It’s written in the entertainers’ bible: If thine image offends thee, try another medium. For music stars straitjacketed by an unwanted reputation, movies offer a handy escape route. With one suitable (and songless) project, acting can (as with Cher) — but doesn’t always (as with Madonna) — drastically alter mass perceptions.

Cher made the break with her glam past in Silkwood as Dolly Pelliker, the sassy lesbian housemate of Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoma factory worker who died mysteriously in 1974 after helping to expose — and being exposed to — the dangers of plutonium processing. Director Mike Nichols’ engrossing dramatization is long, slow, and deliberate, locating the source of Silkwood’s courage to question authority in the mundane details of her working-class life. The incomparable Streep does the film’s only singing (”Amazing Grace”), but Cher, in tandem with Kurt Russell as Silkwood’s lover, is an excellent foil. Sacrificing vanity to give Dolly her due, Cher earned an Academy Award nomination and instantly established a serious cinematic presence distinct from her mainstream musical persona. A-

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