When Pop Stars Attempt Movie Stardom: Gaga, Cher, and Other Film Debuts, Ranked

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This weekend, A Star Is Born will AHHHH-HAAA-AHHHH its way into American cineplexes and a lot of people will praise Lady Gaga, who gives a stellar performance as the female lead, Ally. A lot of those people will express astonishment that she knocked it out of the park on her first go. Those people may use the word “debut.” They will be wrong.

Aside from her stint on American Horror Story in its fifth season, Lady Gaga has already made two appearances as a character other than the one she plays full-time. In the questionably necessary sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, she made a brief cameo as a faux-wholesome (fauxlesome?) waitress; and in the equally un-asked-for Machete Kills, she went femme fatale as a shape-shifting mercenary known as La Chameleón. Gaga hasn’t been correcting red-carpet interviewers congratulating her on finally making the jump to Hollywood, and who could blame her? It’s the sign of a maturing artist to be embarrassed by their earlier work, and most of us don’t have to contend with having once done the Machete follow-up. When someone ascends from one plane of fame to another, even if that move bridges industries, some part of the past falls away. (Let none of us forget that Ant-Man scene-stealer Michael Peña got his start in a drama about pregnant teens called Bellyfruit.)

But she’s far from the first pop star to transition into the acting game, and some have met with more success in their grand reintroduction to the public than others. It’s always a dicey proposition when the director calls “action” on a first-timer, but in the best instances, those risks can yield the biggest rewards. Read on and as we revisit and rank, from worst to best, the first silver-screen forays of Whitney, Britney, and a whole lot of other people who need no last name.

17. Taylor Swift — Valentine’s Day (2010)
The frequent interchange between the worlds of singing and acting suggest some overlap in the skill sets of a singer and an actor. Taylor Swift, conversely, moves through Valentine’s Day like a personal-injury attorney who has been suddenly tasked with defusing an IED. She looks lost and confused, despite the fact that the role has been so blatantly tailored to her celebrity that the makeup department didn’t even ask her to wash off the trademark ‘13’ perma-doodled onto the back of her hand. She plays an adorkable high-schooler who’s supes crushing on her hunky BF (that would be Taylor Lautner, her offscreen squeeze at the time) but just isn’t down with the whole “sex” thing, you know? While a rom com about Taylors Lautner and Swift nervously navigating the choppy seas of abstinent foreplay would have been guaranteed magic, her non-arc ends right where it began. The pair pledge to be good, wholesome kids and wait until they’re ready, reinforcing the squeaky-clean Swift brand with maximum blandness. The ball was all teed up for her, and still, a big whiff.

16. Justin Timberlake — Model Behavior (2000)
A consummate showman from the Mickey Mouse Club days, Justin Timberlake has also matured into a fine thespian, making a mesmerizing trickster demon out of Sean Parker in The Social Network. Once upon a time, he was … not that. This made-for-TV movie doesn’t require much more of him than being a cute piece of meat, which is for the best, because that appears to be all Timberlake’s capable of delivering at this juncture of his evolution as a proper actor. As an impossibly perfect male model dating Everygirl Alex following a classic switcheroo with her celeb doppelgänger, he’s doing a riff on the boy-band image. To him, that means behaving like a version of himself exponentially duller than we now know him to be. There’s a semblance of charm, but none of the slickness or quickness that carried him from the LoveSounds era to the “Suit & Tie” era. Hard to believe now, and yet there was indeed a time when Justin Timberlake was, perish the thought, kind of uncool.

15. Rihanna — Battleship (2012)
“Bad gal Riri? More like bad actress Riri!” is probably a thing said at the 2012 Golden Raspberry Awards, where the Barbadian songstress nabbed the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress. (Ed. note: There is no evidence of this having ever been said.) She does not put her best foot forward in Peter Berg’s bloated-budget treatment of the popular coordinate-guessing board game, grimacing her way through a monotone recitation of lines for a battle-hardened sailor. She’s the gunner’s mate second class, which certainly sounds impressive enough, only her ineffable Rihanna-ness has inexplicably vanished. Being a soldier, or at least pretending to be one, comes down to bravado. The hungriest dogs in the pen grow the biggest, and a reserved Rihanna lacks the coarse swagger — some call it “big dick energy” — that the role requires. The good news (by which I mean please do not tweet mean things at me, Rihanna fans) is that she’s redeemed herself a few times over since then.

