Oscar season is approaching — not when they give out the awards, but when the high profile Oscar-bait movies trickle into theaters. This year, quite of few of those movies have something strange in common: a famous actor or actress is playing a has-been version of him or herself:
- Al Pacino plays an over-the-hill ham in "The Humbling," based on the novel by Philip Roth.
- Juliette Binoche is a former ingénue who now has to play the role of the older woman in "Clouds of Sils Maria."
- Julianne Moore feels threatened by up-and-comers in David Cronenberg’s "Maps to the Stars."
- "The Congress" becomes surreal after Robin Wright — playing “Robin Wright” — sells a virtual version of herself to a movie studio.
- Then there’s "Birdman," in which Michael Keaton plays an actor whose career floundered after he quit playing a superhero.
Of all these films, "Birdman" is generating the most buzz, perhaps because it cuts closest to home. Keaton’s career did flounder after "Batman Returns," and "Birdman" satirizes Hollywood’s cash cow of superhero movies.
All the movies recall "Sunset Boulevard," the original Hollywood meta-narrative in which Gloria Swanson, an aging star, played an aging star wallowing in nostalgia. "Hollywood wasn’t really accustomed to lifting its veil back then,” says Rafer Guzman, host of WNYC’s Movie Date podcast and film critic for The Takeaway. “Personas were very tightly controlled. It was unusual I think to see someone break the fourth wall in such a self-referential, unflattering way.”
What’s striking about today’s films is how willing the stars are to lampoon themselves. Pacino, apparently, fought to make "The Humbling."
This trend seems to have flown in under the radar, perhaps because these films are largely independent, and four of the five of the directors are foreign. But Guzman says these art house films make commercial sense, because they’re aimed an aging marketplace. “Let’s call it the greying audience,” he says. “They’re out there and they are still seeing movies pretty faithfully" — unlike their kids.