Making the silver screen a bit more glam, one movie at a time.
Cher is a woman of many talents. The Goddess of Pop has been an icon of the music industry for over five decades. During that time she’s also worked on Broadway and in the film industry and has won an Academy Award, a Grammy, and an Emmy. This year, she stars in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in theaters July 20, which means now is the perfect time to become acquainted with her other excellent films.
Cher’s work on the silver screen has reached across a wide variety of genres, from musicals and fantasy films to serious dramas. She’s worked with some of the most iconic directors in the industry, often portraying women who are difficult to pin down. Her roles frequently simultaneously play up her larger than life public persona and react against it, rendering it impossible to easily define her characters or to put them in a box.
Watch enough of Cher’s films, as I’ve done in the last few weeks, and it quickly becomes apparent that not only is she a talented actor, but she chooses bold and daring roles, and her films are always benefited by her presence. With that in mind, let’s take a tour through Cher’s diverse and impressive filmography.
Come Back to The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Cher’s career as an actress officially began in the 1960s with two films: Good Times, starring her and Sonny Bono as themselves as they spoof famous tropes in various genres, and Chastity, a romantic drama starring Cher as the eponymous hippie, which flopped and dissuaded Cher from continuing with acting for the next decade. Then Robert Altman came around.
Under Altman’s direction, Cher starred on Broadway in the play Come Back to The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and the 1982 film adaptation. She portrayed Sissy, one of several women who formed a James Dean fan club in the 1950s. The story is told as the ensemble of women reunite in the 1970s and look back on the last twenty years of their lives, including the time in 1955 when James Dean filmed Giant in Marfa, a nearby Texas town. The film, which also stars Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates, has been frequently praised for its feminist themes and for its empathetic depiction of the character Joanne (Karen Black), a trans woman.
When Altman adapted the play to the screen, he retained much of the source material, centering all the events of the film at one location, the local five and dime store. Though this wasn’t her first film role, Cher credits Altman with her career as an actress, believing that he was the only one brave enough to cast her after her previous films were not received well. Altman was right to believe in her. Not only is Cher’s performance integral to the film, she also received acclaim for it and was nominated for a Golden Globe
After Jimmy Dean, Cher wasted no time in finding her next role. In 1983 she joined Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood. Streep stars as Karen Silkwood, a nuclear facility worker and labor union activist who was killed in a car accident in 1974 while on her way to meet a New York Times reporter to discuss unsafe working conditions at the facility. Cher co-stars as Karen’s best friend and roommate, Dolly.
Both Cher and Streep received Oscar nominations for their performances and Cher won a Golden Globe for hers. While Cher is known for being the queen of glam in real life, in Silkwood she is stripped down and her performance is grounded in realism. In playing a lesbian character, Cher’s portrayal of Dolly offers an incredibly humane and nuanced look at the experiences of a marginalized woman. Considering the LGBTQ community is still struggling for proper representation on screen, it’s especially notable that early in her acting career Cher chose projects and roles that were compassionate towards their trans and lesbian characters.
In 1985, Cher starred in Mask as Rusty Dennis, the mother of Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), a young man born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a disease that caused him to have a facial deformity. Though the film is highly fictionalized, it is based on Rocky’s real life. As Rusty, Cher stars as a single mom and member of a biker gang who is raising her son while struggling with her own drug addiction. The supporting cast also includes Sam Neil and a young Laura Dern.
Though the film is at times a touch schmaltzy, Cher’s performance is once again grounded and nuanced. I’m not the only one who thinks so; at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, Cher was awarded Best Actress. She also received her fourth Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
In addition to being a romantic masterpiece, director Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a vehicle for Cher’s best screen performance to date, and the one that won her an Oscar. Cher portrays Loretta, an Italian-American widow who becomes engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) only to fall for his brother, played by Nicolas Cage. Cher is dynamic and steals the show in every scene she’s in. With a script from playwright John Patrick Shanley, Cher has heartfelt and witty material to work with and she knocks it out of the park.
