Thompson Rivers University

What does the movie cameo say about our culture?

November 3, 2020

Joceline Andersen, PhD.

They are small performances, but in order to understand them you have to draw upon information that you likely aren’t even aware you have.

In her book Stars and Silhouettes: The History of the Cameo Role in HollywoodJoceline Andersen traces the history of the cameo role as it emerged in film, and how these roles reveal the links between our fascination with celebrity culture and our desire to participate in it. 

The book is the result of Andersen’s PhD research, which she completed at McGill University in 2017. Her research took her to Los Angeles, where she was able to spend time in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

Join us! Joceline Andersen presents “The history of the cameo role in Hollywood,” a Tap into Research premiere, Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m.

The cameo, says Andersen, is unique in that whether an appearance is made by Alfred Hitchcock or Matthew McConaughey, its impact is entirely dependent on the audience and their ability to draw on shared history and culture that informs the experience.

“As they are recognizing that cameo, they are engaging in a moment of film history. They are reaching back into all of the past Matthew McConaughey roles. They are thinking about Dazed and Confused and Dallas Buyers Club, and they are pulling on all of this information to create a fascinating kind of layered experience,” she says.

Her research into the history of the cameo role was made challenging by the fact the cameo doesn’t age well. The people who are culturally relevant in the 1960s and 1970s may not be culturally relevant in 2020, and they may not even be recognizable.

“If I’m watching a film from the 1920s, I can look and wonder, ‘Who am I supposed to know here?’ Cameos are also often built for different audiences and may not be recognizable to people without a certain insider knowledge,” she says, mentioning the directors or writers who appear on film and who would only be known to industry insiders.

Whenever a celebrity makes an appearance on Family Guy or The Simpsons, or whenever a musician, athlete or political figure shows up unexpectedly in a film, we’re watching and participating in a piece of film history; those who appear in these roles remind us who is culturally relevant at the time.

What is fascinating about this type of on-screen appearance is how caneis gave persisted through time. They first appeared in film 100 years ago, yet they are remarkably well-suited for the Internet. 

“They can be clipped out of a movie really easily because they’re often not connected to the narrative of the story. They can survive as clips on YouTube or as stills on Instagram, and they are very well-suited for the kind of marketing or sharing around films that we have today.” 

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