As the star of the long-running TV hit “Hannah Montana,” 17-year-old Miley Cyrus is no newbie when it comes to acting. But as she attempts to cross over into real-life movie stardom with “The Last Song,” her first big film not connected to “Hannah,” Cyrus is plunging into waters that have spelled doom for many singers before her.
For every Frank Sinatra, who racked up a string of impressive film performances and even an Academy Award for “From Here to Eternity,” there’s a Tony Bennett, who so thoroughly embarrassed himself in the legendary flop “The Oscar” that he basically began and ended his acting career in one movie. Eminem got rave reviews for “8 Mile” while Vanilla Ice hastened his descent into has-been-land with “Cool as Ice.”
And so, with Cyrus on the precipice of a big career move, here’s a look at three singers whose big-screen successes she can hope to emulate—as well as a cautionary look at some women whose success in the music biz didn’t help when the cameras started rolling.
Mandy Moore made it
When Moore first appeared on the scene as a singer, she got lumped in with contemporaries like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Hillary Duff and other millennial pop chick-lets. As an actress, however, she’s pulled away from the pack and established a promising movie career with a series of strong performances, even though she’s often the best thing in a middling film. While her best movie to date is the hilarious teen Christianity satire “Saved!”, she nonetheless received glowing reviews for her work in such less-than-successful vehicles as “American Dreamz,” “Chasing Liberty” and “How to Deal.”
Even in films as execrable as “Because I Said So” and “License to Wed,” Moore makes for a charming and eminently watchable female lead. Here’s hoping she starts getting more scripts that meet the level of her acting. (And take heart, Miley Cyrus: Mandy Moore’s breakthrough movie was 2002's “A Walk to Remember” which is, like “The Last Song,” an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel.)
Queen Latifah shines in musicals
A veteran rapper dating back to hip-hop’s early days in the late 1980s, Latifah went on to stardom as an actress, first on TV (“Living Single”) and then the big screen.
The resurgence of the movie musical has been a boon to the talented Latifah, who blew the roof off in both “Chicago” and “Hairspray,” but she handles her non-singing roles with equal aplomb. If Cyrus has long-term plans to act, she would do well to take on more assignments like “Last Song” that don't call on her to sing, just to show she can pull it off. Latifah also did a fine job contributing voice work to the second and third “Ice Age” animated movies, which were dreadful but nonetheless big money-makers.
Mariah Carey’s ‘Precious’ career
After the epic disaster that was “Glitter,” everyone expected Mariah Carey’s film career to follow the Tony Bennett trajectory. Bloody but unbowed, however, she pressed on with her acting career, to much better results. Not many people saw the indie “WiseGirls,” in which Carey turned out a spunky and funny performance as a seen-it-all waitress in a mob-run restaurant.
But it was her attention-getting turn in last year’s “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” that established Carey as an actress to watch. Yes, much to-do was made over the fact that she had drab hair and wardrobe in the part, and eschewed makeup to the point where she was practically mustachioed, but that was just the surface.
What Carey brought to the role was a ferocity, a deadpan wit and an intensity that was the complete antithesis of her inert walk-through of “Glitter.” She’s been cast in Tyler Perry’s upcoming all-star adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” and it’s going to be interesting to see where her film career takes her. It will be equally interesting to see if Cyrus will ever feel prepared to tackle a film as gritty and unglamorous as “Precious.”
Which is more than can be said for…
Madonna’s performances are clunky
Oh, Madonna. Madonna, Madonna, Madonna. It’s a bit redundant to trash her acting at this point, but those of us who actually sat through “Swept Away” are still feeling the pain.
She has, to be fair, occasionally brought a certain presence to movies, from hits like “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Evita” and “A League of Their Own” to the little-seen “Bloodhounds of Broadway.” (A case could even be made for her attempt at screwball comedy in the unloved “Who’s That Girl.”)
But there’s just no excuse for the flat, unaffecting and downright clunky performances she’s given in film after film. Most singers who attempt to act (see below) know well enough to quit after a dud or two, but Madonna spent several decades trying to make us all buy into her as a movie star, which led to such agonizing artifacts as “Body of Evidence,” “The Next Best Thing,” “Shanghai Surprise” and “Dangerous Game.”
If Cyrus can learn anything from Madonna's example, it might be to stay tuned in to public feedback. If it's generally negative, perhaps she should quit while she's ahead.
Madonna’s recent directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” was as critically drubbed as most of her acting attempts, but at least it’s a good start — stepping behind the camera is halfway to stepping off the set entirely.
Janet Jackson: Stiff and expressionless
Yes, we all loved her as Penny on “Good Times,” and she’s one of the great music video performers, from the sci-fi intensity of “Scream” to the va-va-voom-ery of “Love Would Never Do Without You.”
Always stiff and usually expressionless, Jackson registers all the screen presence of the title character of the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movies. Where’s all that “My name ain’t ‘Baby’” spunk that she brings to her best recording and music-video work? She is perhaps the prime example that being good at certain things doesn’t mean you’re good at everything. It’d be great if the upcoming “Why Did I Get Married Too” reversed the trend, but let’s not hold our breath.
One-dud wonders: From Britney to Kelly
The history of talking pictures—going back at last as far Kate Smith’s attempt to charm movie audiences in 1933’s disastrous “Hello Everybody!”—is littered with the brief screen careers of singers who tried crossing over.
And then there’s Kelly Clarkson, forced by her binding post–“American Idol” contract with 19 Entertainment to topline “From Justin to Kelly,” a movie so blitheringly inane that it makes “Spice World,” from the same screenwriter, seem like “A Hard Day’s Night.” Clarkson, bless her, has a sense of humor about the movie and has made it a running gag on her Twitter feed.
In the next few months, we’ll all find out whether “The Last Song” will be future joke fodder for Miley Cyrus — who famously just canceled her own Twitter account — or a career-changing hit.
Alonso Duralde is a writer in Los Angeles.