The buzz surrounding “A Star Is Born” — which opens this week in Omaha — has already positioned Lady Gaga as an Oscar contender. In fact, she’s the best actress front-runner at the moment.
The latest update of the rags-to-riches story, written and directed by (and co-starring) Bradley Cooper, has Gaga playing a young singer who finds fame with the help of a hard-drinking country music singer (Cooper). It’s the fourth iteration of this story, with Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand playing the rising star in 1937, 1954 and 1976.
The praise for the new film and for Cooper's and Gaga’s performances (for music and acting) has been ecstatic. Gaga has previously received some acclaim for her acting, winning a Golden Globe for her part on “American Horror Story.” But the heat she’s getting for “A Star Is Born” is nearly unheard of. Musician-turned-actor performances are rarely worth getting excited over. Many are stilted. Some are outright awful.
And yet ... (switches to movie trailer guy voice): Some stars really ARE born.
Gaga isn’t the first pop star to successfully make the leap to the big screen. There’s a long line of musicians who have turned in unforgettable movie roles.
These are the 25 best performances by actors who started as musicians.
Note: I imagine Ms. Gaga deserves to be on this list, but I have yet to see the movie.
Note 2: A lot of these video clips have profanity and/or violence in them. Viewer discretion advised, etc., etc.
25. Tim McGraw
“Friday Night Lights”
There are performances that are triumphs of acting, and there are performances that are triumphs of casting. And whoever had the idea to cast country star McGraw as the abusive father of a high school fullback in a football-obsessed town, well, I hope you got a raise.
Let this be a running theme throughout this list. Not all of these musicians are especially good actors. But in each of the following cases, the pop stars paired perfectly with the roles they were playing.
Other notable roles: He’s decent in “The Blind Side.”
24. Justin Timberlake
“The Social Network”
Playing Sean Parker, the guy who convinces Mark Zuckerberg to drop the “The” — just “Facebook” — Timberlake got to parlay all his charm and swagger into a role of the ultimate sketchy tech bro.
Other notable roles: JT’s been good in things like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “In Time” and “Friends With Benefits.”
23. LL Cool J
“Deep Blue Sea”
Hear me out here. It’s a great film. About sharks! And Alzheimer’s disease! And a lot of the film’s strength comes from the very funny performance by LL Cool J, who spends a healthy chunk of his screen time trading insults with a parrot.
Other notable roles: “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Any Given Sunday,” hosting the Grammys.
22. Harry Connick Jr.
The ’90s had two great serial killer movies (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven”), but also a lot of good ones, including the Holly Hunter/Sigourney Weaver procedural “Copycat.” Though he’s best known for making middle-aged women swoon, Connick Jr. is fairly adept at playing psychopaths. In “Copycat,” he’s like Nic Cage, calibrating his deranged performance just south of too much.
Other notable roles: “Bug,” “Hope Floats.”
21. Courtney Love
“The People vs. Larry Flynt”
Casting a wild, outspoken rock star to play the wild, outspoken fourth wife of Larry Flynt ended up being a pretty good idea. Another instance of ingenious casting.
Other notable roles: “Sid & Nancy,” “Man on the Moon.”
20. Queen Latifah
He said in a whisper: “Queen Latifah should have won the Oscar over Catherine Zeta-Jones.”
Other notable roles: “Girls Trip,” “Bessie.”
This was clearly a one-off thing. Eminem has not had a movie career for the simple reason that he is a terrible actor, except for when he plays himself. As a struggling Detroit rapper named Jimmy, Marshall Mathers sought to explain himself once and for all. And he won an Oscar (for the song).
It raises the question: Is it even acting? To which I will respond: Who cares?
18. Tom Waits
“Down By Law”
Waits has lent his gravelly voice to many a good movie (as an actor and singer), starring in films by Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch. It was in Jarmusch’s wonderful 1986 comedy that Waits got his best role, playing a disc jockey arrested in New Orleans and locked up with Roberto Benigni.
Other notable roles: “Rumble Fish,” “Mystery Train”
17. Ice Cube
In a film that also features fine work from George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube steals the movie out from under them. Then Spike Jonze steals the movie from everyone.
Other notable roles: Ice Cube is among the best and most successful rappers-turned-actors. Since his excellent movie debut in “Boyz n the Hood,” he’s led two beloved comedy franchises in “Barbershop” and “Friday.” And he’s hilarious in the “Jump Street” movies.
“Dancer in the Dark”
Weird movies (like, say, Danish musicals made by Lars von Trier) call for weird performers. So someone got the Icelandic singer-songwriter on the phone — assuming Bjork has a phone or has ever used one. In the film, Bjork plays a Czech immigrant on trial for murder. And one who is losing her sight, to boot! The bleak von Trier-ian reality is contrasted with Bjork’s daydream musical numbers. Like “8 Mile,” “Dancer in the Dark” is an instance where the performer is the movie.
15. Frank Sinatra
“The Manchurian Candidate”
Sinatra was just a swell actor. You could put any number of his performances in this spot, but I still think his best movie role was playing a brainwashed soldier plagued by nightmares who gradually realizes he’s a pawn in a conspiracy plot.