Additionally, Cage, never one to shy away from theatrically, is exceptionally well suited to the role of Ronny “BRING ME THE BIG KNIFE” Cammareri. But Moonstruck, though it has just the right amount of melodrama, is also honest and unpretentious, especially in scenes with Olympia Dukakis as Loretta’s mother. Between Jewison’s direction, Shanley’s script, and the performances, Moonstruck is pitch perfect. Simply put, they don’t make rom-coms like this anymore, and that is a goddamn shame.
Moonstruck also provided us with the best gif you’ll see today, in which Meryl Streep is unable to contain her enthusiasm when Cher beats her at the Oscars and is awarded Best Actress. Their love is clearly mutual — Cher thanked Streep in her acceptance speech and credited her experience doing Silkwood with getting her the Oscar for Moonstruck.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
If Moonstruck wasn’t enough, 1987 also saw Cher star in George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Jack Nicholson. Cher, Pfeiffer, and Sarandon star as Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane, respectively, three friends living in the fictional town of Eastwick, Rhode Island. Unbeknownst to them, the women possess magical powers and have unwittingly formed a coven. While imagining what the perfect man would be like, the women summon Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne, a menacing trickster that Nicholson was born to play, who wreaks havoc on the women and the town.
The film’s examination of Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane’s relationship with Daryl still holds up but what makes this film most memorable is the relationship between the three women. Just as Miller would famously go on to do with Mad Max: Fury Road, here he foregrounds these complex women and the strength of their bonds. The women have their struggles, but it’s never doubted that they are at their strongest and their best when they are committed to helping each other.
Similar to Mask, in Mermaids Cher once again stars as a single mom to a child who is arguably more mature than she is. Cher portrays Rachel Flax, mother to precocious 15-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder) and 9-year-old Kate (Christina Ricci). The film is a coming-of-age story that centers on Charlotte and her turbulent relationship with her free-spirited mother who regularly moves her and her sister around the country during the mid-1960s. When they settle in a small town in Massachusettes, Charlotte, who aspires to be a nun, struggles with her attraction to an older man in the town.
Though certain aspects of the film haven’t aged particularly well (namely Charlotte’s relationship with a 26-year-old) the heart of the film comes from the mother-daughter relationship, a dynamic that Cher and Ryder pull off seemingly effortlessly. It probably helps that Cher had seen Heathers and was adamant about Ryder being cast as her daughter even though another actress had already been selected.
The downside of the film is its stormy production process. Cher clashed with the first two chosen directors, Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz, before Richard Benjamin was chosen to direct. According to Cher, the problems on set led to her turning down leading roles in movies after Mermaids. She has also said that after her Oscar win for Moonstruck, she was too cautious in choosing roles and passed up on good opportunities.
Imagine if Glee had done a tribute episode to Showgirls. If that sounds like the trashy masterpiece of your (fever) dreams, then Burlesque is the movie for you. If it doesn’t, well then I can’t help you. Between Mermaids and Burlesque, Cher’s career consisted mostly of a couple films that were not particularly well received and the odd cameo, including appearances in the Robert Altman films The Player and Prêt à Porter. Burlesque was her return to a starring role in a major film and what it lacks in critical prestige it certainly makes up for in camp and entertainment value.
Cher stars as Tess, the proprietor of a burlesque club who takes on Christina Aguilera’s Ali as a performer. Cue the competitive catfights, personal drama, and spectacular musical sequences. Burlesque might not be a good movie, but it’s a fun comfort food film and the songs work well. One of Cher’s songs that she recorded for the film, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” was a number one hit on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. As a result, Cher is the only artist to have a number one single on a Billboard chart in each decade from the 1960s to the present.
Other notable Cher films include the courtroom drama Suspect (1987), Franco Zeffirelli’s semi-autobiographical coming of age film Tea with Mussolini (1999), as well as If These Walls Could Talk, a 1996 made for TV movie about the experiences that three women have with abortion that Cher starred in and directed a portion of.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is Cher’s first film in seven years. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another seven years for her next film. But then again, considering she’s a Tony away from an EGOT, maybe the stage is calling…
While I eagerly await an announcement of Cher’s next career move, I’ll leave you with some immortal words of wisdom from the Goddess herself.