Once you’re a hugely successful musician, with lots of people telling you how awesome you are, making the leap into acting (or painting, or politics, or baseball, or aviation, or molecular biology) must seem like a piece of cake. There are so many object lessons to teach us how untrue that is (Britney Spears’ Crossroads, anyone?). But there are a few double-threats out there who have successfully made the leap.
10. Queen Latifah
It’s pretty aggravating to see a talented actor take an opportunity to do quality work, wipe their ass with that opportunity and flush it down the toilet. Queen Latifah has done this a couple of times. She could have had a solid career as a supporting actress after The Bone Collector and Bringing Out The Dead, but then she kicked America in the crotch by being part of The Country Bears, among other debacles. She was then lucky enough to be cast in Chicago, and it was inarguably a star-making performance. Finding herself in that enviable position, she accepted roles in a bunch of utter garbage, including Taxi and The Perfect Holiday. Sigh. But dammit, she’s always fun to watch on screen, whether it’s comedy or drama, and I suspect she’ll continue to appear in quality movies from time to time. Just don’t expect consistency.
9. Mos Def
Mos Def tends to mumble through roles, but he’s able to make it part of his characters, who are usually painted as either withdrawn or too clever to be extroverted. It was always funny as hell to see him on Chappelle’s Show and when he’s doing comedy he doesn’t seem to overthink as much as when he’s doing drama. That said, he’s an anchor in The Woodsman and a great foil for Alan Rickman in Something the Lord Made. Mos Def will never be Harrison Ford, but hopefully he’ll take a page from Rickman’s book on how to forge a career as a major-league character actor.
Note: this clip is kinda disturbing.
8. Justin Timberlake
When Timberlake was still in N’Sync, the boy band appeared on Saturday Night Live and were written into a pretty funny sketch in which Timberlake instantly stood out as someone who understood comedy and could steal a scene without being obnoxious. SNL obviously took notice and, as his solo career as a singer took off, the show simultaneously boosted his acting career with multiple cameos and some hosting gigs. In drama, he still lacks depth, but he brings a particular flair to all his parts—in Alpha Dog, he was perfectly cast as the entitled and clueless accidental kidnapper Frankie, and in The Social Network, he was shameless, but not a caricature, as the smarmy Sean Parker.
7. Bette Midler
I think your mom and I can agree that Bette Midler is a funny and talented actress. She’s got a great voice, but I’d rather see her act than hear her sing any day, mainly because she seems to only record insipid and mawkish ballads now (at least she used to mix it up back in her ’70s bathhouse days). Her roles are not always much more genuine than her songs, but she crushes in comedic parts, including Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune and even The First Wives Club. The Rose was pretty good, of course, but the day I sit through Beaches is the day I am simply too apathetic to off myself. Or maybe I’ll be in one of those locked-in, conscious comas and someone will leave it on the TV and there won’t be anything I can do about it.
6. Tom Waits
Tom Waits is a great artist, for whom acting and music serve as two sides of one modus operandi. Waits’ songs draw characters, tell stories and evoke moods. The same can be said of his efforts as a character actor, bringing unorthodox dimensions to films like The Fisher King, Dracula, Mystery Train, Down By Law and Wristcutters: A Love Story.
5. Barbra Streisand
I don’t really like Barbara Streisand or her movies, but I put her here because she’s a fucking good actress and we have to acknowledge that, however much it pains us to do so.
4. Frank Sinatra
It wasn’t that Sinatra was ever a technically great actor; it was more that he was Frank Sinatra and, as such, had charisma dripping off him. He won an Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, for a small part in which he was basically a smart ass. He made a lot of fluff movies and vehicles for songs or clowning around with various members of his Rat Pack, but he never took acting for granted. As with his singing, he never really half-assed it and noticeably improved as an actor, giving substantial performances in The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan’s Express and The Detective. He didn’t do too much acting after 1970, instead spending his time smacking punks in the mouth, Charley.
Cher is acceptable as a singer, but surprised audiences with the depth and focus of her acting in films like Silkwood, Mask and Moonstruck, for which she won an Academy Award. I haven’t and won’t ever see Burlesque or Zookeeper, but any assessment of Cher’s acting career benefits from the fact that she has not made a ton of movies. She has historically been pretty (and wisely) selective in her choices of roles. And, yet…Zookeeper.
2. Mark Wahlberg
If you’d told me in 1989 that the dipshit brother of Donnie Wahlberg, the one on the CK billboard with his pants falling off, would be one of the top leading men in Hollywood, I would have spit in your goddam lying face. But here we are and I owe you a hypothetical, time-travelling apology. Not only is he a big success, but I must admit, he’s a pretty damn good actor. Have you seen Boogie Nights? He’s so great in it that it was difficult to accept him as any other character for a while. But he was one of the bright spots in the otherwise disappointing The Departed, and he made the thin Rock Star and Invincible highly watchable. I Heart Huckabees was an ensemble piece, but he was great in that, as well as in The Fighter.
1. Will Smith
I was a pre-teen when “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was a hit, and so I thought it was hilarious. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was similarly OK with me, but, once again, who could have known that this guy would be a leading-man megastar? Six Degrees of Separation was a revelation—a great film with an impressive performance from Smith. Independence Day is a stupid movie, but he did alright in that one, and for a while that’s all he did. Big, dumb movie-star movies. He must have decided at some point that he had more money than his great-great-grandchildren could ever possibly spend, because he took a turn for the better with films like Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds and even Hancock. While these are certainly nothing close to art-house films, they are thoughtful and entertaining as hell, and in them Smith comes off as nothing less than a world-class movie star.