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Acting Performances by Musicians

Music, Movies | By Matthew for The Top 13 on March 23, 2010

Historically, musicians have been best utilized in film roles by being limited to cameos (Keith Richards in Pirates of the Caribbean), having only one line (Dee Dee Ramone in Rock 'n' Roll High School), or having no lines at all (Eddie Vedder in Singles). Then there are the instances that may have been better never happening at all (Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, Michael Jackson in The Wiz). Still, there are plenty of examples of prominent musicians who proved they could not only keep up, but stand toe-to-toe with acting greats like Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton (and at least one, Will Smith, who has had so many lead movie roles that we now think of him more as an actor than as a musician). Here are the Top 13 Acting Performances by Musicians in films.

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Cher in Moonstruck

1

Cher in Moonstruck

1987

She's book-ended her musical career by starting out as the husky throated female half of a bubblegum duo and winding up as a plastic surgery goddess with all the powers of Auto-Tune at her command. In between that, however, was a more than respectable run of feature film roles showcasing Cher's ability to play comedy and drama with equal aplomb in films like Mask and The Witches of Eastwick. Her standout role remains the widow looking for romance in Moonstruck, a performance that won her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Tom Waits in Dracula

2

Tom Waits in Dracula

1992

Though Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 update on the legendary vampire tale hasn't aged terribly well, Tom Waits' supporting turn as the insect-eating R.M. Renfield is a definitive dynamic of the film that timelessly remains. Directors such as Jim Jarmusch (in Down by Law) and Terry Gilliam (in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) have also used Waits' wonderful weirdness brilliantly, but he was at his best in this giddily creepy performance.

Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

3

Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

2000

In her first and only credited role in a film released in the United States, Bjork delivers the performance of a lifetime, which may explain why in the decade since the release of Lars von Trier's innovative but polarizing Dancer in the Dark, she hasn't appeared in another movie. As a nearly blind immigrant in the 1960s, she gives the kind of performance that she not only excels at, but disappears in. She received a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for her acting achievement here, one as powerful as any seasoned actor could have pulled off. Her song from the film "I've Seen It All" also earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood

4

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood

1991

It would be easy to dismiss the then still credible-as-a-gangsta rapper's performance in this 90s classic as a walk in the park. But one only needs to flash forward a few years later and watch Cube grapple with CGI-raccoons in family films like Are We Done Yet? to realize that this guy – while he may have legitimate street cred – is and was a fine actor, though his performance as Doughboy was equal parts calculated acting and honest sincerity.

Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade

5

Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade

1996

The performance given here by this affable country and western star is startling in its honesty and scary in its realism. Yoakam imbues Doyle, the mean-spirited alcoholic boyfriend of the kindly mother who takes in Billy Bob Thornton's Karl, with a genuine dichotomy. All along the viewer waits hopefully for him to get his comeuppance, but there are moments throughout the film where it's hard not to feel a little sorry for him.

Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were

6

Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were

1973

Many nowadays know and love her as Babs – and she is unquestionably a legend in her own right. A highly successful singer early in her career, she quickly became an unforgettable film presence in the 1960s, with roles in memorable films such as Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl (for which she won an Oscar). But her defining role as an actress may well have been her turn next to Robert Redford in The Way We Were. In a romantic performance for the ages, Streisand's command of the screen in this weeper will continue to have the women in your life reaching for tissues for years to come.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

7

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

1976

Arguably a great actor but undeniably a great performer, Bowie's oddly apropos turn as an alien visiting Earth in the hopes of finding a way to cure his dying planet remains a perfect role for him in a side career from music that would find him showing up in some of the more memorable movies of the last 40 years, including notably as Andy Warhol in Basquiat. But there may have been some real honesty here in Bowie playing a man from outer space, as he's often seemed to play such a role in his real life.

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate

8

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate

1962

In some of the most unfortunate timing in movie-release history, this John Frankenheimer-directed classic was made right around the time of John Kennedy's assassination. In a show of just how much weight its star could pull around Hollywood, the studio reportedly deferred to Sinatra's wishes to remove the film from distribution out of respect for the aforementioned tragedy. Thankfully, it would eventually find its way back into circulation. The Manchurian Candidate is not only a great film, but it showcases a raw performance full of nuance from Sinatra, proving Ol' Blue Eyes could be just as effective in stark black & white - and without a microphone in his hand.

Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt

9

Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt

1996

Few probably paid attention to Love's first few film roles, including her badly-acted debut, a cameo in 1986's Sid & Nancy. But after a few other small parts, her chops as a big screen actor were validated a decade later with her performance as Althea, Larry Flynt's drug-addicted wife in Milos Forman's terrific biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt. Love's Golden Globe nominated portrayal of the doomed former stripper and loyal wife is the film's tragic emotional centerpiece.

Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

10

Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

1974

Stepping out of his real-life role as legendary singer-songwriter, Kristofferson perfectly inhabits the part of a lonely rancher who strikes up a relationship with Ellyn Burstyn as the title character. Though this wasn't the singer's first film role (and he's made dozens of films since), it was unquestionably the first occasion where he was able to step up to the plate and prove himself worthy in the company of acting greats like Burstyn and legendary director Martin Scorsese.

Dolly Parton in Nine to Five

11

Dolly Parton in Nine to Five

1980

In her debut film, the already-huge (in more ways than one) country star steps gamely up to the plate in this hit ensemble comedy. It would be easy to dismiss her charming performance by saying she basically played herself. Maybe so, but Parton made her film debut here alongside greats like Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman and not only held her own, but also stole scenes from them. Parton played up her natural likeability here and also displayed a genuinely sharp comedic timing that would serve her well in subsequent films.

Meat Loaf in Fight Club

12

Meat Loaf in Fight Club

1999

Though the hefty singer born Marvin Lee Aday has been acting since his tiny role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, Meat Loaf is generally not thought of as a great thespian. Nevertheless, his supporting role in David Fincher's cult classic Fight Club rightfully earned him a modicum of respect as an actor. His touching and funny portrayal of a cancer survivor that befriends Edward Norton's character in support group meetings and openly voices his shame and frustration at the highly unfortunate results of medical treatment is pitch perfect.

Harry Connick Jr. in Copycat

13

Harry Connick Jr. in Copycat

1995

Sadly overlooked at the time of its release and overshadowed by the similar Seven, this somewhat forgotten gem of a thriller at least should be mentioned in the same breath as that movie and other smart thrillers like Silence of the Lambs. Rounding out a great cast that included Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter is a surprising turn by Connick as a sadistic murderer. Belying his good lucks and jazzman ladies appeal, he scares and surprises as a copycat serial killer with a nasty grin and even nastier agenda. It's easy for a pretty person to ugly up for a role with the help of make-up, but it's a feat to ugly up from the inside-out as Connick did here.

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Comments Leave a comment

abujabu 

interesting list havent seen most of these. first one that popped in my head was mos def. of all the rappers out there I think he is the best actor.

8:45 AM   Mar 23, 2010

stillathreat ★★

I agree about Mos Def; he was terrific in The Woodsman. Tupac had a few good roles, too. And given your mention of Will Smith in the introduction, I suggest a list of rappers who act.

9:47 AM   Mar 23, 2010

ajay ★★

LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea. Ice Cube and J-Lo in Anaconda.

But seriously, Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar in her very first movie role. Not necessarily better than these 13, but worth noting.

4:59 PM   Mar 23, 2010

slickwatts 

pac in juice

6:42 PM   Mar 23, 2010

BearDownLB 

Steve Earle in the Wire

11:51 AM   Mar 24, 2010

bdouble 

To stick with the rapper's theme how can you leave out Eminem in 8 mile. Nas, DMX, and Method Man all were awesome in Belly. There are a lot more. But on the flip side there's a lot of bad rapper/actors. I don't like even 1 of 50 cent's movie's. Ludicris, Master P, etc.

12:29 PM   Jan 11, 2012

bdouble 

Two more Mark Walburg in Boogie Night's was a classic, and Justin Timberlake can't act a lick. (Social Network)

12:35 PM   Jan 11, 2012

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