By Robert Pius
The transition from pop star to major serious movie star is a surprisingly difficult transition to make. It’s sort of bizarre the difficulty singers have moving into the other medium since for like 35 years or so, much of selling music has involved making videos of the songs. Yet, the list of people who have crashed and burned far outweighs the number of people who’ve made the transition. Women seem to have an especially hard time for some reason. Gaga burst into the film world with the remake of “A Star is Born” and earned an Oscar nomination for her big-screen debut performance in the Best Actress category and won for Best Original Song. You’d think a smash like that would set you up pretty easily for a future as a screen star but just ask Diana Ross or Bette Midler how quickly that initial blaze of glory can fizzle out. The sophomore slump seems to be something that has thwarted, stalled, or ended many a film career, but Gaga seems poised to clear that hurdle. Unlike other singers who, for whatever reason, ended up in less than stellar second films, Gaga snagged the lead in one of cinema’s great directors, Ridley Scott’s next film, “House of Gucci.” Early reviews of the film have swung widely in each direction, but Gaga has pretty much received praise for her turn in the film. Unlike her previous movie, she has transformed herself into a different character, one not at all close to what seems to be Gaga’s own personality. All the vulnerability and star wattage she alternately displayed in “A Star is Born” was excellent, but the role of an aspiring singer was something she’d lived out in her own life. The scheming murderer she plays in Gucci doesn’t seem close to Gaga’s personality at all (one hopes)! Regardless of the film’s success or whether or not she earns a second Oscar nomination as an actress, Gaga seems to have gone out on a limb, and it has worked. You can’t really say Gaga is just a singer who got lucky in one film playing herself. She’s a serious actress now and seemingly on the verge of doing what few pop stars have done.
Gaga had to wade through accusations of copying Madonna’s success when she first started her pop career. Her gyrations and costumes may have been a little similar to the Material Girl’s early appearances. Still, famed rock critic Lisa Robinson always defended Gaga as having the voice to go along with the gimmicks (something she inferred Madonna didn’t). Madonna herself attacked the singer infamously on ABC’s 20/20 when asked if Gaga’s song “Born This Way” annoyed her because some thought it to be too similar to her song “Express Yourself.” “Reductive, look it up” was Madonna’s somewhat evil reply. You almost expected her to throw her head back and let out a Wicked Witch of the West style cackle as she said the word, which the journalist informed the audience that they did look up and it meant simplified or crude. Gaga’s film career shows no signs of being “reductive” of Madonna’s, much to Gaga’s relief, I’d guess (She has expressed deep hurt over the diva smackdown she got from Madonna, whom she grew up admiring).
Madonna also had an auspicious film debut (no Oscar nomination, though) in the title role of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The story of a bored New Jersey housewife who becomes fixated on the life of a downtown New York party girl (Madonna) drew high praise for Madonna’s natural charisma and playful sensuality as she strutted her way through the punk rock culture of the 1980s somewhat seedy New York club scene. All that goodwill from critics was gone a year and a half later when, for her follow up film Madonna chose a role as a missionary (yes, you read that right, the woman who had made rock history rolling around and humping the floor on the first MTV video awards wanted to be seen as a missionary) opposite then-husband Sean Penn in a bomb called “Shanghai Surprise.” Tabloid stories abounded how Oscar winner Shelley Winters was asked to come to the set and teach Madonna to act (something Madonna denied even though Winters, who granted could always spin a good yarn, repeated the story with Johnny Carson). The damage was done, though. Madonna was labeled a non-actress and struggled for pretty much the rest of her film career with bad reviews and bad decisions on which films she wanted to do. (She recently admitted to turning down Michelle Pfeiffer’s version of Catwoman on Jimmy Fallon’s show. She was also in talks to do “Chicago” and “Thelma and Louise” at various points but instead did forgettable roles in films I won’t even bother looking up since you’d have trouble finding a copy of them anywhere. She did score some nice notices for supporting roles in “Dick Tracy” and “A League of Their Own,” but Madonna never became the great actress she so wanted to be.
