Media @ McGill

"Stars, nobodies, and other apparitions: the cameo role in Hollywood film and television"

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Joceline Andersen


My thesis project examines the history of the cameo role in Hollywood cinema and television. Cameos are brief roles where the performer is recognized for their persona outside of the film or television role rather than a narrative role within the movie or program. The cameo, relying on the interplay of recognition and brief duration, creates an encounter for the audience with a celebrity, a person who is both familiar and strange. By exploring the evolution of these small parts, I have examined how audiences assess and organize their knowledge about celebrities, and how the notion of celebrity has coloured our concept of identity and achievement in the last century. Cameos are an important part of the marketing for a film, using the power of stars and celebrated figures to draw audiences, both niche and popular, to their films while acknowledging the accumulated pop culture knowledge of those audiences. For audiences, cameos and the act of recognition allow the chance to participate in the expansion of a film's meaning outward into the real world by exposing a documentary space. As the nature and function of the cameo has changed over the last century, it has reflected an evolution in the relationship between celebrities and their fans as fans have become more and more intimately familiar with the construction of celebrity images. The cameo allows and encourages audience participation across media landscapes, manufacturing the possibility for fan digression and control while ensuring continued and long-term publicity as celebrity images live on outside of the film.

In "Chapter 1: Worthy of Recognition:  the cameo as portrait" I examine the history of the cameo in portraiture, exploring the Victorian enthusiasm for cameo jewellery and its lasting connotations of memory and nostalgia, as well as the first instance of a cameo, where figures who existed outside the fictional world of the film, in this case, studio executives, were presented for recognition in a 1912 two-reeler. In "Chapter 2: Everybody's in movies, everybody's a star: ensemble cameos in the studio era," I explore the history of cameos in the golden age of the studio system, beginning with Hollywood-set films of the 1920s and expanding into the post-studio era of cameo spectaculars in the 1950s and early 1960s. I explore cameos as a reflection of the decline of studio power, as cameos transitioned from celebrating the sheer number of studio contractees in their heyday to, years later, displaying many of the same faces for nostalgic effect. I examine the origins of irreverent and self-referential comedian cameos in a case study of the comedy team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and their cameo trades in "Chapter 3: Having too much fun: cameos, comedian comedy, and acting," tracing the evolution of the cameo from presentation of studio glamour to send-up of studio power that welcomed fans to participate in the cultish disruption of classical film narrative. In "Chapter 4: Author signature: cameos and the all-knowing creator," I take on the most famous directorial cameoist, Alfred Hitchcock, examining his expansion of the cameo from self-conscious signature to a marketing technique that anchored his famous brand and established the cameo as a way of paying tribute to respected figures through visibility in film. "Chapter 5: Cameos at home: from television to the internet" follows the history of the cameo in television as a reflection of changing strategies in marketing celebrity to audiences through intimate views of stars that increasingly promise to deconstruct and expose the manufactured celebrity image. The brevity and disruptive nature of the cameo make it ideal for recirculation on the internet, a fact that has no doubt driven the recent vogue for cameos in comedy, while its appeal to fan knowledge has made it a popular topic of discussion on triva-driven internet forums and aggregators. Each chapter explores the history of the cameo, examining how audience investment in celebrity culture and the industry response to this relationship shaped the cameo as it is today.