The Quad presents 15 films (10 on 35mm!) featuring actors, athletes, and musicians playing themselves on the big screen from John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich to The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, to just about everyone you could think of in The Player and more!
By the close of the silent era, mainstream films had expanded their purview to make room for appearances by actors not playing roles but literally playing themselves. As talking pictures became the industry standard, glamorous narrative entertainment provided the logical entryway for this phenomenon, which soon grew to cast a widening net that drew in non-performers too. As the movies came of age, filmmakers brought forth visiting-big-star benedictions, in-on-the-joke self-parodies, sports figures re-creating triumphs, and individuals starring in dramatizations of their own lives. With respect to the latter, the forthcoming nationwide release of Clint Eastwood’s new thriller The 15:17 to Paris promises to raise the artistic bar even higher given that a trio of real-life 21st-century regular-guys-turned-heroes star as themselves in a feature narrative re-enactment. The Quad is pleased to present a parade of personages, in scenarios from the high-impact to the irreverent, including some who you might never expect to see in a movie—and some who never expected it themselves.
Jack Smight, 1975, U.S., 107m, 35mm
Flight attendant Karen Black becomes the de facto pilot after a private plane collides with the 747 on which she’s working, wiping out the flight crew. She has ex-pilot boyfriend Charlton Heston to talk her through from the ground, but also has to contend with those pesky passengers: Linda Blair, Sid Caesar, Myrna Loy, singing nun Helen Reddy, and Gloria Swanson as… Gloria Swanson.
Arthur Penn, 1969, U.S., 111m, 35mm
Red hot off of Bonnie and Clyde, Penn was again Oscar-nominated for meeting the challenge of making a movie from a work that had a comparable impact on the culture: Arlo Guthrie’s longform song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Guthrie plays himself in the satirical yet fact-based account of how his Thanksgiving Day errand in Massachusetts snowballed—with the actual sheriff and judge from his case also reprising, plus Guthrie’s compatriot Pete Seeger as himself.
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999, U.S., 112m, 35mm
Scaling dizzying new heights in self-burlesque, John Malkovich submitted to the unique and hilarious whims and visions of director Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, each Oscar-nominated for his first film. When John Cusak and Cameron Diaz discover and become addicted to a portal into Malkovich’s brain, they end up wreaking havoc on the irascible actor’s mind and body. With an Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener and other stars being themselves.
Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Iran, 98m, DCP
In Kiarostami’s contemplative dive into the very notion of “based on a true story,” the filmmaker reconvened all of the nonactor principals to re-enact their curious shared history of a bizzare deception. Playing themselves, a family is courted by director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to appear in his movie—except that it isn’t Makhmalbaf at all, but rather unemployed film buff Hossain Sabzian, whom the family would later take to court. In Farsi with English subtitles.
Tom Gries, 1977, U.S., 101m, 35mm
A biopic in every sense, with Muhammad Ali playing himself with full charisma in an adaptation of his autobiography by Ring Lardner Jnr. From the streets of Louisville Kentucky, through his conversion to Islam by Malcolm X (James Earl Jones) and on up to the 1975 Rumble in the Jungle, the film covers all the key events, with a supporting cast featuring Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall, and Roger E. Mosely.
A Hard Day's Night
Richard Lester, 1964, UK, 87m, DCP
Rather than put George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr through the paces of a conventional music-star movie debut, Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen upended expectations by having The Beatles slyly mock their own images. Seeing this combo of freewheeling comedy and exhilarating song performances creates new Beatlemaniacs every time. In Liverpudlian with no subtitles.
A Little Romance
George Roy Hill, 1979, U.S./France, 109m, 35mm
Georges Delerue’s Oscar-winning score, suffused with unforgettable use of Vivaldi, enhances Hill’s lyrical depiction, full-to-bursting with beauty and good humor, of two 13-year-olds who meet up in Paris. French cinephile Thelonious Bernard and American student Diane Lane’s puppy love is encouraged by local Laurence Olivier; among a visiting film unit, the young adults encounter—as his flinty self—actor Broderick Crawford, who makes time for a trivia challenge.