Diana Ross suffered a similar plight. She received an Oscar nomination, and rave reviews for her debut in “Lady Sings the Blues” as singer Billie Holliday (A role that would also bring Andra Day a nomination this year). Her second film was “Mahogany,” casting Ross as an aspiring fashion designer traversing the complex fashion world. She didn’t receive the same level of acclaim for that film, and it wasn’t much of a hit. Still, the film would later gain some respect when young filmmakers and actresses of color often cited loving the film as kids since it showed a Black woman in glamourous clothes, an exciting profession, and being pursued by a hot man in the form of Billy Dee Williams. So Ross made it over that second hurdle with only a few scrapes and bruises, but then came “The Wiz.” Based on the Tony-winning Best Musical, the film took the story of “The Wizard of Oz” and gave it to an all-Black cast with a highly infectious rhythm and blues-based score. The film, with its massive set pieces and giant production numbers, just didn’t work. Critics hacked the film to death with their razor sharped barbs (this was the seventies, after all, and being as nasty as possible got critics readers). Ross was mocked for being too old to play Dorothy; a young girl swept to another land who just wants to go home. The huge financial fiasco stopped Ross’s acting career cold, and shockingly she never made another movie again. Granted, some of that probably had to do with racism and the difficulty of getting cast, but it was a brief run for a singer who showed so much promise in her first film.
Bette Midler was another singer who stormed the screen in a staggeringly raw performance the first time out in “The Rose.” Midler had been pursued for movies before based on her early success singing in concerts and nightclubs (and infamously a gay men’s bathhouse). Midler had the advantage of breaking thru as much as a comedian as a singer, so acting wasn’t that far of a step for her (Plus, she had spent three years on Broadway in a featured role in “Fiddler on the Roof” both acting and singing). She was offered what probably sounded like a great role on paper when Mike Nichols sought her to be his leading lady opposite Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty in “The Fortune.” She turned him down on the advice of her boyfriend/manager Aaron Russo hurting Nichols’ feelings and ruining any future collaborations between the two, something she expresses regret about on the DVD of “The Rose” (Stockard Channing ended up with the part which despite being a flop launched her into films like “Grease” a few years later). Perhaps eyeing Barbra Streisand’s film debut (a performer Midler was often compared to), Russo wanted Midler’s film debut to be a big star vehicle. Streisand’s success had come on Broadway and then the film “Funny Girl,” displaying both her singing and acting ability, so she never really had to make a transition like these other performers. From the start, she was known to be able to both act and sing. Midler wasn’t as lucky and had to wait quite a while to get her foot in the film world. It would be four years after “The Fortune” that Midler finally hit the big screen as the title character in “The Rose.” The story of a self-destructive singer loosely based on Janis Joplin gave Midler a frantic high octane role and dazzling concert sequences that brought her an Oscar nomination and recognition from mainstream audiences. But that sophomore hurdle proved challenging to clear. She chose a comedy aptly titled “Jinxed” that mainly was discussed for Midler and her castmate Ken Wahl’s sheer hatred for each other. The film bombed, and Midler seemed done. She went back to her singing career, suffered a nervous breakdown, broke up with her Svengali-like manager Russo and seemed to be following Ross’ film trajectory. Midler always had her comic ability to fall back on, though, and Disney took a chance on her several years later, casting her alongside Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss (both of whom had also suffered career setbacks at the time) in the surprise hit “Down and Out and Beverly Hills.” The three were labeled as the comeback kids from The Betty Ford Center, something Midler always bristled at since while Nolte and Dreyfuss both suffered from drug problems prior to the film, Midler’s issues were not substance-related, so she didn’t like being labeled as a graduate of the then in spot for celebrity detoxing. She followed that up with “Ruthless People” (in a role which Madonna ironically quit to do “Shanghai Surprise”), and she was then quite successful for a bit with comedies for the studio and a drama called “Beaches.” She never did manage, though, to stray too far from the Divine Miss M persona (except for “The Rose”), perhaps limiting her casting opportunities. She has expressed hope that someday she’d get one more shot at a real dramatic role, but that hasn’t happened to date. All and all, Midler had one of the more successful transitions from music to movies.