14. Mary J. Blige — Prison Song (2001)
While Darnell Martin’s urban neorealism didn’t get quite as much praise as that of Boyz N the Hood or even Poetic Justice, she did give Blige (who’d have to wait nearly two decades for Oscar recognition) a pedestal worthy of her stature. Q-Tip runs the show as an artist searching for any way out of his dead-end life, but the first act goes back to his boyhood as an at-risk youth living with his momma. With an inexperienced child actor for her scene partner, Blige does most of the heavy lifting in these passages and strains under the weight. Her character’s lot in life amounts to a season-long Mad Men subplot crammed into feature length, as she loses not one but two lovers, her son, and then her mind. It’d be a demanding obstacle course for the most seasoned thespian to scale, and Blige goes a little regional theater when her character gets all zonked out on punitive medication. The potential was all there in an actress willing to fully go for it from the jump, she just needed time to refine her technique.

13. Mariah Carey — The Bachelor (1999)
The elusive chanteuse doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this rom com, and two years later, Glitter would explain why. As a career soprano revered among the opera set, her only job is to hit the high notes and rebuff advances from an ex (he needs to get married before he turns 30 in a Brewster’s Millions–type inheritance boondoggle) for a few minutes without making a display of herself. She manages the first half just fine, but the whole “believably speaking to another human being” bit gives her more trouble. We all know she can carry herself normally — she looked like a good sport in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping — but she sounds like she’s reading off cue cards when she curves smarm machine Chris O’Donnell. Audiences can smell unsureness in an actor like sharks drawn to blood in the water, and in one of what’s sure to be a select number of instances in her life, Mimi doesn’t command the room. She’s a guest at a party where she doesn’t know anyone, looking around for a lifeline, making her way from syllable to syllable.

12. Christina Aguilera — Burlesque (2010)
To the camp encampment that immediately ushered this musical into the same sequined box containing its clear predecessor Showgirls, Christina Aguilera being bad is either immaterial or a positive factor. Make no mistake, though, her bush-league badness can’t even approach secret genius Elizabeth Berkley’s rarefied highs of badness. It is a pedestrian badness, clashing harshly with the polished professionalism of the production numbers Xtina crushes one after the other. When she has to say words without the crutches of melody and rhythm, she’s marking the steps, present in body but not always discernibly in mind. Of course, nobody wants their onscreen gravitas compared to that of Cher. But her non-singing screen presence would also pale in comparison to that of a mortal actor, completely lacking in the live-wire electricity that makes her such a captivating force when her hopeful belter takes the stage.

11. Mark Wahlberg — Renaissance Man (1994)
Mark Wahlberg seems to have spent the last couple of decades on a mission to make everyone forget that he’s a good actor, memories of Boogie Nights be damned. The Departed gave him a high point during this dark crusade by playing on his natural tough-guy vibe, his Sergeant Dignam moving more like a principled schoolyard bully than an American hero. Same goes for Private Tommy Lee Haywood, a soldier stuck with Shakespeare in this military spin on Stand and Deliver. The uneducated farm boy has six weeks to attain basic literacy with the help of an inspirational teacher in the stocky form of Danny DeVito, and of course he wants nothing to do with all this sissy book-reading. He comes around, and in time, gets in touch with the sensitive side that was always there. Whether as a corn-fed Plains kid or a salt-and-gravel Dorchester ruffian, Wahlberg is at all times one high-pitched tantrum away from releasing his inner child.

