Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer have done it as often as possible. J.K. Rowling was going to do it but ultimately decided to abstain. And E.L. James has made no secret of her desire to do it, as many as three times in a row.
Though an author's film cameo is often a lights-on, fully-clothed activity, that doesn’t make it any less sexy, ego-gratifying or even illicit than many of the other perks that go along with presiding over a pop culture empire. The gods of the literary world have long held a special mystique for Hollywood as the Platonic form storyteller; and the movie industry has kissed the ring in the only way it knows how -- by pointing a camera at them.
The above picture represents the pantheon of today’s most celebrated ink-stained wretches. It's also an extreme example of Hollywood’s fan-boy obsession with bookish types. First time writer-director Michael Maren (a screenwriter who also hosts the Writers on Film screening series featuring authors commenting on their favorite movies) assembled this group of the literary word’s bold-faced names at Brooklyn’s Kos Café for a single pivotal scene in his directorial debut, “A Short History of Decay.” Maren cast a wide net across the top tier of contemporary letters, gathering the prizewinning likes of Jennifer Egan, Gary Shteyngart, Tad Friend, Michael Cunningham, and about a dozen other famous authors as a kind of visual stunt for a sequence in which the film’s struggling scribe protagonist seeks solace in a hipster café after getting dumped by his girlfriend.
Beyond the family photo novelty built into the size and scope of Marin’s literati confab, it’s not so unusual for a writer to step in front of the camera. In fact, there’s a long history of cross-pollination between publishing and filmmaking, with actors publishing novels and authors stepping into the scene. Here are a few of our nominees for the literary cameo hall of fame.
Truman Capote: Woody Allen tapped Capote for a sight gag in “Annie Hall” in which Allen’s frustrated intellectual, Alvy Singer, passes the Breakfast at Tiffany’s writer on a busy New York street and refers to him as “the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest.”
Norman Mailer: The lion of twentieth-century letters often complained that his accomplishments were under-recognized by the anointers of clout and cachet to which he referred as the “acumenarians.” But he had no such trouble winning Hollywood’s love and attention. In addition to writing and directing three films, Mailer frequently appeared on screen in films with which he had nothing to do. Most memorably (and campily) he played Harry Houdini in the bizarre gothic western, “Cremaster 2.”
William S. Burroughs: The Naked Lunch novelist landed at the center of several ‘60s cult films and Beat documentaries. But the highlight of his brief screen career came courtesy of Gus Van Sant who typecast the narcotic enthusiast and political provocateur as a decaying junkie priest in the 1989 love letter to getting high, "Drugstore Cowboy."
George Plimpton and Jerzy Kosinski: The late editor of The Paris Review and the Poland-born author of Being There and The Painted Bird became a kind of Hope and Crosby of cinematic dabblers appearing in two of the same films, although never together. “Reds” featured Plimpton as an editor and Kosinski as a pencil-pushing Russian functionary. The two also mystifyingly appeared in the truly awful 1989 Sandra Bullock comedy, “Religion Inc.,” about a New York adman who decides to start his own bogus religion. Plimpton plays God while Kosinski turns up as a beggar; both are roles in which an author will never feel unprepared.
Honorable mentions: John Irving in “The World According to Garp,” Gore Vidal in “Gattaca,” Ayn Rand in “The King of Kings,” Calvin Trillin in “Sleepless in Seattle,” and Wallace Shawn in, well, everything.