In previous eras, people did seem to move more easily from one world to another. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were crooners who both won Oscars, and Doris Day and Ann-Margret also were able to be taken seriously as actors without dragging around too much baggage from their music career and having to fend off naysayers. For each one of those, there is a Roger Daltry, Phil Collins, or Sting who just couldn’t make the leap. Sting with his leading man good looks seemed like a natural, but after appearing in the first (and hugely disappointing) version of “Dune” and a dismal bride of Frankenstein film “The Bride,” films seemed to stop coming his way except for a nice supporting turn in a Meryl Streep film called “Plenty.” Will Smith is an interesting case. He’s expected to be a front runner for the Best Actor Oscar this year for “King Richard.” It would be his third Oscar nomination. Smith first came onto the scene in the hip hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. He then went into the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and from there to films. The odd thing about Smith, though, is he pretty much put his music career to rest, and by the time he started making movies, he wasn’t really known that much as a musician but as a sitcom actor. That brought its own stigma then but his downplaying the music made his transition so smooth that probably many people now don’t remember or never even knew he was first known as a rapper.
If Gaga is looking for a role model to help guide her metamorphosis from a singer who acts into an actress who sings, she should probably take a look at the 1980s career of Cher. Unlike Ross, Midler, and Streisand, Cher never got that extensive splashy introduction into the film world. She made some low-budget films as part of Sonny and Cher, and Sonny directed her in a movie called “Chastity,” which made little impact. She then struggled for a decade to get someone to give her a chance as an actress. It’s sort of hard to understand her difficulty getting a foot in the door film-wise since she had starred on two successful variety sketch shows (one with Sonny and one without) that showed her comic abilities and talent for playing different characters. Maybe it was the prejudice against television stars (although Carol Burnett, star of the most popular variety show of the era, got some film roles) or her exotic Las Vegas costumes and oversized persona that just made her uncastable. Still, she had to sneak into the backdoor of the film world via Broadway (which in the early 80s wasn’t really the magnet for big stars it became in years to come). Famed director Robert Altman was suffering his own career downturn, what with the disastrous “Popeye” and a bunch of other films. He decided to direct a Broadway play for a change and gave Cher a part in it. She was amongst an ensemble of strong, experienced actors with Oscar-winner Sandy Dennis in the lead and Karen Black and a then-unknown Kathy Bates also in the cast. Oddly the play flopped on Broadway and closed after a short run. Cher, however, received reviews that while they weren’t raves, they weren’t pans either. The general consensus was that she did a good job and wasn’t the joke some people were expecting. Altman was proud of the production despite its quick closure, so he filmed an extremely low-budget version of it that looks almost like a filmed version of the play with just a few cinematic touches. Many a play has flopped going to the big screen but “Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” actually got better reviews as a movie than it did as a play and became kind of a cult classic. Cher was well received, and the Golden Globes, which had been kind to her for her television work, nominated her for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture. It was an extremely competitive year for that category, and Cher failed to parlay the Globe nomination into one at the Oscars, but the seed was planted that the woman could act. Likely based on her success here, Mike Nichols enters our story again and casts Cher in a supporting role in his highly anticipated film “Silkwood.” Expectations were high for this film since it was Meryl Streep’s first film since her Oscar win for “Sophie’s Choice” and Nichols first narrative film in eight years. The flop of the aforementioned “The Fortune” hit him hard, and he retreated back to directing on Broadway and only contributed to the cinema with a filmed version of the original “Saturday Night Live” darling Gilda Radner’s one-woman Broadway sketch show. The role of a lesbian working in a nuclear power plant as a janitor was a colossal image change for Cher, and audiences were not exactly ready for the difference (Nor was Cher, who reportedly felt incredibly self-conscious without makeup and in her wardrobe of mostly old sweatshirts). She has often painfully recounted running over to a theater when she heard the trailer would be premiering (this was pre-youtube, you had to actually leave your computer to see a preview! Hard to imagine nowadays)! She was humiliated when the titles came on the screen: Meryl Streep….Kurt Russell….Cher. Her name elicited huge laughs from the audience, but she would have the last laugh. She got great reviews, held her own with Streep, who’d become a lifelong friend, and again be nominated for a Golden Globe. This time she’d win (and humorously thank all the Hollywood executives in the room who for years wouldn’t give her a job). That year an Oscar nomination came through too, and she was seen as probably the second-place finisher to winner Linda Hunt for “The Year of Living Dangerously” for Best Supporting Actress.
