Try as we might to separate our impressions of actors and their personalities from their performances, it’s a nearly impossible task. With the constant scrutiny of the tabloid lens and the 24-hour news and internet cycle, who an actor is ends up mattering almost as much, if not more, as what they do. And while the curiosity of the public about the lifestyles of the rich and famous is nothing new, it can be deflating for some of Hollywood’s more important players to climb so high only to be brought so low. And then there are the few, the happy few, who have a healthy sense of humor about it. More often than not, an actor who can mock himself is even more beloved by the public. Here are my favorite actors who have eschewed self-importance for self-satire.
Neil Patrick Harris—Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle: This was the first example to come to mind. In just a handful of scenes, this man went from “Dougie Howser” to “NPH.” The version of Neil Patrick Harris in this film and the subsequent sequels is way off the mark (douchey, hetero, drug fiend), but I suspect his performance here helped him snag the role of womanizer Barney Stinson in “How I Met Your Mother” which, in turn, made NPH a household name once again.
Cate Blanchett—Coffee and Cigarettes: Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film is actually a collection of vignettes filmed over several years, many of which feature famous faces playing versions of themselves. And though the Steve Coogan/Alfred Molina bit runs a close second, my favorite segment belongs to Cate Blanchett playing both a subtly smug version of herself and her rough and tumble black sheep cousin. This here is self-satire at its most refined.
Ted Danson—“Curb Your Enthusiasm”: After years and years of playing good guy playboys and handsome leading men, Ted Danson took the plunge and played an arrogant, conniving version of himself on Larry David’s own self-satire sitcom. Like NPH, Danson reaped the benefit of this drastic image change, landing himself a villainous role on “Damages.”
Bob Saget—“Entourage”: While Saget had already busted his wholesome “Full House” image wide open with a few lines in 1998’s “Half Baked,” he let it all hang out on “Entourage,” cussing and whoring and essentially crapping all over his Danny Tanner reputation. He has, of course, returned to that squeaky clean image somewhat with his role as the voice of Ted Mosby on “How I Met Your Mother,” but this is how I prefer to remember him.
Tom Hanks—“Saturday Night Live”: Nearly every guest who hosts “SNL” plays a version of themselves at some point on the show. (Steve Martin is a favorite.) Usually, in those cases, the host acts as a straight man while the cast has all the fun. But when Will Ferrell hosted the show, Tom Hanks got to guest-star and even managed to upstage Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery. This is my favorite “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch and one of the best things Tom Hanks has ever done.
John Malkovich—Being John Malkovich: Malkovich, Malkovich?
Orlando Bloom—“Extras”: Ricky Gervais’s fantastic show allowed for so many excellent self-satires during its three seasons. I almost went with Daniel Radcliffe or Kate Winslet, but there’s something about Orlando Bloom’s willingness to destroy his Hollywood heartthrob image that will always endear him to me.
Andy Richter—“Arrested Development”: Andy Richter played not only an *sshole version of himself, but also the quintuplets Donnie, Chareth, Rocky, and Emmitt Richter. That’s impressive.
Billy Zane—Zoolander: While not the strongest self-satire on the list, I include this scene because, well, Billy Zane is a cool dude. Also, how sad is it that after years in the film industry, this is what Zane is best known for.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck—“Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back”: Damon was great on “Entourage,” but never better than here, reunited with his longtime bro Ben Affleck. How do you like them apples, indeed.
Bill Murray—Zombieland: An odd highlight to an already stellar movie, Bill Murray’s portrayal of himself is weird and fun and utterly without ego.
Topher Grace, Joshua Jackson (R.I.P.), Holly Marie Combs, Shane West, That Kid From “7th Heaven”—Ocean’s Eleven: It was a stroke of genius to cast these WB stars (and Topher) as easily duped Hollywood youth. And though their presence dates the film, it remains a highlight for most of them. Oh yeah, Barry Watson, I’m looking at you, kid.
Steve Guttenberg—“Party Down”: Series creator Rob Marshall somehow convinced nearly every single actor from his other show, “Veronica Mars,” to make an appearance on this short-lived gem. But Steve Guttenberg, as Steve Guttenberg, is by far the best and this episode is a high point in the show’s run. Creepily friendly, off-puttingly enthusiastic and supremely well-endowed (on the chestal region), this fictional Steve Guttenberg is the greatest. By the by, that’s two Three Men And A Baby cast members on this list. Your move, Selleck.
James Van Der Beek—All The Things: This list was, in fact, inspired by none other than Dawson himself who seems to be making an industry out of self-satire. First, well, first there was actually Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. And then there was this cute little “Funny Or Die” video.
Then the wonderful James Van Der Memes. (This is The Beek doing a mean Katie Holmes.)
And, coming in April, Van Der Beek will be playing himself on a weekly basis in ABC’s new sitcom “Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23.” I don’t wanna wait.