Stars are Born: Five Great Film Performances by Singers

Not everyone can transition seamlessly between music and film, but these five performances prove that it is more than possible.
Debbie Harry Videodrome
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 18th, 2018

Throughout the past few weeks, many critics have devoted their time to thinking and writing about the specificities of Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born. Inevitably, much of this criticism gravitates toward the magnetic performance of the film’s biggest star, Lady Gaga. As Michael Koresky writes in his lovely review, Gaga’s pop persona has always dealt with the complicated relationships between fame, stardom, authenticity, and identity. She smartly references her relationship to and experiences with stardom in songs such as “Paparazzi,” “The Fame,” and “Applause.” A Star is Born is perhaps the perfect film for her onscreen debut, as each time it has been remade it offered its stars (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand) the chance to reflect, play upon, or reject the narratives of their own careers.

Gaga’s performance is part of a long tradition of superstar singers and musicians expanding their artistic horizons and venturing into the world of cinema. Being an electrifying and talented onstage performer does not necessarily translate to the cinema, but there are many instances where singers are able to shape, manipulate, or altogether shed their celebrity personas to inhabit characters within cinematic narratives. There are of course many multi-talented celebrities who seem to move seamlessly between various media – think Will Smith, Janelle Monáe, Queen Latifah – but here I am concerned with those who are best known for their musical careers who then decide to pursue acting.

The five performers I explore in this article raise questions about how star personas are constructed and maintained and how they change over time as stars explicitly inhabit different characters onscreen and (perhaps less explicitly) offscreen. One theme I came across over and over again while researching this article was the idea that when stars appear onscreen without makeup, this somehow shows us a more “authentic” or “realistic” side of them. Interestingly, one of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories from the new Star is how Bradley Cooper wiped off Gaga’s makeup during her audition for the film. The misogynistic impulse to dismiss glamorous, glitzy female pop stars as frivolous and shallow comes up over and over again in the critiques surrounding many of the five performances I explore below. The following are five film performances by singers that I think demonstrate the power of these artists to enchant, bewilder, and surprise us with their talents.

Cher in Moonstruck (1987)

Norman Jewison’s 1987 romantic comedy is almost universally beloved, and with good reason. Of course, the film was lavished with awards and nominations at the Oscars and Golden Globes, but beyond these superficial accolades, Moonstruck is a beautifully-shot, witty, and eccentrically heartwarming work. This was not Cher‘s first film performance, and as my colleague Anna Swanson writes in her guide to Cher in cinema, she had previously starred in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) and Silkwood (1983), films notable for their sensitivity and compassion toward their queer characters. Cher sparkles in Moonstruck as Loretta Castorini, and imbues her character with maturity beyond her years and a guarded exterior that breaks down when she falls passionately for Ronny Cammareri (a never-better Nicolas Cage). Cher embodies Loretta beautifully as she struggles to reconcile her practicality with the part of her that longs to be messy and romantic. Considering Moonstruck against her other performances in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Burlesque (2010), and most recently, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), it becomes clear that Cher is an expert at embracing and playing up the facets of her persona that are campy, glamorous, enchanting, and witty.

Mariah Carey in Precious (2009)

Precious is defined perhaps more than anything by the deeply emotional and nuanced performances of its lead actors, particularly Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, and the uncharacteristically toned down performance of glittery superstar Mariah Carey. Strikingly and frustratingly, almost every journalist who wrote about Carey’s performance at the time of the film’s release obsessed over the fact that she wore little makeup and drab clothing, and showed great surprise over the fact that Carey showed emotional maturity and restraint in her performance. This laser-focus on Carey’s looks is characteristic of how female pop stars are frequently treated by the media, and while it is, of course, fair to note that Carey’s pop persona is excessively glamorous, the misogyny that characterizes the shock and surprise that Carey could deliver such a serious performance is ridiculous. At the TIFF press conference for the film, Carey and director Lee Daniels spoke about how she was tempted to wear makeup, but that they ultimately came to an understanding that the costumes and makeup in the film would reflect each character’s specific economic and emotional situation. Carey traded in her usual dramatic, effervescent, glitzy persona to play Mrs. Weiss, an exhausted social worker who reaches out to Precious with tough empathy and care. The scene toward the end of the film where Precious takes her daughter and leaves her mother behind demonstrates the incredible emotional dynamics between the three actresses, each of whom deeply understands and inhabits their characters. Despite winning a Razzie award for Worst Actress for her 2001 performance in Glitter, Precious demonstrates that Mariah Carey should not be underestimated and that she is capable of shifting and moving away from her star persona to deliver subtle, emotionally nuanced work.

Mary J. Blige in Mudbound (2017)

Similarly to Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige is known for her sparkling outfits, makeup, and gorgeously styled hair, all of which she left behind to play Florence Jackson, a mother, wife, and involuntary caretaker to Laura McAllan’s (Carey Mulligan) two white children in Dee Ree’s Mudbound (2017). In an interview with Cara Buckley of The Independent, she shares that although she had some difficulty transforming into a character that is so different from her pop persona, she was committed to taking the craft seriously and paying respect to the actresses she looks up to such as Queen Latifah and Taraji P. Henson. Mary J. Blige gives a quietly powerful performance, grounded by her deep love for her family. She notes that performing this role “…taught me to love myself deeper. Because once I just exposed and let Florence live, I just went against the fear… It was tough because I was really trying to get rid of Mary J. Blige, who was used to wigs and weaves and makeup.” Blige embodies this woman whose experiences are so different from her own, proving that she is a multifaceted and talented artist. The hardworking and impoverished Florence is a far cry from her glamorous strip-club owner in Rock of Ages (2012), yet there is something uniquely Mary J. Blige at the heart of both these characters.

Deborah Harry in Videodrome (1983)

It is difficult for anyone else in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) to keep up with the brilliant Debbie Harry and her sleepy-eyed, clever, masochistic Nikki Brand. As Howard Hampton writes in his Criterion Collection essay on Harry’s performance, her star persona presents an interesting case as “…she was used to making a movable pastiche of generic expectations: girl-group tropes, B-movie plots, sex-kitten ennui, nouvelle vagrancy, and cartoon capering.” Her persona as the lead singer of Blondie was seemingly an amalgamation of various pop culture tropes, a series of witty intertextual references, somehow both ironic and perfectly sincere. In Videodrome, she plays off of this persona and takes it in a new direction. Hampton describes her character thusly: “toned-down, brunette, slouching toward ambivalence, a Warholian mash-up of Factory Girls… with then-current eighties call-in radio staples Dr. Ruth (Westheimer) and Dr. Laura (Schlessinger).” Harry’s character moves between soothing troubled radio callers with her soft voice and therapeutic wisdom to imploring Max (James Woods) to use his Swiss Army Knife to cut her as a form of sexual play. Somehow these two facets of her personality exist harmoniously, best exemplified by her intelligent responses to questions of violence and sexuality when she guest stars on a television talk show with Max. Max makes snide comments about her bright red dress and makeup, which she responds to with cool self-assuredness. Debbie Harry’s persona is something of a dreamlike mystery both onscreen and off, and this is never more apparent than in her performance as Nikki Brand.

David Bowie in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

David Bowie was a master of manipulating and experimenting with his outer persona, confronting us with questions of identity and stardom over a span of five decades. He gave many brilliant film performances – The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), The Prestige (2006), and my personal favorite, Labyrinth (1986) – yet none match the diabolical power of his minutes-long monologue in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). As the long-lost Agent Phillip Jeffries, Bowie storms into the FBI offices, and shouts his experiences in the Black Lodge to Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), Gordon Cole (David Lynch), and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer). Now I’m not going to talk about Judy, but if you’d like to, please consult H. Perry Horton’s wonderful writings on Twin Peaks: The Return. Although Bowie only appears onscreen momentarily, his presence and his words change the fabric of the Twin Peaks universe. He tells of a convenience store, of Judy, of a ring, and we see flashes of light, meetings with the inhabitants of the Black Lodge. He questions who Agent Cooper really is. Somehow, his disturbed ramblings all make sense. In those few minutes, David Bowie encapsulates the terror of what lies beyond the visible world, he predicts the future, he behaves as only someone who has seen BOB and his friends would. Bowie had a magical quality, one that allowed him to inhabit any world, any character he wanted, and yet to still remain someone we could feel close to, to relate to. Such is the power of the multifaceted performer, the emotionally intelligent star who moves between media and characters effortlessly, surprising and delighting us at each turn.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.