Cher had done it. She was an acclaimed actress. Her next film, “Mask,” won her the Cannes Film Festival Award (kind of a more significant honor back then than it has become in recent years). She did miss out on an Oscar nomination for that film which may have been due to some resistance to fully embracing her as a serious actress but was likely also due to the protracted lawsuits that surrounded the movie due to Peter Bogdanovich’s insistence on using Bruce Springsteen songs for the film and the studio refusing to pay the price for them and taking the final edit away from him. The snub for Cher, though, actually worked in her favor. She showed up at the Oscars anyway to present the award for Best Supporting Actor to Don Ameche of “Cocoon.” That year the Academy had sent out guidelines asking attendees to adhere to a dress code that discouraged outrageous outfits. In introducing Cher, host Jane Fonda quipped, wait until you see what’s about to come out here. Out came Cher in a skimpy outfit that could best be described as part Aztec sun god, part vampire, and Princess Leia metal bikini. Her opening line of how you can see that she received her academy brochure as to how to dress like a serious actress was perfectly delivered with just the right amount of self-deprecation and wit and also served as a friendly reminder that she’d been snubbed but was a good sport about it. Two years later, Cher was everywhere with three major films culminating in the very popular year-end release of “Moonstruck,” which won some Oscars, including one for Cher as Best Actress.
This is where Gaga needs to pay attention. Despite her fantastic career turnaround, Cher’s film career ended rather quickly. It was three years before she followed up “Moonstruck” with “Mermaids,” a lovely film but not as earth-shattering a performance as she’d been doing prior. She made some odd mistakes passing up popular films like “The War of the Roses” and Susan Sarandon’s part In “Thelma and Louise” and then almost as quickly as it started, her film career seemed to end. She seemed to miss the outrageous Cher, the pop star and post-Oscar released a song that became a hit single, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” but the video of her cavorting with sailors and straddling massive battleship guns started a narrative that maybe the Oscar was a mistake. Cher would lament in recent years that she lost her nerve as an actress. She felt she didn’t learn to transform into characters enough like her friend and idol Meryl Streep did and that she was always a little bit Cher in her movies.
Gaga seems to have cleared this hurdle. She’s not the Gaga we all know and recognize at all in “House of Gucci” – she’s Patrizia Reggiani. Gaga was always a bit of a chameleon showing up gyrating in sort of typical MTV video style in videos then coming out on the Oscars to sing a glorious soprano version of “The Sound of Music” introduced by no less than Julie Andrews. Her penchant for different looks and clothing styles I used to feel hindered her a bit since, for someone as famous as she was, it was sometimes hard to pin down exactly what she looked like. Maybe not the most remarkable thing for a pop star but quite useful as an actress. So regardless of how Oscar treats her this year, “House of Gucci” confirms that Gaga is a prominent transformational actress and, with careful planning, could have the career that has alluded almost every pop star before her.
So what do you think? Do you think Lady Gaga will be recognized with another Oscar nomination this year for “House of Gucci?” Who do you think has made the best transition from pop star to movie star? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or our Twitter account.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertpius_