Mandy Moore is part of a select group of pop stars who can call themselves actors with a straight face.
“Because I Said So” stars Diane Keaton as a meddling mother who tries to help her daughter (Moore) find Mr. Right. While Moore began her career as a teen-pop singer, from her breakout performance in 2002’s “A Walk to Remember” through a stint on the HBO sitcom “Entourage” she has managed to become that rarest of Hollywood feats, the actor/singer who can lay claim to equal footing in both worlds.
Normally, when a pop star makes a foray into the movies, their roots perpetually show. While Elvis Presley starred in 31 films between 1956 and 1969 (!!!), nobody ever took him seriously as an actor, probably because the King never really tried to act. Whatever role he was playing, be it ex-con/singer Vince Everett in “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), soldier/singer Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues” (1960), boxer/singer “Kid Galahad” (1962) or race-car driver/singer in a buncha films including “Viva Las Vegas” (1964) and “Speedway” (1968), the emphasis was always on the singing (and hip-shaking, of course).
As it turned out, Elvis’ final film, 1969’s “Change of Habit” — in which the King plays an inner-city doctor who falls in love with a nun — featured less singing and more acting than any of Presley’s prior movies. Too bad it was such a stinker.
If there’s any contemporary correlation to Elvis, it’s probably Madonna, who has appeared in nearly 20 films starting with 1985’s “A Certain Sacrifice.” The key difference is that Madonna tries to be a serious actor, most notably taking on the role of Argentinean actress/ first lady/ spiritual leader Eva Perón in the 1996 adaptation of the play “Evita.” While that performance earned Ms. Ciccone some good reviews, the star was still bigger than the role. Madonna’s, shall we say, limited acting instrument, combined with her iconic, hyper-actualized persona, has (as with Elvis) made it impossible to ever buy her as anything other than Madge in costume.
Conversely, Cher surprised everyone by turning in a series of acclaimed film performances in the 1980s, distancing herself from the cartoony image she had built as singing/wisecracking partner to husband Sonny Bono in the ’60s and ’70s. When the duo split up, a number of ill-fated new directions in music led Cher to pursue acting. She took on a string of challenging roles beginning with 1982’s monologue-heavy “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” and followed by turns in the dramas “Silkwood” (1983) and “Mask” (1985). Her performance in 1987’s “Moonstruck,” as a middle-age widow fending off the advances of a younger man while engaged to someone she doesn’t love, won her the Oscar for Best Actress, cementing a level of acclaim in acting that she’d never come close to as a singer.
The similarly iconic Barbra Streisand is as known for her film work as her music, but that’s been the case with Babs since the beginning. In the ’60s and ’70s, Streisand’s albums were charting at the same time she was acting and singing in films like “Funny Girl” (1968) and “The Way We Were” (1973).
Perhaps the most successful singer/actors of all time were two crooners from an era long before “synergy” was even a word. In the early ’30s, the already-famous Bing Crosby was appearing as himself in motion-picture showcases like “Hollywood on Parade” and “The Big Broadcast.” Der Bingle’s laid-back charisma played well on the silver screen and soon he was playing bigger parts. Teaming up with Bob Hope in the highly successful “Road” pictures of the ’40s, starring in iconic holiday fare like “Holiday Inn” (1942) and “White Christmas” (1954), earning an Oscar for his portrayal of a progressive priest in “Going My Way” (1944) and more critical raves as an alcoholic in “The Country Girl” (1954), Crosby became one of the most successful stars in the history of film.
Crosby was also an inspiration to the skinny kid from Hoboken who would become one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century: Frank Sinatra. While Sinatra’s film career doesn’t quite match his recording legacy, he nonetheless starred in some iconic films and gave plenty of indelible performances. Sinatra’s considerable charm served him well in both lightweight musicals like “On the Town” (1949) and “Guys and Dolls” (1955) as well as serious dramas such as “Suddenly!” (1954) and “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). Still, despite an Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1953’s “From Here to Eternity,” some cynics dismiss Sinatra’s abilities as an actor, concentrating on the slight (but still fun) Rat Pack films like “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960). But anyone who’s ever seen Frank as a tormented heroin addict in “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) can’t deny that when he wanted to, he knew his way around a script as well as anything from the great American songbook.
