There are actors who have made entire careers out of playing themselves, only they haven’t used their own names. That’s why it’s unusual this week to see two films at the multiplex with “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas” and “Jack & Jill” where Neil Patrick Harris and Al Pacino, respectively, spoof themselves in gloriously over-the-top rebukes of nearly everything they’ve done before in their professional and public lives offscreen.
Such treatment has been more common on TV. Wayne Brady earned street cred with his foul-mouthed appearance on “Chappelle’s Show” and more recently, Matt LeBlanc has blazed a trail far from Joey from “Friends” as a more cold-blooded hedonist on the Showtime series “Episodes.” (The countless celebrities who rolled around in the mud of Garry Shandling's “The Larry Sanders Show” or Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's "Extras" is why we’ve limited this list to just films, though the appearances of David Duchovny and Jim Carrey on the former and Kate Winslet and Daniel Radcliffe on the latter are among our favorites.)
Still, in the long, but spotty tradition of actors who have stepped into roles most familiar to them on the big screen, there seem to be three categories. There’s the reverential type —1965’s “Dear Brigitte” was built around one boy’s desire to meet Brigitte Bardot and 1992’s “Sidekicks” applied the same plot point for Chuck Norris, the more ambitious meta-narratives such as “Being John Malkovich” and the Paul Giamatti comedy “Cold Souls.” And then there are the roles that have been career rehab of sorts, giving actors the opportunity to mess with the minds of mass audiences by getting messy themselves à la Pacino and Harris. In addition to those two, here are five more of our favorites, ranked in the order of bad behavior, along with how it helped or hurt their career:
7. Bruce Willis in "What Just Happened"
Bruce Willis has his own well-documented history of temper tantrums on set. Just ask Kevin Smith. But in playing himself in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of producer Art Linson’s Hollywood tell-all “What Just Happened,” he was actually substituting for Alec Baldwin, who is famously detailed in the book as refusing to trim his beard for the 1997 wilderness thriller “The Edge.” Robert De Niro, who would play the put-upon producer in “What Just Happened,” handled the same duties behind the scenes by trying to convince Baldwin to play himself to no avail, so Willis had to step in and did so without any sense of vanity, physical or otherwise. Still, in the unflattering portrait of show business where there were no sacred cows, Willis may have come off as the most noble character in the film defending his artistic integrity and delivering a eulogy to an industry-heavy memorial service that puts everything into perspective.
Career Bounce? None, but the film wasn’t seen by enough people to cause ripples in either direction. However, the satire allowed Willis to play the role he seems most comfortable with, showing his muscle as both a tough guy and a comedian and stealing the film from fellow co-stars De Niro, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci and Sean Penn, who also appeared as himself. His best tirade from the film below:
6. Marcel Marceau – "Silent Movie"
While not anywhere near as ill-mannered as some of the bad behavior on this list, Marceau may have done something just as incendiary by saying a single word. In the “Non” (“no” in French) heard around the world, the famed mime had the only speaking part in Mel Brooks’ 1976’s “Silent Movie” when he rejects the advances of Brooks’ director Mel Funn, who figures to save a film studio from bankruptcy by making a throwback to the silent era. Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds and Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft all made appearances, but it was Marceau who stole the film, following up a speaking part as Professor Ping in 1968’s “Barbarella,” with the simple cameo.
Career Bounce? Minimal, appropriately enough. Although the impact on Marceau’s career was negligible, the fun scene proved to be one for the record books — Guinness took note of “Silent Movie” for having the least amount of dialogue for a sound picture with just Marceau’s single line.
5. Steve Coogan in "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" and "The Trip"
Many have argued that Coogan has done his best work when he plays himself, which is why it’s forgivable that he’s done it so often. After rising to fame as the oblivious, self-absorbed talk show host Alan Partridge, Coogan has kept up the schtick even when he hasn’t been playing the fictional character (with a little less makeup) with roles in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” (having tea with Alfred Molina), and Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and “The Trip.” The key to Coogan’s self-effacing act has been the opposite of the majority of actors who play themselves – rather than go broader and more exaggerated, Coogan keeps it casual making his constant need for attention and air of superiority over those who should be his friends (such as Rob Brydon in “The Trip”) all the more vicious. However, Coogan always makes sure he is his own worst enemy and though the films may leave you feeling as though he’s irredeemable, just know that he’s capable of kindness behind the scenes – the next time you see him playing himself, it will be in “Darkwood Manor,” a $1,500 horror film made by a 17-year-old director named Liam Hooper who simply wrote him a fan letter.
Career Bounce? Could go either way. Arguably, Coogan's been so successful it’s left him with lesser options for playing roles that don’t fit his carefully constructed screen persona.
