Total Recall: Singers Turned Actresses
With Burlesque hitting theaters, we look at some notable thespians who started out as vocalists.
When Burlesque struts into theaters this week, it won't just be the latest in a chorus line of movies about moneymaker shakin' -- it'll also join the long, occasionally proud tradition of films starring singers who stepped out of the recording studio and in front of the cameras. In fact, Burlesque stars two of them: musical legend/Oscar winner Cher and -- making her big-screen debut -- Christina Aguilera. To celebrate all this girl power, we decided to spend this week's feature taking a look back at some of of the most noteworthy female double threats in Hollywood history. From the Billboard charts to the box office, it's time for Total Recall!
The Opening Act: If you're old enough to remember 1990, you probably don't need any help recalling Mariah Carey's introduction to the world: the smash hit "Vision of Love," which blended an old-school torch ballad melody with tastefully modern production -- and allowed her to showcase her five-octave range in the process. For the rest of the decade, the charts belonged to Mariah...so when the 21st century rolled around, taking her to Hollywood seemed like a natural progression, right?
Perfect Pitch: Precious (2009, 91 percent) Given the rather dubious reception afforded her earlier forays into the acting world (as well as her glamorous image), it came as a real shock to see a makeup-free Carey turning up in a supporting role in one of the most critically lauded movies of 2009 -- and earning some solid reviews in the process. But that's exactly what happened with Precious, which earned Carey a variety of awards nominations (including a nod from the Screen Actors Guild) for her portrayal of a social worker. As Carrie Rickey noted for the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Harrowing and marked by heroic performances, Lee Daniels' Precious looks squarely in the wounded eyes of its title character and sees a girl with poetry in her."
Wrong Notes: Glitter (2001, 7 percent) When you make your Hollywood debut by producing and starring in a movie that's supposed to be loosely based on your own life, you're pretty much laying it all on the line. So let us applaud Mariah Carey for the chutzpah it required to film Glitter, the notorious bomb so toxic that it actually seemed, for a time, as though Carey's career might be over. Followed by a series of profound embarrassments -- the MTV striptease, the hospital stay, the EMI contract buyout -- Glitter was the subject of withering scorn from critics like the AP's Christy Lemire, who wrote, "The best parts of this dud are the ones in which she's singing. This is what she does best. This is what she should stick to. Save your money and watch her videos for free on cable music-television networks."
The Opening Act: Cher famously got her start in the early 1960s through Sonny Bono, who worked for the legendary producer Phil Spector and was able to score some background vocal dates for the two of them (including "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and "Be My Baby") before they struck out on their own. After a few false starts with unsuccessful singles, they released "I Got You Babe" in 1965, and the rest was history -- Cher started landing small movie and TV roles almost immediately, followed by the duo's Emmy-nominated variety show and her long film career.
Perfect Pitch: Mask (1985, 92 percent) and Moonstruck (1987, 92 percent). The former earned Cher a Golden Globe and a Cannes Best Actress award for her portrayal of a fiercely protective, deeply flawed mother; the latter, a quintessential 1980s romantic comedy, brought her a Best Actress Oscar. Really, throughout the 1980s, Cher displayed remarkably sharp instincts for choosing scripts -- her remarkable run during the decade included Silkwood, The Witches of Eastwick, and Suspect.
Wrong Notes: Faithful (1996, 7 percent), an adaptation of the play by Chazz Palminteri about a semi-suicidal housewife (Cher) whose adulterous husband (Ryan O'Neal) hires a hit man (Palminteri) to kill her. It sounds like the setup for some wonderfully black comedy, but critics came away disappointed, including Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who called it "mostly flat," "thin and claustrophobic," and "oddly bland."
The Opening Act: A four-time Grammy winner and unqualified musical legend, Lena Horne was equally at home on stage (where she won a Tony) or in front of the cameras (as evidenced by her Emmy nomination). If not for the institutionalized racism she faced early in her career -- or the Hollywood blacklisting she endured in the 1950s -- Horne may have spent her career dividing her time between movies and the recording studio; as it was, she only made a handful of films. Fortunately, she made most of them count.
