7 Scenes We Love of Movie Characters Doing Celebrity Impressions

By  · Published on November 18th, 2014

Touchstone Pictures

Have you seen the video of Benedict Cumberbatch doing impressions of 11 celebrities in under 60 seconds? Of course you have. As our pal Alexander Huls pointed out on Twitter, “What do we love more than celebrities? Celebrities imitating OTHER celebrities!” It is a strange phenomenon, and maybe we have Jimmy Fallon and his talk show to blame. Ellen DeGeneres is guilty, too. And much of it has to do with Saturday Night Live lately, I bet. But really it’s just always been a thing for comedians to do, and then some of those comedians become celebrities themselves (many of them are the butt of other people’s impressions).

What’s not quite as common as the talk show appearances, and therefore more interesting, are the celebrity impressions that wind up in movies. They too are performed by celebrities, but in the context of the movies it’s the characters they’re playing that are technically doing the impressions. That means they’re not always very good. Some of the following favorite scenes involve great impersonations and some are downright terrible, yet even the latter are awesome in their hilariously intentional awfulness. For Cumberbatch, his next step is to do something like this. Preferably doing his Alan Rickman as Dr. Strange.

Steve (Steve Coogan) and Rob (Rob Brydon) Do Michael Caine in The Trip

Seemingly the most obvious choice these days, you may be dubious that this one even counts. Aren’t these just celebrities doing impressions of celerities? Well, Coogan and Brydon are playing fictional versions of themselves, so there is still that line where these are characters doing the impressions before its the actors doing them. In addition to the famous Michael Caine battle scene below, there are also impersonations of Sean Connery, Liam Neeson, Al Pacino, Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Roger Moore and Woody Allen. The fun continues in the sequel, The Trip to Italy, in which there is more Caine, Grant, Hopkins, Pacino and Allen, plus Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Robert De Niro, Humphrey Bogart and more.

Allan (Woody Allen) Does Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam

The gist of this early Woody Allen movie, which is directed by Herbert Ross and based on Allen’s play, is that its protagonist wishes he was more like Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca. He also has a sort of imaginary friend who is Bogie as Rick (or maybe it’s Bogie’s ghost and he just can’t shake the iconic costume). There is one moment where Allen’s character has a little fantasy sequence where he’s talking like Bogie. It’s not terrific, but Allen wasn’t the sort of comedian to do impressions. I’m sure he’s done a fine Groucho Marx in his time, though.

Pete (Dave Franco) and Others Do Robert De Niro in Neighbors

1One of the funniest scenes in maybe the funniest movie of this year involves Franco and his frat brothers hosting a Robert De Niro party. That means every character there is doing some kind of De Niro impression, save for the guy who opted for Samuel L. Jackson’s character opposite De Niro in Jackie Brown and of course the guy who thinks De Niro was the blind man in Scent of a Woman. Zac Efron’s character’s Taxi Driver De Niro is fine, but as Pete Franco continues to steal scenes in this movie with his spot-on Meet the Parents incarnation. This entry may make you aware that a lot of these celebrity impressions aren’t even technically impressions of the person. They’re basically movie characters impersonating other movie characters.

Sgt. Bagradian (Jay Lawrence) Does James Cagney in Stalag 17

Billy Wilder’s brilliant POW film, released less than a decade after World War II, has plenty of comic relief. In a small part, though, is Lawrence, who had been doing stand-up since his teens. He doesn’t do a whole lot other than impressions, a reminder of life (albeit the fantasy life of the movies) outside the prison camp fences. He does Clark Gable, Cary Grant and a typical yet hilariously executed James Cagney, which is isolated in the clip below. Understand?

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) Does Richard Burton in Scrooged

Never mind that Murray is one of those SNL vets. He’s never been that known for his impressions. His character in Scrooged, on the other hand, because he grew up obsessively watching television, probably does a bunch of them, albeit never in front of anyone. Until a few crazy homeless people latch on to him at a shelter, because they’re not “anyone.” They think Frank is actually “Dick Burton,” and he gives in an pretends for them, throwing out some of the finest Shakespearean gibberish ever uttered. I swear, by thee I forswear.

Ron Albertson (Fred Willard) Does Henry Fonda in Waiting for Guffman

Again, these aren’t great impressions, only ones we love. I don’t know what is the funniest part about Ron’s celebrity voices here, that the dialogue is wrong – first he messes up Bogie’s famous “Here’s looking at you, kid.” – or that he is oblivious to the fact that he’s no good and that’s why he has to always tell people who he’s doing. There’s also the fact that barely anybody does Henry Fonda, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what movie that line is supposed to be from, either (is he flubbing a line not even spoken by Fonda in My Darling Clementine?). Also worth checking out from the same movie is Dr. Pearl (Eugene Levy) doing Johnny Carson.

John Keating (Robin Williams) Does John Wayne in Dead Poet’s Society

Wiliams is almost a celebrity impressionist before anything else. I do believe he’s did them in Good Morning, Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire and of course he had the Genie utter some anachronistic impersonations in Aladdin, but this is the movie where they work the best, in their small quantity. In the below scene, Mr. Keating tries to make Shakespeare fun for his students by pulling in some pop culture and imitating Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar and then impersonating John Wayne as if he were playing Macbeth. The latter is the one I’m warmer to because it’s always funnier to do impressions of people saying and doing something they never said nor did (nor maybe ever would). The Brando, however, isn’t mere mimicry, either. That’s Keating doing Godfather Brando doing Julius Caesar and so there’s humor in the contrast of what the performance is really like. That humor just isn’t as funny.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.