From Barbra Streisand and Courtney Love to Madonna and Cher, pop divas have romanced Hollywood to prove they're more than just one-note wonders

By Steve Wulf
Updated February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Got to give her credit. The girl can sing … about that I was never wrong.” — Jimmy Cagney as hood Martin Snyder, talking about ex-wife Ruth Etting, played by Doris Day, in Love Me or Leave Me (1955).

But what we didn’t know was that she could act. That in part explains the Academy’s on-again, off-again love affair with thrushes-turned-thespians, an affair that heated up this year when Iceland’s Björk generated intense buzz — as well as a Golden Globe nod for Best Actress — with her performance in Dancer in the Dark. Since 1956, when Peggy Lee was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for playing a troubled singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues, six female pop stars have been in tune with Oscar. They may have sung for their suppers, Hollywood seems to say, but they are acting for posterity.

Day too played a troubled singer in Love Me or Leave Me, but it wasn’t until four years later that her acting was officially validated with a Best Actress nomination for the fluffy Pillow Talk. Then came Barbra Streisand for playing troubled singer Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968), Diana Ross for playing troubled singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and Bette Midler for playing a troubled singer not unlike Janis Joplin in The Rose (1979). Actually, you can save on a couple of rentals by seeing three of them together in The Rose: Midler and female impersonators of Streisand and Ross.

Congratulations on sensing a pattern here. Midler, by the way, was also nominated for her role as a troubled singer in 1991’s For the Boys. As talent manager Joan Hyler says, ”It’s easier if the screen persona is like the real persona.” Whatever you may think of Cher, remember that neither of her two Oscar nominations was for playing a troubled singer: She was up for Best Supporting Actress as Meryl Streep’s troubled housemate in Silkwood (1983) and won Best Actress as a troubled bookkeeper in Moonstruck (1987). Indeed, among the divas, only Cher and Streisand — who shared her ’68 Best Actress award with Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) — have actually won Oscars.

As recently as 1997, the Academy members chose to ignore both Madonna (in Evita, for which she won a Golden Globe) and Courtney Love (who actually did deserve a supporting-actress nomination for The People vs. Larry Flynt). And while Björk’s performance as a troubled factory worker who can sing promptly put her in contention for an Oscar nod, it wasn’t necessarily her acting chops that so impressed critics; it was the sheer power of her talent and personality (director Lars von Trier reportedly had rewritten his script for Dancer with Björk in mind). Costar Catherine Deneuve had admitted: ”She cannot really act. She can just be.” But her being is totally original. As John Clark wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ”Nobody’s going to confuse her with Judy Garland or Debbie Reynolds.”

Reynolds and Garland also happened to be Oscar nominees — as were other female singers like Ginger Rogers, Dorothy Dandridge, Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli, and Diahann Carroll. Why not include them? Not to hedge, but they made their first big names on stage and screen and the nightclub circuit, not on a record label. One other singer did get an Oscar nomination: Ronee Blakley, up for a 1975 Best Supporting Actress award in Nashville. But the country-rock artist was hardly a pop star: Robert Altman decided to audition Blakley after hearing her perform with Hoyt Axton at a gig in Nashville. She was perfect for the role of a troubled singer not unlike Loretta Lynn.

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