Lady Gaga wants that Oscar, not just for singing, but for acting. So often we associate performances by pop stars as gimmicks or signs of a bad film. “Glitter,” “Gigli” and “Swept Away” all come to mind almost instantly. However, with Gaga winning raves for “A Star is Born” (opening Friday), some are claiming its the best performance by a pop star to date. That means many are forgetting of some incredible acting performances given by pop stars and musicians.
As we welcome Lady Gaga and “A Star is Born” to theaters this week, let’s look back on some of the best performances by a pop star. To be more selective, we are focusing primarily on performances by people who were primarily known for music before transitioning to film. That means actresses who pursue music careers later (a la Hailee Steinfeld) will not show up here.
Bing Crosby – “Going My Way”
Sometimes charisma is half the battle with breaking into acting. Crooner Bing Crosby has no shortage of charm. In “Going My Way,” Crosby portrays Father O’Malley, a hip, young priest who revitalizes a local Catholic parish. Crosby strikes a winning comic chemistry with Barry Fitzgerald as the fussy Father Fitzgibbons. Their interplay keeps the delightful film humming about at an entertaining, brisk pace. Is the film worthy of the Best Picture and Best Actor prizes it won? That’s debatable. However, Bing Crosby works so well in the role, he almost makes it seem easy.
Mariah Carey – “Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire”
The notion that pop stars shouldn’t act owes a lot to Carey’s “Glitter,” a “biopic” disaster. However, Carey more than redeems herself with her subdued performance in “Precious.” As social work Ms. Weiss, Carey doesn’t ask to be liked. She’s a woman putting in her hours and trying to get to the bottom of Precious’ situation. Her steady hand guides one of the best-acted scenes of the millennium, as Precious’ Mom, Mary (Mo’nique) speaks to the abuse in her household. Much was made about Carey’s disheveled appearance and faint mustache in the film. However, she deserves more credit for the restrained acting that elevates every moment of the film she’s in.
Queen Latifah – “Chicago”
“Chicago” is stacked with so many terrific performances. Everyone lights up the screen and contributes to “Chicago” as the best modern musical. Movie stars Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger, and Catherine Zeta-Jones headlined the poster. However, Queen Latifah’s Matron Mama Morton steals the show from these more seasoned veterans. Her intro song “When You’re Good to Mama” introduces the character in fabulous decadence. As she walks Roxie Hart (Zellweger) through murderess row, Mama’s musical number outlines how she can either be your best asset or worst enemy. Latifah thankfully received an Oscar nomination for her breakout performance, losing to co-star Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly.
Madonna – “Evita”
“Swept Away” and “Truth or Dare” often times sully Madonna’s reputation as an actress. However, her performance as Eva Peron in “Evita” proves, with the right role, Madonna can be a powerful actress. It’s not enough that Madonna belts her way through the musical. Additionally, she channels the passion, dedication, and tragedy of Argentina’s first lady. Madonna tells a compelling and wrenching story through her expressive face and super-charged vocals. Her Golden Globe-winning performance sadly was snubbed by the Oscars. However, her renditions of “You Must Love Me” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” stands the test of time.
Frank Sinatra – “From Here to Eternity”
Though only 5’8”, Sinatra’s personality stands larger than life. This live-wire energy he displays in “From Here to Eternity” helps Sinatra steal scenes from acting veterans. As Private Angelo Maggio, Sinatra flexes his dramatic muscles as a doomed man in the Army stationed in Hawaii. Amidst the two love stories at the center of the film, Maggio finds himself a powerful enemy in Staff Sergeant James R. “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Suddenly, the “funny best friend” part Sinatra has been playing turns tragic. His drinking and debauchery land him in the hands of his enemy, longing for escape. Both Sinatra and Donna Reed eventually won Oscars for their performances in “From Here to Eternity,” which also took home Best Picture.
Barbra Streisand – “Funny Girl”
Barbra Streisand had already shown us on Broadway that she was capable of playing “Funny Girl’s” Fanny Brice. However, acting on stage and acting on screen are very different things. Barbra lights up the epic musical and proves that she has the star talent to carry a picture on her first try. Fanny Brice knows how to play the joke, but Barbra always makes sure she has her dignity intact. For her role in “Funny Girl,” Barbra won an Oscar for her debut film role. Not only that, she tied Oscar leader Katharine Hepburn for “Lion in Winter” that same year. The legendary tie couldn’t have worked out better. It’s as if Hepburn handed the keys to Hollywood to Barbra, who would continue to entertain for decades to come.
Dolly Parton – “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”
The only thing bigger than Dolly Parton’s hair is her personality. That makes her a natural fit for the screen. Some of her most famous films (“9 to 5” and “Steel Magnolias”) leverage this quality perfectly. In fact, Dolly is rarely anything but magical when on screen. However, as the kindly Madame Mona Stagney in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Dolly finds her greatest role yet. Dolly gets to flash that megawatt smile and personality as she entertains in a puritanical town. Even better, her on-screen chemistry with Burt Reynolds as a kindly Sheriff in love with her is pure bliss. Near the end of the film, Dolly croons the indelible song “I Will Always Love You.” After a full film of wringing laughs, Dolly makes sure there’s not a dry eye in the (whore)house.
Courtney Love – “The People vs Larry Flynt”
Courtney Love’s antics often times shadowed her work as a musician. Unfortunately, this seems to also have overshadowed her brilliant work as Althea Leasure, the wife of Larry Flynt, in “The People vs Larry Flynt.” Love plays with her party hard persona to delve into deeper layers of her complicated sex kitten. Althea loves Larry and loves their hedonistic lifestyle. However, there’s no shame in her antics. As Larry weathers both legal and physical attacks, Althea goes on her own crusades for her dignity. On screen, Althea demands to be taken seriously. Courtney Love, the performer, uses the role brilliantly to show why she should be taken seriously as an artist as well.
Bjork – “Dancer in the Dark”
In terms of degree of difficulty, acting in a Lars Von Trier film ranks very high. Still, the Icelandic songstress Bjork finds herself more than up for the task. In “Dancer in the Dark,” Bjork plays a factory worker with a degenerative eye disease. She struggles to save up for an operation that might spare her son from the same affliction. In true Von Trier fashion, Bjork’s Selma is put through the ringer time and time again. It’s a harrowing performance that breaks one’s heart further with every passing scene. The film can be ultimately polarizing. However, what towers over everything is the strength and conviction of Bjork’s performance.
Cher – “Moonstruck”
Cher’s Oscar-winning performance is an utter triumph. By 1987, we already knew Cher was an incredible actress (see “Silkwood” and “Mask”). However, her roles as Loretta Castorini in “Moonstruck” took her talents to a new level. A widow, Loretta superstitiously fears something bad will happen to her second wedding if she doesn’t do everything by tradition. This leads her to seek out and invite her husband’s estranged brother Ronnie (Nicholas Cage) to the wedding. The two begin a love affair that neither can easily snap out of. Cher commands the screen, exuding a presence that few movie stars have matched. It’s not enough that she nails the comedic tone of the film. She makes Loretta a lovelorn heroine for the ages as she learns to follow her heart over tradition.