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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
There was a time, long ago, when Hollywood musicals were made with performers with genuine musical aptitude. It was the era of luminaries like Judy Garland and Julie Andrews. And when a big-budget extravaganza demanded a famous name who happened to have a lesser voice, they’d just film the star and let Marni Nixon or Andy Williams do the singing.
But ever since somewhere around the time Woody Allen studded his nostalgic 1996 romance “Everyone Says I Love You” with a bevy of decidedly unmusical A-listers, the movies have become a parade of less than triple- — or even double- — threat actors flaunting their show-tunes-loving sides. Sometimes it works – evidenced by the heady Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway’s going-for-broke performance in “Les Misérables,” a role that basically boils down to one show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream.” But sometimes, right within the same film, well, Russell Crowe happens.
In honor of two among the wild gamut that is “Les Misérables,” we put together our list of the best and worst musical performances by actors in the past decade. We kept the criteria strict: no television or Web performances, thereby eliminating everything wonderful Neil Patrick Harris has done. And no musicians slumming it as actors, thereby knocking out everyone from Jennifer Hudson to Eminem to the Swell Season to Miley Cyrus — and even seasoned stage veteran Catherine Zeta-Jones. These instead are the pure movie stars, who, when asked to shut up and sing, either rose to the challenge — or fell flat.
1. Gerard Butler, “Phantom of the Opera” (2004)
In Jerry Seinfeld’s castoff puffy shirt, struggling in almost childlike fashion over the enunciation of ev-er-eeee syll-a-ble, Butler somehow makes us wish he was just acting like a jerk in some Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston rom-com. And when he hits a note so, er, distinctive it reverberates off the walls of his lair, it’s infinitely more terrifying than mesmerizing.
2. Uma Thurman, “The Producers” (2005)
As the sexy Swedish secretary, it’s true that she’s playing a character whose best assets are not located in her throat, but Thurman nevertheless projects a uniquely deer-in-the-headlights je ne sais quoi as she flails through the lackluster Mel Brooks musical.
3. John Travolta, “Hairspray” (2007)
Where have you gone, Danny Zuko? Swaggering uncomfortably in a dress and fat suit, Travolta unconvincingly declares “You Can’t Stop the Beat” as if daring us to beg him to do just that.
4. Pierce Brosnan, “Mamma Mia!” (2008)
Brosnan truly sets the bar – and then shatters it with his godawful caterwauling — for actors who should never attempt melody with his performance in the ABBA musical. We totally believe it’s not acting when Meryl Streep looks horrified, runs away – and then keeps running – as he butchers “S.O.S.”
5. Tom Cruise, “Rock of Ages” (2012)
He’s got the bandanna; he’s got the snake-hipped moves; he’s even got an intonation that would not have been out of place had he ever done time in Warrant. But there’s something about Cruise’s utterly dead-eyed delivery of ’80s hair metal hits that betrays a desperate lack of abandon. Would anybody ever really want to pour some sugar on that?
6. Russell Crowe, “Les Misérables” (2012)
Crowe can actually carry a tune – and even do a perfectly respectable “Molly Malone” – when the occasion calls for it. But oh sweet baby Jesus he’s wildly out of his depth every moment his strangled bleating goes up against the majestic Hugh Jackman. Miserable indeed.
1. Eddie Murphy, “Dreamgirls” (2006)
As his Jimmy Early ages over several years, he goes from smooth and swaggery idol to washed-up has-been, and does so with slick, Motown-era aplomb. His Oscar-nominated turn stands out as one of Murphy’s best performances, by a mile.
2. Amy Adams, “Enchanted” (2007)
Adams, who’s since gone on to serenade moviegoers in “The Muppets” and stage audiences in “Into the Woods,” proved herself a true Disney princess in the 2007 fairy tale. Was there ever a sweeter voice to put to a song about cleaning a toilet? And who else could turn our urine-scented Central Park into a lavish, adorable flash mob?
3. Hugh Grant, “Music and Lyrics” (2007)
If you think Grant’s flashback as an ’80s icon doing a bubblegum love song called “Pop! Goes My Heart” isn’t a pure delight, you’re dead wrong. And throughout every song in the movie, he’s totally, cannily aware of just how featherlight his voice is, working a talk-singing style that makes the whole thing cheekily cute.
4. Evan Rachel Wood, “Across the Universe” (2007)
The film itself is only so-so, but Wood’s sweet, soulful interpretations of Beatles classics are infused with just the right touch of melancholy.
5. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “500 Days of Summer” (2009)
How to win over the girl of your dreams? With a tipsy, gutsy karaoke take on “Here Comes Your Man.” The brilliance of Gordon-Levitt is that he makes it look loose and effortless, while singing his wide-open heart out.
6. Penélope Cruz, “Nine” (2009)
Sure, the visuals on her scorching performance of “A Call From the Vatican” are unforgettable, but the Spanish actress more than holds her own vocally as well. No wonder she picked up Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her role as Carla Albanese; just listen to her belt out the name “Guiiiiiido“ and hear for yourself.
7. Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart” (2010)
Bridges had sung before, most famously in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” but as grizzled, washed-up singer Bad Blake, Bridges brings a sad, compelling richness to his vocals. And he picked up the Oscar for best actor to boot.
8. Gwyneth Paltrow, “Country Strong” (2010)
9. Jason Segel, “The Muppet Movie” (2011)
If Gene Kelly were alive today he’d be Jason Segel – an irresistible, unabashed showman who makes bursting into song and dance look like an everyday routine. His 2011 turn cavorting with the Muppets may be the happiest any actor has looked doing his job in years.
10. Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, “Pitch Perfect” (2012)
Who knew that the Oscar-nominated ingénue and the scene-stealer from “Bridesmaids” could wail like that? Taking what could have been an extended episode of “Glee,” the two stars instead delivered a sleeper hit. And their adorable and, yes, sexy a cappella “No Diggity” is a standout.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)