When it was announced that Justin Timberlake would be taking on a role in David Fincher‘s The Social Network, many bloggers and filmgoers were probably skeptical if the former boy-bander was ready for such a top-tier project. Timberlake has always been hilarious on SNL (even winning an Emmy for his participation on the sketch comedy show) but his filmography has always left much to be desired (The Love Guru, Southland Tales). With The Social Network becoming a smash hit and receiving near universal acclaim it is clear that the pop star has finally managed to deliver a performance worthy of a legitimate actor.
Casting pop stars is always a gamble as many have very little or no acting experience and often come with larger-than-life personas that don’t mix well with the films they are placed in. Stars such as Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross paved the way for many singers to cross over in musical themed films but for every A Star Is Born or Lady Sings The Blues there dozens of Glitter‘s (Mariah Carey) and Crossroads (Britney Spears).
Mr. Timberlake may not be this year’s only breakout singer-turned-actor as Janet Jackson looks particularly strong in the trailer for For Colored Girls and Christina Aguilera could be headed for Glitter territory in her big screen debut, Burlesque.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at 10 singers who managed to prove themselves as viable film stars:
Honorable Mentions: Bjork (unfortunately she resigned from acting after her one performance), Vanessa Williams (was more of a beauty queen-turned-actor than a singer-turned-actor), Eminem (decent performance but needs more output), Whitney Houston (very good but never rose above her singer status), Tim McGraw (surprisingly decent in thankless husband roles), Janet Jackson (may finally make the list later this year), Harry Connick Jr. (fantastic in Copycat), Dwight Yoakam (chilling in Slingblade), Frank Sinatara (old blue eyes had the right stuff in The Manchurian Candidate) and Meatloaf (proved he could do more than sing 25 years after his debut in Rocky Horror).
10. Bette Midler, Ruthless People
Bette Midler actually proved she had what it took to act in her stunning tour-de-force performance as a Janis Joplin-esque singer (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) in The Rose, however, her acting career hit a massive nose-dive shortly afterward. It wasn’t until she took the role of a spoiled heiress at the center of a murder plot in the comedy Ruthless People that Midler found her footing in Hollywood. Midler would spend the remainder of the 80’s racking up box office hits with Touchstone Pictures and truly solidifying herself as a legitimate movie star.
9. Mos Def, The Woodsman
A lot of rappers have tried their hands at acting but Mos Def is truly leagues above his peers when it comes to the level of talent he has displayed since his breakthrough performance in The Woodsman as a parole officer assigned to the case of a child molester. Since then, Mos Def has gone on to roles in the TV movie Something the Lord Made and found success in bigger productions such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, 16 Blocks and Be Kind Rewind.
8. Dolly Parton, Nine To Five
Country singer Dolly Parton is one of the few people on this list who knocked it out of the park on her very first time up to bat. The singer was chosen by Jane Fonda to play the role of a feisty secretary in her office politics comedy Nine to Five and delivered a scene stealing performance that managed to unite her star personality perfectly with a film role. Parton managed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for the film and went on to muddled success as a leading lady until finally reprising her acting glory in a supporting turn in the ensemble dramedy Steel Magnolias.
7. Will Smith, Six Degrees of Seperation
Long before his Oscar nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, hip hop sensation Will Smith actually showed his promise when not a lot of people were paying attention. After Smith had shown that his wild personality worked well on TV (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Smith took on a role in the small feature Six Degrees of Separation where he played a charismatic con artist and displayed a level of true talent that was well above his antics on prime time TV. This performance would go largely unnoticed once Smith blew up in the 90s with major blockbusters but it is definitely one to revisit.
6. David Bowie, The Prestige
Although I’ve never really felt that David Bowie ever took a serious stab at an acting career like most of the people on this list (he seems to only take projects when he’s in the mood), but he mostly just plays up his stage persona in films like Labyrinth and Zoolander. His performance in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige, however, shows the chameleon esque singer shedding his largar-than-life skin and truly settling in to the role of famed inventor Nikola Tesla.
5. Mariah Carey, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Although Mo’nique took home the Oscar and much of the buzz in this harsh film about abuse, pregnancy and life, one can’t forget how impressive Mariah Carey was in her brief scenes as a no-nonsense social worker in Lee Daniels‘ haunting film. Carey’s appearance has been deglamed in order to make her seem ordinary but the fire behind her performance is what makes her shine. Carey holds her own in the final scenes with the powerhouse performance by Mo’nique (a task that would prove difficult for even more accomplished actresses) and shows she has come a long way since her disastrous performance in Glitter.
4. Queen Latifah, Set It Off
After a string of low-key roles in urban centered films and a successful turn on TV (Living Single), Queen Latifah set it off with her powerful performance in F. Gary Gray‘s tale of four black female outlaws who begin robbing banks in the LA metro area. Latifah plays a hardened street-wise lesbian who risks everything to achieve a life better than cleaning offices for a sleazy boss. Interestingly, Latifah wouldn’t become a major Hollywood force until her Oscar nominated turn in Chicago and her bevy of feel-good comedies that would follow.
3. Courtney Love, The People Vs. Larry Flynt
Although many may think that The People Vs. Larry Flynt was rock widow Courtney Love‘s first performance, they would be forgetting her uneven roles in Alex Cox‘s two features Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell (along with a slew of other cameos) which show a punkier, pudgier Love struggling to give a basic line reading without looking at the camera. Her role in Flynt may be stuntcasting but it pays off as she serves as a jolt of energy throughout the entire film as the ill-fated wife of porn producer Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson). Her follow up performances (including another film under the guidance of Milos Foreman) found her sliding further back into her less believable acting form. Oddly, as she became more comfortable making films her performances became more cringeworthy (Trapped being a prime example).
2. Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights
Rapper and underwear model Marky Mark, now known more prominently as Mark Wahlberg, struggled to shed his bad boy image when he first broke into acting but after a few smaller turns in The Basketball Diaries and Fear, the actor finally hit the right note with his compelling lead performance as a porn star in Boogie Nights. Despite the massive success of Boogie Nights, Wahlberg wouldn’t achieve his first Oscar nomination until nearly a decade later for his supporting turn in The Departed.
1. Cher, Silkwood
Cher wrote the book on managing both a successful acting and singing career in the 1980’s. After a decade on TV with the Sonny and Cher show and the launch of a flourishing career as a solo performer, Cher took a stab at acting in major films. She started out with a role in the often forgotten Robert Altman film Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean but truly emerged as an actress in the film Silkwood opposite Meryl Streep. Cher has never been better than she was as Dolly, a bluecollar lesbian, in the social justice drama. She was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here and went on to leading roles in major films all while racking up chart topping singles. Currently, Cher is prepping to pass the torch starring in Burlesque which will feature the big screen debut of Christina Aguilera (although,the younger pop diva doesn’t seem destined for a fruitful acting career).
What do you think are the best ‘starmaking’ roles by pop singers?