It’s my theory that the kind of actor who gets to play themselves on screen is the same kind that gets printed on Christmas jumpers. Given that, for the past several Christmases, “Merry Christmas From Saint Nic(olas Cage)” has been a bestseller, it was only a matter of time before Nic Cage starred in a film about Nic Cage as Nic Cage.
Actors have been playing themselves for decades; Buster Keaton played himself in Sunset Boulevard as early as 1950. Parafictional personae gained popularity in the Seventies and Eighties with the invention of the tabloid, as actors began to see their lives serialised in gossip columns.
Nowadays, when actors are as likely to be recognised from memes as from films, many are leaning increasingly towards the self-referential. At the start of the millennium, John Malkovich played himself in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. Ten years later, Joaquin Phoenix attempted to capsize his own career by appearing as himself in the mockumentary I’m Still Here. In 2013, Seth Rogen directed This Is The End, which starred himself and his actor entourage, including James Franco and Michael Cera, playing themselves. Bill Murray has played his fair share of parafictional personae, appearing as himself in Zombieland, Space Jam and She’s Having A Baby. Arnie appeared as himself Last Action Hero. Nic Cage is – unbelievably – only just stepping up to the plate.
It’s also no coincidence that almost all of these parafictional personae have been played by a certain type of actor. While women and people of colour have had a go (Cate Blanchett in Coffee and Cigarettes, Whoopi Goldberg in The Muppets), the field has so far been dominated by white men – who, as a result of their parafictional personae, attract a cult following that delivers them ever bigger, more blockbusting roles.
After appearing in a slew of Eighties blockbusters, Murray took a turn towards indie and arthouse films. This turn to obscurity, which ought to have blighted his career, secured Murray’s cult status. Similarly, after a reel of prestige performances, Cage has spent at least the last decade in low-budget films. While that kind of move has killed others’ careers – RIP Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone and Tank Girl’s Lori Petty – it’s turned Cage into a loveable icon. His upcoming film – which will see him reckoning with his Nineties self, pleading with him not to star in anymore naff films, while his present-day self tries to land a role in Tarantino’s next film – will secure his place in the cult hall of fame.
That’s it, then: a cult following is essential to playing yourself, and female actors rarely acquire one. The reason for this, as Julian Stringer and Andrew Willis argue in Defining Cult Movies, is that the subcultural world of movies is gendered, and “practices in cult are naturalised as masculine”. Anything deemed alternative to the mainstream is considered authentic and therefore masculine, while women in film have historically been read as conformist and artificial.
When Goldberg appears as herself, she’s usually only given a short, absurd cameo; Blanchett only gets eleven minutes in Coffee and Cigarettes. Cult male actors, on the other hand, get to decide the terms of their celebrity and the way they’re perceived. Our masculine associations with cult need to be feminised, and in order to do that, more women need to be cast in substantial paraficitional persona roles.
By extending the barriers of the cult and parafictional persona, we’ll be able to grant women control over their own careers too, while giving them an opportunity to be self-reflexive on the screen. So, let’s get this Nic Cage film over and done with so that we can usher in a new wave of parafictional performers. Next year I want a Christmas jumper emblazoned with Viola Davis’ face.