Justin Timberlake Enters The Rare Pantheon of Singer Turned Movie Star

The Wall Street Journal
Is Justin Timberlake Really a Movie Star?
JULY 24, 2011, 10:30 AM ET

Musicians and movie roles don’t always mix. Sure, sometimes you get a music star who has a single breakout hit, like Prince in “Purple Rain” or Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard,” but it rarely lasts. And when movie stars try their hands at singing, you get results like Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” or Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat.” Jamie Foxx has had crossover success in music and film, but generally it’s hard for find enduring stardom in both fields.

Justin Timberlake was a star in the music industry with the boy band N’SYNC (remember them?) and then had an unexpectedly successful solo career that has netted him 6 Grammy Awards. He has shown acting chops as a host of “Saturday Night Live” and with supporting roles in smaller films like “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan.” And he now seems ready to make the leap to being a bona fide Hollywood star with “Friends with Benefits.”

“I think ”˜The Social Network’ turned over a new leaf for him,” says Boxoffice.com’s Phil Contrino. “He showed real range and depth. I thought he could have gotten an Oscar nomination.”

Timberlake has wasted no time capitalizing on his “Social Network” supporting role. First he had a funny supporting turn as Cameron Diaz’s marriage target in “Bad Teacher” and just this weekend he got his first major above-the-title starring role alongside Mila Kunis in “Friends With Benefits.”

“This is the most important film of his career,” says Boxoffice Guru’s Gitesh Pandya. “’Friends With Benefits’ will decide whether he jumps from supporting roles to leading ones. The question is whether he can anchor a film. The teenaged girls who loved him a decade ago are in their 20s and 30s today. An R-rated romantic comedy was a good fit for him.”

There have been other musicians who have succeeded on the silver screen, of course. Frank Sinatra certainly conquered both mediums. Elvis Presley made a lot of movies, though he wasn’t really known as a strong actor. Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, and Cher have been big success in both worlds. Madonna has tried the big screen, with limited success. In recent years, Mark Wahlberg, Queen Latifah, and Ice Cube have all moved nicely from music to acting. But when is the last time you listened to an album by any of these folks”“with the exception of Sinatra, Streisand and Presley?

But the one who stands out above the rest is probably Will Smith. From rapper to TV star to movie star, Smith has taken each medium and conquered it. Today, he is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. His name alone guarantees big box office for a film and he’s been nominated for either an Oscar or a Golden Globe 6 times. Still, he basically left music stardom behind to take over Hollywood.

So far, the results look good for Timberlake. The critics are treating him and FWB nicely and its opening weekend box office looks to be solid, though not spectacular. (“FWB” will certainly trail “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”

“He’s taken a good path,” says Pandya of Timberlake. “He wasn’t so arrogant that he dominated the music industry and then tried to dominate the movie industry too. He went through the minor leagues of smaller films and supporting roles first. That’s likely to pay off for him.”

Timberlake’s next test comes this fall. He stars in the sci-fi thriller “In Time” from director Andrew Niccol. Niccol is best known for writing “The Truman Show” and as writer and director of another sci-fi film, “Gattaca.”

“I don’t know if In Time can do for JT when ”˜Independence Day’ or ”˜Men In Black’ did for Will Smith,” says Boxoffice.com’s Contrino. “I think it may be too cerebral to be a huge hit. But as long as it is not a bomb, he is probably on his way. He’s got to keep picking good projects though. It does not matter how charismatic and attractive you are, you do a few bad films with bad directors and you are done.”

“He’s got a good fan base and he is clearly talented,” says Pandya. “I think he wants to show the industry that he is versatile and can star in multiple genres. But he needs to work on getting the male audience to be a really big star. Males can’t look at him as a teenybopper heartthrob who grew up. He needs to almost be a macho action star if he wants to be another Will Smith.”

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