By Alan Hurst
They may have had dreams of an acting career and they may have even tried that route first, but their first success was behind a microphone – either in front of a big band, on radio, in clubs, on television, arenas, or in a recording studio. Hollywood has always looked to the music industry to see if there might be someone with the talent and spark to make the transition – from Bing Crosby back in the early days of talking pictures to Whitney Houston in the early nineties and The Bodyguard (1992), right up to last year with Lady Gaga’s acclaimed work in A Star Is Born (2018).
It didn’t always work – for every success like Lady Gaga’s we can look to any number of films that Madonna ruined. Other musicians who had a shot at film stardom but didn’t click run the gamut from Sting to Helen Reddy, Paul Anka, Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Mariah Carey and Luciana Pavarotti – even Liberace.
But a lot of other singers and musicians did click – some for years and major film careers, others with just one film. These are my 10 favorite performances by some truly great singers and performers:
Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity (1953)
Frank Sinatra seemed to be old news and in a major career slump when From Here to Eternity came along and rescued his film career, and in tandem his recording career. He had been touring and recording since the 1930’s, achieving major success as the idol of millions of young girls. He broke into films and enjoyed a nice run in both good and mediocre musicals, but by the 1950’s his tabloid romance with Ava Gardner was getting more attention than anything else. He campaigned hard for the supporting role of Maggio in the film version of the best-selling novel. Eli Wallach had originally been cast, but scheduling conflicts gave Sinatra his opening. Columbia Studio chief Harry Cohn wasn’t keen but Sinatra, with the help of Gardner, wore him down. Sinatra got the part at a reduced salary of just $8,000. But he also got the role of a lifetime. The good-hearted, but quick to anger Maggio fit Sinatra like a glove. From Here to Eternity is set in Hawaii, at an Army barracks in the days leading up to World War II and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sinatra plays a private who befriends Montgomery Clift but ends up butting heads with a terrifying Ernest Borgnine. Things don’t end well for a lot of the characters, but Sinatra’s demise is particularly gut wrenching. Sinatra had never played a dramatic part like this before, but he put the songs aside and delivered a nuanced, prickly and completely believable performance. He deservedly won that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and then followed this with some excellent dramatic work in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), among others.
Bing Crosby in The Country Girl (1954)
Bing Crosby was the biggest singing star of the thirties and forties. Following his entry into films he was also one of the biggest movie stars around, hitting the box-office top 10 a total of 15 times between 1934 and 1954. He had an affable screen presence, well suited to musicals, comedies and some other lightly sentimental fare like Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). He was Oscar nominated for both, and won for the former. But despite the Oscar, Crosby was never known as actor of great range and more serious fare seemed an odd fit. He tried digging a little deeper in 1953’s Little Boy Lost, but it wasn’t a hit. The Country Girl pushed him a little harder, forced him to dig a little deeper and the result is probably his best performance. Based on the the hit Clifford Odets’ play, Crosby plays a alcoholic and once popular stage star, whose career is waning. A director (William Holden) offers him a part in a new musical, but along with Crosby he gets his ever present, bitter wife (Grace Kelly). For the first time Crosby plays someone who isn’t easy to like – he’s weak, manipulative, and self-destructive. Crosby doesn’t shy away from any of it. The performance is so good you’re left wondering what else Crosby could have taken on had he had the desire.
Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954)
Garland started her career singing and that’s what she was still doing at the time of her untimely death in 1969. In between she became one of the biggest movie stars of all-time – and an excellent actress. This is her big one, the one Judy Garland performance that shows every facet of her talent. The movie is a big, expensively produced production but it still holds up as one of the best examinations of the Hollywood system of that era. The story of the star on the rise and one on the way down was filmed twice before in the thirties and would be filmed again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and in 2018 with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but no other version packs the emotional punch of this one. That’s almost entirely due to the two leads – James Mason and especially Garland. They give the best performances of their careers. And as good as Mason is, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Garland. Her Esther Blodgett (later renamed Vicki Lester for stardom) is a complex, emotionally challenging role and she misses none of its opportunities. For Garland, this provided her with a showcase so far beyond what she had enjoyed before that the impact is staggering. There’s not a false note in her touching and emotional work here and she’s superb in all her musical numbers. Her loss of the Best Actress Oscar that year to Grace Kelly is one of the great Oscar mysteries.
Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Doris Day was a popular vocalist in the 1940’s with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, achieving success on the concert stage, on records and on radio. Films came calling in 1948 with Romance on the High Seas, and it was full steam ahead forward as she quickly became one of the major movie stars of the next two decades. Day definitely had that extra something that makes a star, but she also honed and developed her skills as an actress and comedienne. Love Me or Leave Me was the film that firmly established Day as a capable dramatic actress. She’d had semi-successful forays into drama with Young Man with a Horn (1950) and Storm Warning (1951), but this was her breakthrough. She owns the role of the ambitious and slyly manipulative Ruth Etting who uses others to get to the top. With the help of a terrific screenplay, she gives the character some believable hard edges under the sweet façade, creating a complex portrait of the real-life performer. This role helped Day prove she was as good an actress as she was a singer – and her singing here is spectacular. Sadly, it’s also one of the few chances she had to show her true range. She’s perfectly partnered with James Cagney – and they both deserved Oscar consideration for their work here. Thankfully Day didn’t ignore her singing career. The series of albums she made from 1955 to 1966 are a wonderful legacy.
Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
In June of this year we had tickets to see Diana Ross in concert. It was the first time seeing her live since the early 1980’s and we went with some trepidation, worried that the inevitable march of time would have hindered her performing skills. We needn’t have worried. She was terrific – she looked great and could (mostly) still deliver the shimmering pop vocals of her heyday. She also included a segment of songs by Billie Holiday, reminding me again that she shocked everyone back in 1972 with her stunning work as the legendary jazz singer in Lady Sings the Blues. This is not a great film, but it is a wonderful showcase for Ross. Nothing like the real-life Holiday, Ross transformed herself and brought Holiday to life like in all her beautifully tragic glory. The screenplay and direction leave no cliché untouched, but somehow Ross – in her big screen debut – is able to make gold out of it. Playing Holiday from a young teenager through initial success, drug addiction, abuse and mental breakdown, Ross is astounding. She also does very nicely with the vocals. She really doesn’t sound like Holiday, but her approach to the jazz tinged score definitely evokes Holiday. Ross received a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress but lost (not surprisingly) to Liza Minnelli’s iconic work in Cabaret. Sadly, this was the only big screen success that Ross had. Mahogany (1975) was a minor hit, but it’s almost unwatchable, and the less said about The Wiz (1978) the better. It’s too bad – Ross definitely had to stuff for a major film career.
Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973)
Streisand wanted to be an actress first and always, but it was her singing that put her on the map from her first appearances at night clubs in Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s. Nobody had heard – or seen – anything like her before. Within a few short years she was the biggest selling vocalist in the country. Success on Broadway quickly followed, then television and ultimately films. She kept recording in between films, but her singing career was not her top priority. It always took a back seat to other interests. It’s only in the last two decades that Streisand has fully embraced her legacy as a singer and the role it plays in the Streisand legend. For me, Streisand will always be a singer first, actress second. That’s not meant to downplay her acting abilities. In the right role, with the right director, she delivers in spades. Such was the case with her work in The Way We Were under the guidance of director Sydney Pollack. Although I do have a soft spot for Funny Girl (1968), I think The Way We Were provided Streisand the actress with a bigger challenge. Her Katie Morosky is vibrant, needy, frustrating and an altogether fascinating, exhausting creation. She wears her heart on her sleeve, is beyond passionate about the world and politics, but also looking to be loved. You can see why Robert Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner is so intrigued by her.
Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born (1976)
There are a lot of things that don’t work me in this version of the often-told story, but there are also some things that work beautifully: the cinematography by Robert Surtees is stunning and the score and soundtrack are pure 1970’s bliss with some terrific Barbra Streisand vocals. But what really makes this film work is Kris Kristofferson’s performance as the troubled, addicted, self destructive musician John Norman Howard. I would have a lot of trouble making the case that Kristofferson is a great actor, but he’s definitely a charismatic, sexy screen presence and, with this role, it’s a love match. The role feels very close to home for Kristofferson and he doesn’t shy away from its darker side. He makes the audience – and Streisand’s character – fall in love with him, while at the same time wanting to shake him back to his senses. Kristofferson does it all with a performance that’s minimal in its effects. Like some great leading men of the forties and fifties, he does a lot by doing very little.
Bette Midler in The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler was one of the major pop successes of the 1970’s. She was both a modern rocker and throwback to the early days of burlesque and vaudeville. She had a wicked sense of humor, dynamic stage presence and a way with a song that could get you jumping or move you to tears. She was almost cast in 1975’s The Fortune with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and there was also talk of her in the Talia Shire role in Rocky (1976). Thankfully she and her team waited for the right vehicle, 1979’s The Rose. This was a thinly veiled version of Janis Joplin’s story and it allowed Midler to do everything she was capable of doing – she made you laugh, cry, cheer, and the musical performances tore up the screen. It’s an incredibly raw piece of work, that builds to an inevitable but still shattering conclusion. Her film career stumbled a bit in the early eighties, but she came back strong with a series of lightweight but fun comedies later in the decade. Unfortunately, she’s never again had the chance to go as deep as she did here.
Cher in Moonstruck (1987)
Cher has been a pop star since 1965, first with her husband Sonny Bono and then with a series of cheesy but infectious solo hits in the 1970’s. She was also a major star on television as well as the tabloids – everyone knew Cher. And then for a period in the 1980’s Cher was big news in films. She got some terrific opportunities, proved she was a magnetic screen presence and that audiences could easily look beyond the image of “Cher” because, surprise, she really could act! But the love affair was brief. Illness and some bad decisions in the 1990’s caused her film career to sputter, but then she reignited her music and concert career and she hasn’t looked back. Cher’s three best performances were in Silkwood (1983), Mask (1985) and Moonstruck (1987). For me it’s her work in the latter remains her top film achievement. As the young Italian widow Loretta Castorini, Cher is a delicious treat. She seems to nail the Italian/Brooklyn accent (others may quibble, but not me) and watching the romance help the character grow from cynical, jaded, and slightly dowdy to beautiful, passionate and happy is romantic comedy bliss. Cher is both funny and quite moving as the character as she – and her hair – blossom before our eyes. It really is a lovely performance, anchoring one of the best comedies of the decade.
Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Courtney Love first gained prominence as part of the grunge and punk scenes in the late 1980’s when she was lead vocalist for the alt rock band Hole. She was uninhibited on stage and in her personal life, which included being married to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Following Cobain’s death, Love achieved more success with her music and then mainstream audiences discovered her with Milos Foreman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. She played the stripper girlfriend of Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and the film follows Flynt’s legal battles in his fight for free speech, after he’s shot and will never walk again. Harrelson’s Flynt is a big personality and so is Love’s Althea Leasure. The two have clearly met their match. Love gives the film a jolt of bravado and self-confidence. She’s very funny and very real, and when the character starts to fall apart, you really want her to get it back together. Love’s work here seemed to set her up for at least a minor film career, but it never happened.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.