With a song in their hearts

Singers have always made instinctive actors. This fall, a pack of new movies offers further evidence.

By Charles Taylor
September 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Everyone goes to the movies -- and sooner or later it feels like everyone shows up in them. This fall, rock stars will be everywhere you look at the movies. The next few months see Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam in the thriller "The Minus Man," Jewel in Ang Lee's "Ride With the Devil," Duran Duran's John Taylor in Allison Anders' "Sugar Town" and what sounds like the most amusing bit of casting, Alanis Morissette as God in Kevin Smith's "Dogma." Next year, the Wu-Tang Clan appear as themselves in James Toback's "Black and White."

The assumption is that singers are cast for their marquee value rather than their acting skills. But for decades, singers have often proved to be relaxed and natural in front of the camera, approaching a role as instinctively as they approach a song. Just scan this short list of musicians who have turned in performances ranging from good to sensational: Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Dean Martin, Queen Latifah, the Ices Cube and T, the Wahlbergs Mark and Donnie, Bette Midler and Al Jolson.


In the movies -- which are far more intimate than the stage -- it's possible for performers to get by on presence and personality. Some of the most delightful people ever to appear in the movies -- Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Clark Gable -- have really been more personalities than actors. (And some first-rate actors, like Garbo or Bogart, have been more remembered -- and loved -- for their presence.)

That movies are a place for personalities to shine may be at the root of why directors and producers have looked at the alter egos singers project on stage and seen the potential for them to translate those personas into various roles. Some of those translations are obvious, like the laid-back hipster Frank Sinatra portrayed in musicals and comedies, the gangsta kingpin Ice-T plays in "Trespass" or the coal miner Levon Helm plays to moving perfection in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (a character who might have come right out of one of the Band's songs). Others, like Marc Wahlberg's shining young porno stud in "Boogie Nights," are nearly satirical extrapolations of singers' music personas. Others, like Sinatra's junkie in "The Man With the Golden Arm," are unexpected and startling.

Movies should be a place for non-actors to shine, and not just singers, but comics and perhaps even some athletes. In "The Princess Bride" the pleasure of watching the late wrestler Andre the Giant has nothing to do with acting and everything to do with him as a personality, the way he reacts to the other actors with his sleepy eyes and slow, sweet smile, or the absurd joke of watching Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patankin and Robin Wright cling to his 500-pound frame as he hauls them up a cliff-side. You have to wonder how many other untapped personalities are out there, ready to bring the peculiar pleasures of their own presence to the movies. One of the things that's keeping singers from the screen is that the movies have all but abandoned musicals. But even a pleasant, lightweight musical like last summer's "Dance With Me" can give you a taste of what we're missing, in Vanessa Williams' performance (she's billed as Vanessa L. Williams to distinguish her from another actress who shares her name). It seems to me a real loss that someone who can sing and dance -- and whose acting has grown in each picture she's appeared in -- as spectacularly as Williams can, and who's drop-dead stunning to boot, is working at a time when movies don't seem interested in those talents.


Certainly not all singers have come to life in front of the camera. Playing a bored, self-involved rock star in "Performance," Mick Jagger acts like a bored, self-involved rock star -- until he performs the sensational "Memo From Turner" and just about leaps through the camera lens (that is to say, until he gets to be "Mick Jagger"). Bob Dylan is a cryptic, mumbling mess in one of the most cryptic of all movie roles in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (it's his score for the movie that teems with emotion). Elvis Presley never found a way to translate his onstage energy to his acting roles (though given the roles he was offered, who could blame him?). And there are some performers whose personalities seem suited to only one peculiar role. What makes David Bowie so touching in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is that he seems -- and looks -- like an alien who's landed among mortals. (Though, to be fair, his appearance in "Absolute Beginners" brought that slack movie some performance rhythm, and his Pontious Pilate in "The Last Temptation of Christ" wouldn't have been out of place in a David Lean epic.) Some performers are so idiosyncratic that it's nearly impossible to imagine them expressing themselves anywhere but in their music. I wouldn't be anxious to see Van Morrison or Captain Beefheart or Nina Simone act. Even a straightforward performer like Bruce Springsteen, whose stage patter and interviews are often good-naturedly goofy, might be too loose if he were deprived of the tension and drama that make his live shows so riveting, so simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

Singers making their first appearance in movies often have yet to learn the ways in which professional actors protect themselves. They haven't learned how to structure a performance to keep from burning themselves out. That lack of protection is precisely what makes Bette Midler's movie debut in "The Rose" so electrifying; watching her you feel there's a danger that she might short-circuit at any moment. But there's an utter absence of vanity in the way she presents herself as both ravaged and willing to be ravished by the audiences who've shown up to groove on her misery. (Courtney Love has some of the same effect in "The People vs. Larry Flynt." But in that movie you get the uncomfortable feeling that the director, Milos Forman, is one of the people grooving on her dishevelment; his lumpen style does nothing to help her shape the performance.)

