One Critic’s Rules on Singers Becoming Actors

Singers who aspire to be movie stars do best when they follow a few simple rules.
Pioneer Press

It’s show biz’s version of “The grass is always greener”: Movie star Russell Crowe wants to be a rock star. Music star Ice Cube wants to make it in movies.

It’s been that way since Enrico Caruso’s movie debut in 1918, which is why all eyes will be on Eminem on Friday, when he does some Caruso-ing of his own in “8 Mile,” a drama about a Detroit man who uses music to escape his troubled neighborhood. Rappers are the flavor of the year — Ja Rule, Eve, Ice Cube, Cam’ron and LL Cool J all have movies out now or coming soon — but Hollywood has always been willing to give musicians a shot at acting.

Many don’t cut it, but a few of these hammy-come-latelies do rock. It helps if they follow some simple rules:

By playing, essentially, himself, Eminem is treading in the ruby footsteps of Judy Garland, one of the earliest singers-turned-movie-stars and probably the best. Beginning as a novelty act with her siblings, the Gumm Sisters, Garland hit it big acting in “The Wizard of Oz.” Only 16 when “Wizard” was filmed, she had already established the persona that stuck throughout her life: the waif who retains her vulnerability in the face of tragedy.

Think of the moment when her voice breaks during “Over the Rainbow” as the template for Garland’s career. The roles range from plucky big sister in “Meet Me in St. Louis” to show-biz survivor in “A Star Is Born” to Kitty in “Gay Paree,” but they were always being pushed down, always picking themselves back up, just as Garland did. Even the role that seems most out of character, Garland’s Oscar-nominated performance as a Holocaust survivor testifying as part of the “Judgment at Nuremberg,” is informed by our knowledge that Garland herself was a victim, shattered and trying to keep it together.

Barbra Streisand did the same thing. Although she plays Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” she really plays herself: the ugly duckling who triumphs because of her manic talent. Ultimately, Streisand became too confident of her talent, but all of her best work (“The Way We Were,” “Up the Sandbox,” “What’s Up, Doc?”) finds her playing outsiders who are desperate to get inside, even if it means losing what makes them special. (On the other hand, playing yourself won’t work forever. Streisand was adorable as a gawky, 20-ish misfit in “Funny Girl,” embarrassing as a gawky, 50-ish misfit in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”).

Others who have followed the same path include Will Smith, whose self-deprecating likability is the key to his best music and acting; Courtney Love, who didn’t need to do much research to play a hophead in “Man on the Moon”; Bette Midler, who, like Streisand, has an outsized personality that can’t be sandwiched into real-sized roles; and Dolly Parton, who admits she can only play herself.

It’s when these performers begin to dream of varied, Streep-like careers that they run into trouble. Diana Ross? Fabulous as a misbegotten singer (“Lady Sings the Blues”), awful in everything else. Whitney Houston? Disconcertingly believable as a mean, bland chanteuse but awkward when she tried to remember how real people behave (“The Preacher’s Wife”). Olivia Newton-John? Cute playing a simp trying to make herself over into a hussy (“Grease”) but dicey in any other context.

In this vein, a local boy provides a cautionary tale for Eminem. Like Eminem, Prince made a splash with an autobiographical movie that hewed closely to his own rags-to-riches-in-the-heartland bio. But when Prince tried to leverage that into films where he wasn’t playing himself, he lost credibility in the movie and music worlds. In other words, Eminem: Rent “Under the Cherry Moon.” Heed its lessons. There but for the grace of MGM go you.


Frank Sinatra won his Oscar for a subtle, subsidiary role in “From Here to Eternity.” He did not win any Oscars for the blunt tough guys he played later in his career. Coincidence? No.

If a singer/actor wants to step outside the persona he projects in his music, the best way is to avoid the burden of propping up the whole movie. Think of Cher, in “Silkwood,” who might not have been able to put her Bob Mackie past behind her if she had tried to play a lead but who established credibility as a capable actress by taking a quieter role, showing she could be believable as something other than a disco singer with her boobs hanging out.

It’s easier for someone with a recognizable personality to disappear into smaller parts than large ones. Harry Connick Jr. has put together a nice little acting resume with varied roles in “Little Man Tate” and “Hope Floats.” Same for Dwight Yoakam, whose odd looks have earned him psycho roles that are the acting opposite of his laid-back, rootsy singing. Often, rockers are used to pep up a dull project by adding a bit of strangeness, as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Deborah Harry have often done in small parts.

Supporting roles are also a good way for singers to decide if they’re any good, as Pink (“Rollerball”), Ja Rule (the upcoming “Half Past Dead”), Eve (“Barbershop”), Alanis Morissette (“Dogma”), Tina Turner (“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”), John Denver (“Oh, God!”), Elton John (“Tommy”) and Reba McEntire (“Tremors”) have discovered.

Intriguingly, many of these people, including Gloria Estefan (“Music of My Heart”) and *NSYNC’s Lance Bass (“On the Line”), apparently determine that movies aren’t where their talents lie, since their first big movies are also their last big movies. Or maybe this determination is made for them, as it apparently has been for the difficult-to-cast-as-a-human Michael Jackson, still looking for a big-screen follow-up to his 1978 debut in “The Wiz.” It’s hard to imagine that his dream of starring as Edgar Allan Poe will be the ticket.


The old show-biz adage that dying is easy, comedy is hard will ring painfully true for you if you’ve seen Madonna’s comic roles. She has a natural, comic energy, which was amply on display when she played a version of herself in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but her strident attempts at wackiness in “Who’s That Girl” and the more sophisticated clowning of “The Next Best Thing” both struck lead.

Apparently, this has something to do with self-consciousness. If these singer/actors feel comfortable in roles that suit them, they can be as effortlessly hilarious as Streisand was, inventing a whole new comic vocabulary in “Funny Girl.” But if untrained actors try to suppress their natural instincts and invent a character that doesn’t draw on their own innate timing and point of view, they can be as jarring as Madonna’s English accent.

Elvis and Mark Wahlberg are two others whose vague, pleasant personalities work well in some settings (“Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis, “Boogie Nights” for Wahlberg) but sour if they try too hard to be funny. Elvis, in “Change of Habit,” and Wahlberg, in “The Truth About Charlie,” show that if you have try to act charming, you can’t act charming.

Maybe the problem is that it’s possible for, say, Joan Jett (“Light of Day”) to pretend she’s performing onstage or giving an interview, but something like telling a joke is too far outside her experience. Or maybe the problem is that if you really want to be an actor, you have to create a character who is not like yourself, whereas singers succeed when they have a strong sense of self. Or maybe it’s just that most singers have no business acting in the first place.

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