of these walk-on performances by well-known actors also relies on the audience's familiarity with their career trajectory. When Peter Graves appears briefly in the sci-fi parody "Men in Black II" as host of a show called "Mysteries in History" and explains pivotal plot points, the cameo draws bigger chuckles from viewers who happen to know the actor once was host of the "Biography" series on the A&E cable network. He also appeared in several low-budget sci-fi flicks in the 1950s, such as "It Conquered the World" and "Beginning of the End"--the latter "a fabulous tale of grasshoppers taking over Chicago," as Graves describes it, pointing out the analogy to "Men in Black II," in which Earth is infiltrated by insect-like aliens.

Graves says the function of his cameo was "really ticking two parts of my career. And I thought it was flattering."

The recent avalanche of cameos offers renewed testimony to the extent to which mainstream comedies draw from recycled premises and familiar archetypes.

"So many modern films are referential to old films, remakes of classic TV series and movies, or parodies of those," says UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz. "Many of them have incorporated cameos that refer back to the earlier incarnations--I already heard that [the upcoming feature ] 'Incredible Hulk' will feature a cameo of Lou Ferrigno, the actor who played Hulk in the original '70s TV show."

The Austin Powers franchise is built on a cornucopia of references to British espionage flicks from the 1960s, like "The Ipcress File," and it is no coincidence that Michael Caine, the spy in those movies, makes a comeback in "Goldmember" as Austin Powers' father.

And of course the series pokes fun at the James Bond movies, although MGM, the studio that distributes the James Bond films, initially blocked New Line Cinema from using the title because of its reference to "Goldfinger," but the dispute was resolved amicably.

The series has enjoyed success, explains Roach, because "we embrace as much as we send up."

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