Perfect Pitch: Horne had a part in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946, 100 percent), a loose musical biopic of composer Jerome Kern, but her work in Cabin in the Sky (1943, 80 percent) is more noteworthy -- not only because she had a leading role as part of her precedent-setting deal with MGM, but because the movie had an all-black cast during a time when that meant many theaters would simply refuse to show it. For those who saw it, this Vincente Minnelli-directed musical adaptation of the legend of Faust was a thoroughly charming, albeit somewhat broad, diversion; as Rick J. Thompson wrote for Senses of Cinema, "The performances are required to be charming, deft, and knowing in order to offset the stage devices and camp of it all, and they are."
Wrong Notes: The Wiz (1978, 37 percent) Remaking The Wizard of Oz with a modern R&B spin was an idea with a certain amount of charm, and it worked on Broadway; unfortunately, little of that charm made its way to the screen with Sidney Lumet's adaptation of The Wiz, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Richard Pryor as the Wizard, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and Horne as Glinda the Good Witch. Despite its undeniably interesting cast, The Wiz never came close to earning back its record-breaking budget; it is, in the words of Juicy Cerebellum's Alex Sandell, "so bad it's good, but not so good that I'd say that it isn't bad."
The Opening Act: If you watched MTV or listened to Top 40 radio in the late 1990s, it was almost impossible to avoid Destiny's Child, the R&B group whose hits included "No, No, No," "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Jumpin', Jumpin'," and, of course, "Bootylicious." By 2004, Destiny's Child was on indefinite hiatus, but Beyoncé had a career of her own to focus on -- both in the recording studio (15 Top 40 hits and 10 million albums sold) and on the big screen.
Perfect Pitch: Dreamgirls (2006, 78 percent) Beyoncé tackled comedy with her cinematic debut, 2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember, but she proved she could also handle drama with this Oscar-winning adaptation of the Broadway play about the rise and fall of a vocal group (Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose) whose friendships are tested by the trappings of fame. Though some critics were disappointed by Dreamgirls' simple plot and rather loosely drawn characters, it worked where it counted -- the songs and dancing -- and earned Hudson an Academy Award while proving Eddie Murphy can still act.
Wrong Notes: Obsessed (2009, 20 percent). Beyoncé, Idris Elba, and Ali Larter have all been in well-received movies and/or TV shows on their own -- but when they came together, the result was a hackneyed thriller about an unbalanced administrative assistant (Larter) whose unhealthy fixation with her boss (Elba) puts her on a collision course to illegal hijinks and an epic catfight with his wife (Knowles). A medium-sized hit at the box office, Obsessed overcame scornful reviews from the likes of the Times' Wendy Ide, who called it "execrable" and "a fist-chewing embarrassment that has no right to a theatrical release."
The Opening Act: With her 1989 debut album, All Hail the Queen, Latifah helped blaze a trail for female artists in the male dominated hip-hop world; alongside artists like MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, and JJ Fad, she opened the door for future generations of performers -- and that wasn't enough. By 1991, she'd started opening doors in Hollywood, with roles in films (starting with House Party 2) and television (the sitcom Living Single); just over a decade later, she had an Oscar nomination under her belt for her work in Chicago.
Perfect Pitch: Hairspray (2007, 91 percent) It shouldn't have worked -- a theatrical adaptation of a musical based on a John Waters movie, the 2007 version of Hairspray arrived in theaters as a second-generation copy of an almost 20-year-old story, complete with a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. But the new Hairspray, directed by Adam Shankman and bolstered by a cast rounded out by Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nikki Blonsky, and Latifah, earned more than $200 million, along with praise from critics including Paste Magazine's Tim Basham, who called it "The most refreshing and enjoyable musical of this century."
Wrong Notes: The Cookout (2004, 5 percent) Released the same year as the hellish Latifah/Jimmy Fallon vehicle Taxi, this ensemble comedy united one of the oddest casts in recent memory (including Ja Rule, Farrah Fawcett, Eve, Jonathan Silverman, and Latifah's mother) and a script developed by the Queen herself to produce a spectacular critical and commercial misfire that grossed only $12 million and earned scornful reviews from writers like Jim Lane of the Sacramento News & Review, who scoffed, "Director Lance Rivera has never directed a movie before, and he doesn't start here."