Tom Waits’ musical career is itself a cinematic oeuvre of whiskey-soaked portraits of colorful characters. With his wiry looks and distinctive, gravelly voice, you’d think Waits might never get lost in a film role, but he’s proven every bit as adroit as an actor as he has a musician. In movies as disparate as Jim Jarmusch’s tragicomic road trip, “Down by Law” (1986); the ensemble drama “Queens Logic” (1991); and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 big-budget misfire, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (of which Waits’ Renfield was by far the best part); the singer has brought intelligent, thoughtful portrayals to sometimes underwritten roles.
It’s one of the great crimes of rock history that the seminal L.A. punk band X aren’t better known, but odds are you’ve seen one of their leaders in his side gig. Over the past two decades, John Doe has managed to balance a musical career — both solo and with the intermittently regrouping X — with small but memorable acting jobs in movies like “Road House” (1989), “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “The Good Girl” (2002), as well as dozens more movies and TV shows. But you should still buy his records.
While it seems as if most hip-hop artists have aspirations of being movie stars as well, there have been only a few for whom acting has become more than a side (or vanity) project. Ice-T took a breakout performance in 1991’s “New Jack City” and turned it into a full-time career. In the 26 years since that film, T has starred in scores of films and TV shows, including his current job as Detective Fin Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” while releasing a mere handful of albums.
Former N.W.A rapper Ice Cube likewise garnered critical praise for his turn in John Singleton’s seminal gangsta flick, “Boyz N the Hood” (1991). Since then, Cube has proven himself adept in numerous genres: drama (1999’s “Three Kings”); comedy (the “Friday” and “Barbershop” series); action (2005’s “xXx: State of the Union”); sci-fi (2001’s “Ghosts of Mars”); and even kiddie-friendly family fare (2005’s “Are We There Yet?”). Cube’s musical career hasn’t slowed quite as much as Ice-T’s, but acting (and producing and directing) seems to be taking up most of the multimedia mogul’s time these days — next up is a big-screen version of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
With his squeaky-clean, kid-friendly rapper image, Will Smith was a natural to cross over to TV sitcoms, and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was the vehicle that propelled him to mainstream stardom. Films soon followed, and blockbusters like “Bad Boys” (1995), “Independence Day” (1996) and “Men in Black” (1997) solidified Smith’s place as a bona-fide movie star. While he hasn’t completely left music behind, it does feel as if Smith mostly gets the urge to head into the studio if he has a movie coming out that needs a theme song (as in “Men in Black II,” which featured “Black Suits Comin’ ” from his 2002 album, Born to Reign).
Mark Wahlberg was pretty much a joke in his former life as pop-rapper Marky Mark (with his Funky Bunch). Marky was known more for his buff body and Calvin Kleins than any musical aptitude. So his remarkable performance as a porn star whose ego sends him on a self-destructive decline in 1997’s “Boogie Nights” was a revelation. Since then, Wahlberg has left music (and ridicule) behind, building an impressive film résumé culminating in last year’s “The Departed,” for which he has been nominated for an Oscar.
In the world of country music, the star who shines brightest onscreen is the one who never really topped the charts. Maybe that’s why Dwight Yoakam has been able to immerse himself in his film roles. Even people who knew of Yoakam didn’t recognize him as the abusive alcoholic in “Sling Blade” (1996). Since then, he’s been practically chameleonic in movies like “The Newton Boys” (1998), “Panic Room” (2002) and “Wedding Crashers” (2005) while maintaining a prolific music career.
In our current era of synergistic multimedia stars, more pop stars are making the crossover attempt than ever before. The jury’s still out on Beyoncé, Eminem and Björk. As for Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, 50 Cent and those American Idols? Well, we’d wager that calls from Martin Scorsese will not be forthcoming. But then again, who’d have ever guessed that Marky Mark would be mentioned in the same breath as Oscar?
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