Robert Altman, 1992, U.S., 124m, DCP
In this scathingly funny and tantalizing tale in which movie studio executive Tim Robbins covers up a murder, Altman triumphantly returned to the front ranks while setting a new standard of verisimilitude in depicting the film business; star-spotting is off the charts as living and working in a company town is matter-of-factly anatomized. The dozens of cameos include both Andie MacDowell and Malcolm McDowell, Burt Reynolds, Buck Henry, Susan Sarandon etc, etc.—but the best duo is saved for last.
The Pride of the Yankees
Sam Wood, 1942, U.S., 128m, 35mm
Millions thrilled to baseball player Lou Gehrig’s run with the New York Yankees, and millions more were moved by his brave battle with ALS. This home-run inspirational biopic scored 11 Oscar nominations, including for Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and wife Eleanor; Daniel Mandell won for editing. Paying tribute to their late teammate, several real-life Yankee players back up Cooper, notably another legend who would be gone too soon—Babe Ruth.
Betty Thomas, 1997, U.S., 109m, 35mm
Top radio deejay Howard Stern had already defied naysayers with a well-received autobiography; naturally, for the big screen only Stern could do justice to his own outsized identiy as the man who honed a rules-flouting persona—which the movie would bolster in an R-rated comedic context. Aside from celebrity bits, Stern’s cronies are on hand, re-enacting their ride with the “King of All Media;” the cast also includes then-rising stars Paul Giamatti and Allison Janney.
Three Seats for the 26th
Jacques Demy, 1988, France, 106m, DCP
Yves Montand is Yves Montand, but even though the revered actor and singer is visiting the Marseilles of his formative years to perform and to reflect on his life, the picture is a fictional construct. Carving out territory in the then-aborning mockumentary genre, the great Demy casts César Award-nominated Françoise Fabian as Montand’s former flame and Mathilda May as her daughter while fashioning—but of course—musical numbers for Montand to strut his stuff in.
To Hell and Back
Jesse Hibbs, 1955, U.S., 106m, 35mm
The Congressional Medal of Honor was but one of the accolades bestowed upon a son of Texas, Audie Murphy, who had already become the most decorated G.I. of WWII—while still a teenager. After the war, Murphy found success as an actor and then starred in the hit film version of his autobiography, reliving explosive and traumatic battles he fought and re-creating the urgency of his heroism. With Jack Kelly, David Janssen, Denver Pyle, and Susan Kohner.
Gordon Douglas, 1977, US, 104m, 35mm
Daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel had gained a nationwide following, especially among kids, so why not vroom onto the big screen? Notwithstanding the poster touting “his first dramatic movie role,” Knievel is in his own image (two-fisted, unafraid of danger, friend to orphans, et al.) for an action-packed adventure that pits him against a drug-smuggling ring headed by Leslie Nielsen and including frenemy Marjoe Gortner; remember, this too was America in the 1970s!
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Wes Craven, 1994, U.S., 112m, 35mm
Injecting a dose of meta into the horror genre, writer/director Craven conceived a creepy reboot of his A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with the fiendishly clever conceit that the true-life cast and filmmakers have to fight off an evil exporting their boogeyman creation into the real world. On the front lines is original leading lady/final girl Heather Langenkamp, who gets to redefine her screen persona; others appearing as themselves include Robert England, studio executives, and Craven himself.
Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders, 1987, West Germany/France, 129m, DCP
One of Wenders’ most beloved and enduring films, this visually striking fantasy explores one of the big mythological what-ifs: can an angel become human? Watching over West Berlin, Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz edge closer to reality, with the latter entranced by trapeze artist Solveig Dommartin and befriended by the star of a movie unit—Peter Falk, gifted by Wenders with added dimensions for a self-portrait. In English and German with English subtitles.