4. Al Pacino – "Jack and Jill"
“You look a little bit like Bin Laden,” someone informs the bearded Al Pacino after a production of “Macbeth” in the latest comedy from Adam Sandler. Strangely, that’s not even close to the worst thing Pacino could be accused of in the film in which he plays a reckless and irrepressible suitor for Jill, played by Sandler in drag. Even disregarding the plot which has the legendary “Godfather” star seducing a cross-dresser whom he believes is a reminder of his salad days growing up in the Bronx, Pacino’s willing to do or say anything to get her into bed, aroused by the smell of the sweat stains of Jill’s bedsheets and telling her on their date they’ll visit a bakery when it’s his real plan to take her back to his place and belt out tunes from “Man of La Mancha.” Calling Jill “the one woman who will lead me back to sanity,” it’s an utterly insane performance that culminates with a song-and-dance number and takes no prisoners, making sport of Pacino’s self-seriousness when it comes to Shakespeare, coming up in the shadow of Marlon Brando and “only” the one Oscar that bears his name.
Career Bounce? Too soon to tell, but likely upwards surprisingly. Though “Jack and Jill” has been considered a career low for Sandler, Pacino is getting some of his best reviews in recent memory, leading the New York Times’ A.O. Scott to give the backhanded compliment, “I’m sorry to say that this may be Mr. Pacino’s most convincing performance in years.”
3. Lindsay Lohan – "Underground Comedy Movie 2010"
It might be a reach to call the “Underground Comedy Movie” a movie at all, but since “movie” is in the title, it’ll get the benefit of the doubt for the purposes of this article. Released once already in 1999, it was made by Vince Offer, better known from the ubiquitous informercials as “The Shamwow Guy” (and unlikely cameo co-star of Pacino in “Jack and Jill”) who turned his public-access sketch comedy show into a feature. At the time, the film got scathing reviews and likely added to a bevy of financial problems Offer was suffering from at the time, but that didn’t stop Offer from cozying up to a down-on-her-luck Lohan last year at Cannes to suggest she shoot a cameo for a re-release of the film. Just a month away from serving her first stint in prison for violating her parole and no doubt a little miffed by the press coverage, it probably didn’t take much to convince Lohan to spend a day on the set to film two scenes – one in which she donned a skirt to reenact Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Seven Year Itch” moment and another in which she carries a pair of guns to mow down some paparazzi on the red carpet.
Career Bounce? Down. Since she was wearing her SCRAM bracelet as she was filming, it’s safe to say Lohan was unable to shed her tarnished reputation and the fact that the new version of the film still exists only in late night TV commercials hasn’t helped. Watch at 1:20, if you must.
2. Joaquin Phoenix in "I’m Still Here"
“It’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” Casey Affleck told The New York Times when he finally came clean about whether his brother-in-law Phoenix was actually acting in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary that that chronicled the “Walk the Line” star’s retirement from acting. Many suspected, but few actually knew it was performance when a hirsute Phoenix appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” to talk up a retirement from acting and his pursuit of a rap career. All bizarre tics and no manners, Phoenix may have tipped his hand with just how eccentric he was, but by the time “I’m Still Here” was released a year later, such outlandish activities as spending the entirety of the film in a drug-induced stupor as he attends meetings with Ben Stiller (for a role in “Greenberg”) and Diddy and having his assistant defecate on him after countless threats, combined with the fact Affleck was filming all of it, suggested it couldn’t possibly be true. When it turned out it wasn’t, there was a collective shrug reflected in the film’s gross of less than $600,000 at the box office, which is a shame because the Andy Kaufman-esque investigation about the trappings of fame is worth checking out.
Career Bounce? A belly flop. The guessing game around Phoenix’s descent was real enough for the actor not to find work again until the second lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” opened up. (Jeremy Renner was earmarked to play the role until scheduling conflicts arose.) When the film comes out in 2012, it’ll be over four years since his last appearance as an actor in “Two Lovers.”
1. Neil Patrick Harris – "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"
So disarmingly offensive he’s sustained a three-film franchise, Harris took his image as the adorable teen doc Doogie Howser and completely desecrated it from the moment he stepped into Harold and Kumar’s Toyota Camry on ecstasy and proceeded to sniff cocaine off the flesh of strippers through the car’s sunroof after he steals it in the first film. Things have only gotten wilder since then as Harris has branded a hooker in the sequel and played upon his real-life coming out as gay man in the interim to get into more women’s pants onscreen. Harris recently told Entertainment Weekly in his “Hollywood Survival Guide,” “Although the role wasn’t a concerted effort on my part to alter my image at all, suddenly people thought I was clever – that I was in on the joke.” He’s been making people laugh ever since.
Career Bounce? Couldn’t possibly be bigger. Harris credited his turn in “Harold and Kumar” with helping him land the role of the womanizer Barney Stinson on “How I Met Your Mother,” which in turn led to world domination once all of his many talents – as a singer, a magician and a quick wit – were on display for all to see. Now a go-to host for award shows, he’s an all-around entertainer that everyone can agree on. And to think he or his career might’ve been dead…
Are there other actors who you think have behaved worse onscreen when playing themselves? (We know Albert Brooks and Cher just missed the cut.) Let us know in the comments below.