This week is a big one for former lovebirds Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake: Tonight, Glee will air an episode-long tribute to the music of Spears and feature her in a cameo, while Friday sees the release of David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is earning Timberlake the first Oscar buzz of his career. Since their Mickey Mouse Club days together, the two pop stars have done plenty of acting, but which has the chops to come out ahead? In the spirit of their famous (and potentially apocryphal) 2002 dance-off, we’ve pitted Spears and Timberlake against each other to evaluate their best and worst performances, their abilities to give good cameo, and (of course) their multiple Saturday Night Live–hosting stints.
Justin Timberlake: Timberlake’s big-screen acting career may be heating up, but his TV credits remain awfully slim — virtually all he has to his name is a brief appearance on Touched By an Angel logged during his ‘N Sync days. Where’s the 30 Rock guest spot or the self-satirizing cameo on Entourage? Justin, you can do better.
Britney Spears: When it comes to the art of the television cameo, Spears truly excels. It isn’t just that she provides a ratings boost (her appearance as a nerdy receptionist on How I Met Your Mother brought the show series-high numbers) or does some of her best work in these one-off roles (with her waves of blonde hair, fake tan, and high-pitched southern voice, she did “Kristin Chenoweth” better than Chenoweth herself on Will & Grace) — it’s that she knows how to time her cameos for maximum career rehabilitation. The Will & Grace gig gave the media something new to discuss a month after Spears was caught driving with her infant son on her lap, and the How I Met Your Mother guest role allowed her to reestablish herself in the public eye less than two months after she was released from a psychiatric ward at UCLA.
Performances You Never Saw
Justin Timberlake: In 2005, Timberlake landed his first starring role as a journalist in the drama Edison, backed by a strong cast including Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman. Unfortunately, his big chance to play the lead fizzled when Edison bombed at the Toronto Film Festival and went straight to DVD. As recently as last year, Timberlake was still struggling: Even though he starred opposite Jeff Bridges (about to embark on an Oscar run for Crazy Heart) in the dramedy The Open Road, the movie barely limped into theatrical release.
Britney Spears: In the suuuuper-random 2000 film Longshot, Spears played a stewardess in service to pilot Kenny Rogers (who was sharing a cockpit with Timberlake’s ‘N Sync bandmate Lance Bass — yes, it was that kind of movie). Sadly, unlike her stewardess character in the video for “Toxic,” this Britney neglected to seduce any passengers while wearing a glamorous outfit surely made from a car-seat cover.
Acting High Points
Justin Timberlake: Timberlake earned good notices for playing a tattooed thug in Alpha Dog, but his scene-stealing role as cocky e-guru Sean Parker in The Social Network has brought him the best reviews of his career. (It helps that Fincher’s propensity for shooting dozens of takes may have grounded Timberlake, who can sometimes come off onscreen like he’s delivering his performance into a mirror.) The new film has clearly kicked the 29-year-old’s acting career into high gear; since the film wrapped, Timberlake booked leads in the Mila Kunis rom-com Friends With Benefits and the Andrew Niccol sci-fi auctioneer i’m.mortal.
Britney Spears: It isn’t much, but the 2002 film Crossroads gave Spears her only real big-screen role. In fact, though Spears received polite reviews for her performance as a V-card-losing good girl, the film is more notable for its other success stories: writer Shonda Rhimes went on to create Grey’s Anatomy, co-star Zoe Saldana eventually landed the female lead in Avatar, and the Spears-kissing Justin Long became more of a rom-com staple than Spears herself (who hasn’t appeared in a film since).
Acting Low Points
Justin Timberlake: Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales may be a mess, but it has its few devoted partisans, and as an Iraq War veteran who lip-synchs to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in an elaborate musical sequence, at least Timberlake gets to do something in his music-video wheelhouse. Not so in The Love Guru, where the less said about his French-Canadian hockey player, the better.
Britney Spears: Then again, Mike Myers has done Spears wrong, too. She appears in a bafflingly ill-advised opening credits sequence in the third Austin Powers movie, Goldmember, which for some reason takes place on the set of her music video for “Boys.” (This is what happens when terrible self-promotion meets lazy franchise writing.) After engaging in a dance-off with Austin and his mod crew, Spears reveals herself as a fembot, then short-circuits until her head explodes. “Oops, I did it again,” Austin offers lamely, as you knew he would.
Saturday Night Live Hosting Skills
Justin Timberlake: Timberlake logged his first SNL appearance in 2002 during an episode hosted by his then-girlfriend Spears, but since then, he’s been back almost every year. While his own hosting gigs have been stellar and his random appearances in other episodes are always welcome, Timberlake is best known for taking part in some of the most famous digital shorts the show has ever created, including the Emmy winner “Dick in a Box.”
Britney Spears: Spears got to SNL first and memorably poked fun at herself in the opening monologue of her 2000 hosting stint, where her “real” breasts began moving of their own accord, but since then, she’s had to cede late-night dominance to Timberlake (who firmed up his record as SNL’s performer of choice with a cameo in this year’s season premiere).
In the end, perhaps both Spears and Timberlake are doing what they do best. As augured by The Social Network, Timberlake’s clearly got the hotter big-screen career and he’s taking full advantage; at the same time, TV cameos like the one Spears is making on Glee suit her talents well and give her ample opportunity to prove to the public that she’s not as crazy as you might have heard. Sure, Timberlake may be bound for the Golden Globes at the same time as Spears makes her inevitable appearance as Phil’s too-sexy new co-worker on Modern Family, but as long as they both seem happy and Britney’s extensions are in tip-top shape, who can argue that it should be otherwise?