Other notable roles: “Guys and Dolls,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “From Here to Eternity,” for which he won an Oscar.
14. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson
In Monte Hellman’s 1971 drama — IMHO, one of the coolest movies ever made — singer-songwriter Taylor and the Beach Boys’ Wilson play, respectively, the Driver and the Mechanic — two characters so vaguely drawn that they feel less like people and more just like a vibe, man. They’re trekking along Route 66, hitting drag races and crossing paths with Warren Oates. Hellman strips the movie of almost all plot. Taylor and Wilson strip their heroes of any human traits beyond the love of the open road.
13. Mary J. Blige
In last year’s tremendous period drama, Blige plays the matriarch of a family of tenant farmers in the Mississippi Delta. In a film wherein characters are plagued by racism, poverty and PTSD, Blige delivers the movie’s key turn. She scored an Oscar nomination for the role.
“Desperately Seeking Susan”
Yeah, maybe “Evita” should be here. But Madonna, at least earlier in her career, had a handful of good, memorable roles. (Though she also starred with Sean Penn in the legendarily bad “Shanghai Surprise” and was in the not-sexy ’90s sex thriller “Body of Evidence.”) But I’m still most partial to her breakout role in this 1985 mistaken-identity farce. Madonna was basically just a goddess playing a goddess here. But, man, does it work.
Other notable roles: “Evita,” “A League of Their Own,” “Dick Tracy”
11. Barbra Streisand
Apologies to Streisand fans for her not making the top 10. But she’s got an EGOT. She’ll be fine. Also, this might be a little bit of a cheat, as Streisand came up in the singing/acting hybrid of musical theater.
Other notable roles: “A Star Is Born,” “The Way We Were”
10. David Bowie
All I’ve got to say about this entry is: “You remind me of the babe. (What babe?) The babe with the power. (What power?)”
Other notable roles: With his otherworldly presence and posh accent, Bowie was awesome in just about everything he starred in: “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Prestige,” “The Hunger,” “Zoolander.”
9. Will Smith
The Fresh Prince got a TV show. Then he led a handful of blockbusters (“Independence Day,” “Men in Black”). Then made the leap from popular movies to important films, with 2001’s “Ali.” Smith’s physical, behavioral, spiritual embodiment of Muhammad Ali remains a towering performance, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination.
Other notable roles: Just name a Will Smith movie you like. Smith even makes many of his bad movies worth watching.
8. Janelle Monae
Bit of a cheat here. Monae, one of the most brilliant musical artists of her generation, launched her movie career in earnest in 2016, with two best picture nominees (one of them a winner): “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.” She did fabulous work in both films, showing a wide range of skills in comedy and drama. She should be the one to play Prince when they make the Prince biopic.
7. Meat Loaf
I’m not sure how David Fincher convinced Meat Loaf to play a jacked testicular cancer survivor who develops breasts as a result of hormone imbalance, but can you imagine anyone else in the role of Robert Paulson (his name is Robert Paulson)?
6. Jennifer Hudson
Another Oscar winner, and one with an amazing origin story. Hudson rose to fame as an “American Idol” finalist in 2004, two years later making her film debut in “Dreamgirls.” She not only won the Oscar, the Golden Globe and the SAG for her performance. She managed the mighty feat of stealing a movie from Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy.
Other notable roles: “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Winnie Mandela”
5. Dean Martin
Martin wasn’t the strongest actor of the Rat Pack overall (that would be Sinatra). But he’s given the best performance. As the sheriff’s deputy of Rio Bravo, Texas, Dino strips away most of his trademark cool to play a town drunk who’s trying to kick the habit in time to save his friends. It’s a vulnerable performance, and a welcome contrast to the rigid machismo of John Wayne and the yippity-yippity comic relief of Walter Brennan’s Stumpy. The movie is also just one hell of a good hangout Western.
Other notable roles: “Ocean’s 11”
4. Jennifer Lopez
“Out of Sight”
OK, so technically Lopez was a Fly Girl dancer who became an actress who became a singer, but close enough. With a few exceptions (“The Cell,” “Selena”), Jennifer Lopez’ career has been a series of misfires (“Gigli,” “Enough”), guilty pleasures (“The Boy Next Door”) and so-so rom-coms (“Maid in Manhattan”). But with Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 masterpiece “Out of Sight,” she gotta play it cool. As the profoundly competent U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco, Lopez gives us a glimpse of the career that might have been, if only she’d chosen better projects.
Other notable roles: “Selena”
3. Mark Wahlberg
Sometimes, the stars really do align. Sometimes there’s an actor at just the right age, with just the right amount of boyish earnestness and whiny petulance to play a well-endowed porn star who flies too close to the sun. In his own words: “I am a star. I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a star. I am a big, bright, shining star!”
Other notable roles: “The Departed”
2. Dwight Yoakam
Hot take here: Yoakam is one of our best musicians-turned-actor. He’s especially good at playing evil men. As the nastiest of the burglars in David Fincher’s “Panic Room.” And, most of all, as the abusive boyfriend in “Sling Blade.” In the latter, Yoakam gives us a monster who is all too recognizably human. You don’t even know what to feel once Billy Bob kills him with that lawnmower blade.