Film history is full of examples of actors and movie stars fixating upon their on-screen images (the latest example is the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Fan). Filmmakers, however, have perhaps had more creative ways to hold up mirrors to their similarly narcissistic artistic selves – methods that have been somewhat intrinsically woven into their very own brand of cinema. Here are two of the best-known examples.
Alfred Hitchcock’s logo
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the prolific British director’s internationally successful television show, was premiered in 1955 and continued till 1962, followed soon after by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Both shows effectively elevated the filmmaker’s already thriving celebrity status. While Hitchcock had actually directed just about 20 of the 400-odd teleplays, viewers came to believe that he was the writer and director of these spine-chilling half-hour episodes. Apart from his characteristic wordplay and witty commentary, he lent to the show his singular personality, which in itself was a constant reminder of his association with the cinema of suspense.
More importantly, Hitchcock’s unique physical presence – the iconic large frame, flabby cheeks and bald head – eventually went on to form a stylised silhouette that had by then acquired a powerful branding quality, a logo of sorts, and served as his distinctive signature.
While the silhouette had an obvious and immediate visual impact, the artful director had a few other more subtle tricks up his sleeve to advertise his brand. His films engaged the audience in cunning little contests of hide and seek, a game of “Spot the director”, as Thomas Leitch has called it. Hitchcock’s famed cameo appearances were his way of making sure he never lost control of his story or his image. While these cameos (Frenzy, Family Plot, Torn Curtain, North by Northwest) served a variety of functions – associated sometimes with key motifs, or included simply to provide comic relief – they almost always momentarily distracted the audience, nudging them towards the realisation that the filmic world that they had so far been drawn into was only an artifice. Most importantly, they served as a constant reminder of the man behind the artifice. It is as if he physically needed to stroll into this world from time to time to steer the narrative in a certain direction, to remind his viewer that this was after all his handiwork.
Woody Allen’s glasses
Woody Allen, as one of the most acclaimed actor-directors in film history, has taken the idea of authorial self-inscription to a whole new level. His films are relentlessly autobiographical. Annie Hall is meant to be a reflection of Allen’s off-screen relationship with Diane Keaton. Stardust Memories has Allen playing a filmmaker who has lost faith in his artistic vocation – a perfect excuse for Allen to dramatise his artistic concerns. Manhattan throws up a curious example of life imitating art. In 1997, Mia Farrow published a memoir on her relationship with Allen, a fact that had already been fictionalised in Manhattan in which the ex-wife (Meryl Streep) of Isaac Davis (Allen) publishes a work on their failed marriage.
Allen’s films didn’t simply mirror aspects of his life. In them, he played versions of himself – the Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn, in love with the city, music and art, characterised by his nervous tics and hunching posture and a tendency to share his most intimate conflicts about life and art with fellow characters and ultimately the audience. Even other actors in central roles in his films have played this character (think of Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris). This character however, as Cecilia Sayad has said, doesn’t always fit into the films. The man who looks like a city-bred academic, with his glasses and dishevelled hair, sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the most outrageously hilarious example is the sequence in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, in which Allen plays a spermatozoon.