The Ways in Which Cinema Celebrates Its Own Royalty

Exploring the many ways iconic directors have ended up in other peoples’ movies.
By  · Published on June 25th, 2017

This weekend we’re exploring the concept of Hollywood Royalty. For more, click here.

Exploring the many ways iconic directors have ended up in other peoples’ movies.

Most filmmakers are quite open about their influences and inspirations, from waxing poetic in interviews to filling their movies with homages. While most often directors pay their dues to the legacies of directing royalty through references to their films, sometimes they take a more direct approach and feature portrayals of these filmmakers themselves instead. This includes biopics, of course, but also a whole lot more. That said, here’s a brief celebration of the many ways the most influential filmmakers have shown up on screen in fictional films besides their own—in other words, everything that isn’t a director’s cameo (a time-honored tradition that is another story for another time) [Note: for the sake of time and space, I have chosen to limit it to directors—meaning no TrumboAdaptation, etc.]. Far from an exhaustive list, what follows is a mere introductory exploration of how legendary directors have ended up in front of the camera as opposed to behind it.


Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Considering how filmmakers seem like a very obvious choice for biopic subject matter, biographical films about even the most iconic of film directors are relatively few and far between, when you think about the number of biopics that are made about athletes, politicians, or musicians. Generally, for one reason or another, it seems that filmmakers are more drawn to compelling stories about fictional directors—even those that might be heavily influenced by actual events/people (8 1/2, etc.)—than fictionalized stories about actual directors. That said, there is still a handful of noteworthy exceptions.


Who: Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin

Why It’s Here: Structure wise it might not be anything particularly innovative, following the good old youth-to-death biopic formula, but Downey Jr.’s mesmerizing performance as Chaplin is one for the ages.

Ed Wood

Who: Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

Why It’s Here: In some ways, it seems a stretch to call Ed Wood filmmaking “royalty,” considering he’s known for being one of the worst directors of all time, but Ed Wood is easily one of the best director biopics ever made. And, even if his films are not iconic for the reasons most creators would hope to be remembered for, they are iconic nonetheless.

Highly Fictionalized Portrayals

Films where likenesses of filmmaking legends play important roles, but the narrative has too tenuous a connection with historical events to really be called a biopic.


Who: Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès

Why It’s Here: The Invention of Hugo Cabaret is, oddly enough, perhaps one of the few books I did not read as a child. As such, I saw Hugo as a teenager with few preconceived notions and a lot of curiosity about what family-friendly Martin Scorsese looked like. So when it ended up turning into a love letter to movie magic via Méliès, one of the founding forefathers of cinema, I, for one, was very pleasantly surprised.

Shadow of the Vampire

Who: John Malkovich as F. W. Murnau 

Why It’s Here: F. W. Murnau was a true genius of cinema who, beyond this film, has been sadly neglected in terms of posthumous cinematic representations—and one of the many reasons why I say “sadly” is because Murnau’s life is definitely the stuff of biopics, from his WWI service in the German air force—surviving eight plane crashes without any severe injuries—to his sudden and untimely death at the age of 42 in a car crash where the other passengers survived. As much as John Malkovich is great, the portrayal of Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire is one of the least historically accurate aspects of the film (which is quite impressive, considering all the other aspects of the film), and entirely inconsistent with the personality described in any biography of him. Murnau deserves a whole lot more, but he also deserves to have his name included somewhere in this piece, and at least Shadow of the Vampire is interesting.

Gods and Monsters

Who: Ian McKellen as James Whale

Why It’s Here: It may take place after Whale has long retired and therefore not focus too much on his actual filmmaking, but nonetheless it’s a solid film about an iconic filmmaker, and therefore merits inclusion. It’s listed under this category as opposed to biopic because the young gardener Clayton Boone, whose relationship with Whale is at the center of the film, is entirely fictional, and based entirely on speculation.


From actors playing iconic directors to iconic directors taking on the temporary role of actor to iconic directors making brief appearances as themselves, if it’s a few scenes or less, it goes here.

Midnight in Paris
‘Midnight In Paris’: Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) on the far left

Who: Adrien de Van as Luis Buñuel 

Why It’s Here: Cinematic portrayals of Buñuel are remarkably consistent—the “straight man” to Dalí’s mustache. Considering the role of his fictionalized persona is generally to be overshadowed by Dalí, it was more of a matter of picking one, and it was either Midnight in Paris, some mediocre Dalí biopics, or the critically panned Little Ashes with Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí.

Ed Wood

Who: Vincent D’Onofrino as Orson Welles

Why It’s Here: I know, I know, including the same film twice? But D’Onofrino’s one-scene appearance as Welles is worthy of separate acknowledgement.

Sunset Boulevard

Who: Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton (as themselves)

Why: While even people who haven’t seen Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic are familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s role within the film thanks to the iconic line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” Buster Keaton’s much smaller, much quieter cameo (the only word he says is “pass”) is also worth mentioning.

The Muppet Movie

Who: Orson Welles as Lew Lord

Why It’s Here: It’s Orson Welles playing a hyperbolized movie mogul that’s basically a mix of a fictionalized version of himself and his most famous character, Charles Foster Kane, and talking to muppets.

Vanilla Sky 

Who: Steven Spielberg (as himself)

Why It’s Here: A lot of directors make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in their own films. Spielberg is a master of making blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in other people’s films.


Things that Defy Categorization


Who: Fritz Lang (as himself)

Why It’s Here: Fritz Lang plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself directing a film that never actually happened in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film that laughs at my foolish attempts at categorization.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.