Monday, 14 March 2011

Big Actor, Bit Part

What's the difference between a cameo, a small role and a bit part?

Cameos take in non-actors playing roles, like Richard Branson in Casino Royale, Stan Lee in various Marvel adaptations (and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock in almost every film he made). These clips also suggest another typical component of a cameo - that the featured individual is caught in frame briefly and, most likely, without speaking. When cameos do feature an actor they tend to be a single appearance in a film and often lampoon the roles in which that actor tends to be cast. Tom Cruise's Len Grossman in Tropic Thunder is thought of as a cameo as he plays very much against type. Famously, Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a single, five minute appearance as a jilted wife in Network. For all their brevity though, these appearances are not independent, solipsistic appearances but integral to the plot. They're not cameos. They're small roles.

But neither are they bit parts. Today I saw The Adjustment Bureau (review here), an inoffensive but vanilla-plain sci-fi romance. At two key moments of the film, the principal character finds himself in a bar. At both these moments, the woman behind the bar is played by a recognisable face - a well-thought-of actor, but by no means a big star. It's not a cameo. It's not a small but integral part. It's just a big actor in a bit part. And, as such, it feels significantly out of place.

Jennifer Ehle (the actor in question) has a considerable, first class acting career behind her. Though she is a television superstar in this country, having played Elisabeth Bennet opposite Colin Firth's Mr Darcy in the immortal BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), she has also popped up briefly in well-known films such as Michael Clayton, obscure films like István Szabó's Sunshine (1999) and even in a typically small but pungent corner of the recent smash hit The King's Speech (as Geoffrey Rush/Lionel Logue's wife Myrtle).

So, when such an actor takes on a bit part such as 'bartender' there's a risk that the role may become more important in the eye of the audience than it actually turns out to be. The bartender that Jennifer Ehle plays in The Adjustment Bureau has no bearing on the plot. But it got me thinking of other immediately noticeable actors whose very casting might threaten the balance of a scene or indeed an entire film:

1. David Bamber. He's popped up alongside Ehle as the oleaginous Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and also as the theatre director in The King's Speech. His indelible Anglicism means that one can also see through the prosthetic nose he uses to become Hitler in Tom Cruise's Valkyrie. The role that I found difficult to digest though was that of the embassy clerk who refuses to give Franka Potente a visa at the beginning of The Bourne Identity.

2. Maura Tierney. The most important recurring female character in ER after Juliana Margulies, Tierney acted in Christopher Nolan's moral allegory Insomnia. Like Ehle and Bamber, she appears behind a counter to begin with but soon the bedside manner of her previous incarnation takes over:

3. William Fichtner. An antihero to the point of villanous in films such as The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down, he just seems too dark a choice as the Bank Manager who appears for all of three minutes at the beginning of The Dark Knight (another Nolan - there are definitely some patterns emerging here).

4. Jason Statham. Statham is well-established as a successful one trick pony, a matinee hardman. It's no surprise to see him pop up for a moment at the beginning of Michael Mann's Collateral to give Tim Cruise's Vincent a Pandora's Box of pre-paid death. But even in 2004, Statham was well-known and one could reasonably ask 'what bearing will Statham have later in this film?'. We never see him again.

5.Brennan Brown. When Orange cinema ad executive 'Mr. Dresden' pops up in State Of Play, one just cannot take it seriously. The irony is that the long-running ad campaign is based on cameos by big-name Hollywood stars.

Having said all this, I thought back on The Adjustment Bureau. At the denoument a character suggests that there is a principal overdeterminator, a God figure - referred to in the film as 'The Chairman' - and that one may have met this person on their day to day business. It's at moments like these I find myself looking back at the two shots, no more than 50 frames-worth, wondering whether Jennifer Ehle is Matt Damon's God.


  1. Ooo! I like your theory that she may very well be our Chairman.
    I, too, was really befuddled to see veteran British actress Jennifer Ehle behind that bar, and like you, I began to think we'd see more of her further on.
    Now, that's a theory I quite like! Adds another layer to a movie that could use one, really!

  2. Apparently the original ending called for them to meet the Chariman, so it would make sense they had someone able to carry the role play the part. And she passes on the message that kickstarts the whole ending of the film...

  3. Jennifer Ehle is God ! I knew it.