Kris Kristofferson has often brought some of his hard-living legend into his roles. Not as the laid-back working-man lover of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" or playing a comic version of himself in Alan Rudolph's shaggy-dog story of the country music biz, "Songwriter." But playing a has-been rock star turned dealer in his first picture, the now-forgotten 1971 "Cisco Pike," Kristofferson's ease with the sleazy side of the rock world plugs right into the picture's vision of the counterculture's implosion and rot. And in Barbra Streisand's overblown ego-trip version of "A Star Is Born," Kristofferson (reportedly in pretty bad shape during the filming) unconsciously subverts his co-star's narcissism. Streisand's rising star never looks like she can't look out for herself; Kristofferson's superstar seems to be abdicating every ounce of his self-control frame by frame. When he shambles onstage at the beginning of the movie and demands of the audience, "Are you a figment of my imagination? Or am I one of yours," he brings into focus the idea of big '70s rock shows as Pirandellian freakouts.


Listening to some of the greatest pop singers -- Sinatra, Presley, Charlie Rich, Billie Holiday -- often gives the impression of hearing people tell a story whose ending they don't yet know -- or don't want to admit that they know. And it's easy to imagine that part of what makes so many singers good actors is the instinct for translating the storytelling aspect of singing into acting. It may be that the declamatory nature of rap is what's being put into play when rappers act. There's an obvious connection between the subjects rap has dealt with and the subject of "Boyz N the Hood," but that alone doesn't account for the power of Ice Cube's performance, the hard-headed no-way-out manner in which his character hurtles himself toward his own death. And there is something far more complex than just the gangsta persona in Ice-T's performance as the head of an East St. Louis drug syndicate in Walter Hill's crackling and bleak action drama "Trespass" (a movie whose release was held up for six months by the L.A. riots and then treated as if its very existence might start more trouble). Ice-T plays King James with a leonine grace that Peckinpah might have envied, as a bad man doing his best to conduct himself with something like dignity, to make the best possible choice when only bad choices are open to him. It's the kind of performance that, just by the actor's bearing, earns an audience's respect. (Willie Nelson does something similar in his role as a legendary outlaw in Fred Schepisi's great western "Barbarosa.") And as the jazz singer in "Living Out Loud," Queen Latifah heads for different territory, the one staked out by a succession of sexy, sassy movie broads like Joan Blondell.

There appears to be an elusive but palpable connection between the manner in which singers feel their way into a song, playing with phrasing and tempo, and the way they act, alert yet relaxed, responsive to the rhythms of their fellow actors. In his movies with Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin hovered between sleazy hipster and amiable straight man. He's never gotten the credit he deserved for his dramatic roles. When a performer has a role that requires him to be in turmoil, being as natural as Martin was is an asset: it makes the audience feel very close to him. Martin (along with Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton, who's amazing) is one of the only human things in that glossy 1970 soap opera in the sky "Airport." Martin plays the pilot of a disabled plane dealing not only with landing the crippled craft safely but with his crumbling marriage and the recent news that the stewardess he's been having an affair with (played by Jacqueline Bisset) is pregnant. Tending to her after she's injured in an on-board explosion, Martin shows a tenderness that cuts right through the cardboard proceedings. And he surpasses himself in his final scene. After the plane lands, he holds Bissett's hand as medical technicians rush her away to a hospital; his concern, which you see in every line of his face, is so focused on her that he walks unseeing right past his estranged wife, who's come to patch things up.


Martin's best performance came in the movie that may well be Howard Hawks' masterpiece, the 1958 "Rio Bravo." In a performance that turns his later comic-drunk persona inside out, Martin plays an ace deputy sheriff who's let himself slide into the bottle and go to seed over a broken love affair. Dirty, sweating and unshaven through much of the movie, going through the agony of withdrawal by pounding his deadened limbs with his fists as if he could force them to work as they used to, Martin has to carry much of the weight of Hawks' deceptively casual western. He is the embodiment of the movie's vision of human beings transcending their frailties. He carries it off with a depth that never ruffles the movie's affectionate comic surface. In his best moment, cleaned up and sober but ready to slide back into the bottle after one little setback, Martin reaches for a drink, raises it to his lips, then abruptly reaches for the bottle and pours it back. "Didn't spill a drop," he says and you can hear both surprise at his willpower and stifled bitterness at the way he has wasted himself.

Probably no singer ever translated the ease of singing to acting better than Martin's friend Frank Sinatra. There were plenty of comedies where he traded on his easygoing ring-a-ding-ding persona, and he deserves every bit of praise that ever came his way for his performance as the hotheaded and vulnerable Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." For me, though, it's 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate" that shows him at a peak of gravity and warmth and, finally, mournfulness that brings an undertow of soul to the wickedness of the film's political satire. In the film's final scene, and Sinatra's greatest moment on screen, he improvises a Medal of Honor citation for a fallen comrade and, while attempting to do justice to the horrors in which his comrade was made to participate, conveys the toll that his own participation in those events has taken on him. This is one of those moments where a role merges with an actor's off-screen persona. This isn't just Maj. Ben Marco we're seeing break down, it's Frank Sinatra, the essence of in-control cool. Could another actor have been as good in the role? Maybe. Would it have the same emotional effect? For me at least, it's impossible to imagine it would.

Each of us can come up with a performance or a moment that fulfills Ingmar Bergman's definition "Cinema is faces." Not actors (or not just actors), but faces, humanity and presence rather than merely technique. It's impossible to predict where those presences will come from, and that impossibility is one of the sustaining pleasures of movies: their ability to surprise you. It could be that the best watchwords for performers may have come from Al Jolson, who first brought sound movies to a wide audience in "The Jazz Singer": "You ain't heard nothin' yet."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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