10. Mandy Moore — The Princess Diaries (2001)
The hair colors may make matters confusing. Even so, the key to understanding Mandy Moore’s presence in this film is thinking of everything in “You Belong With Me” music-video logic: Moore being the mean brunette Taylor Swift to good ol’ Anne Hathaway’s kindly blonde Taylor Swift. Moore takes a stock type and plays the ever-loving hell out of it, pouring all the syrupy smugness of the cheerleader you loved to hate into a beachside rendition of “Stupid Cupid.” Whether she’s exposing herself while in a changing stall or deploying an expert burn during class, her hatred for regent Mia Thermopolis never subsides. Aside from some squabbles over a boy who turns out to be a real dud, we never get any inkling as to why she zeroes in on Mia as her sworn nemesis. She needs no backstory; like the bullies from Revenge of the Nerds, her antipathy is fueled by the natural enmity between popular kids and lovable losers. In the battle of queen bee versus Queen-to-be, she makes rooting against the opposition feel good and right.

9. Janet Jackson — Poetic Justice (1993)
She didn’t win “Most Desirable Female” at the MTV Movie Awards for nothing! (A different time, 1993.) And there’s plenty more to budding bard Justice than her looks. Jackson makes her out to be a fully rounded, substantive young woman capable of introspection, dysfunction, independence, and affection, of messing up and learning and getting tougher the way adults in training do. She and a trio of friends — most notably a magnetic Tupac Shakur as Lucky — make the drive from South Central L.A. up to Oakland, and the lower stakes of their destination befit the more low-key profundity of the wisdom they gain along the way. Justice isn’t headed for stardom, just a hairdressing convention, and rather than anything as trite as “follow your dreams,” Jackson locates the more satisfying pearl of “in a brutal world, hold on to whoever you can.”

8. Cher — Chastity (1969)
This character study was assembled as a sort of altruistic vanity project, production having been forced into existence by writer-producer Sonny Bono as a gesture of adoration toward his then-wife Cher. (It worked, too; the pair conceived their son at the end of a long shooting day, and named him after the title of the film.) They had been onscreen once before as A Hard Day’s Night–style versions of themselves in Good Times, but this project would push future Oscar winner Cher to the most far-flung fringes of the psyche. Repressed trauma has left hippie roustabout Chastity in an id-fueled state of arrested development, all wanting and grabbing and taking. That a man wrote this for a woman he loves is evident, and not always in the best way, but Cher takes a stack of reductive female qualities — flightiness, a weird pairing of promiscuity with childlike fear of sex — and welds them into a troubled mind not as easily dissected as the film’s conclusion suggests.

7. Beyoncé Knowles — Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001)
The genius of Beyoncé has always been her unknowability; she speaks with a politician’s careful self-regulation during her rare interviews, and the glimpses she allows into her casual life are highly choreographed and heavily edited. This cipher-ish quality makes her an ideal candidate for acting, not just for projecting a created persona but for projecting the persona of someone adept at the process of projecting a persona. The lounge singer Carmen Brown does the seductress routine onstage to get the crowds eating out of her palm, but that same public’s inability to separate the act from the actor gets her into trouble, mostly with men. Beyoncé has no trouble convincing us that she knows the trials of constant attention well, showing that adoration can easily form a kind of prison. What’s most exciting about this performance was that there was once a time when Beyoncé was willing to gesture toward the woman behind the narrative, a reserved and withdrawn woman who wanted only to be able to keep her passions to herself.

6. Madonna — A Certain Sacrifice (1985)
Everyone remembers the Material Girl vamping it up in Desperately Seeking Susan, but her actual debut on the big screen was far smaller and stranger. In the fall of 1980, two years after moving to grimy downtown Manhattan and two years before signing her first record contract, a relatively unknown Madonna aggressively lobbied for a role in a no-budget production that wouldn’t even pay. (Except the $100 that director Stephen Jon Lewicki spotted her for rent.) She simply had to book Bruna, a dominatrix of sorts who calls on her pan-gender harem of love slaves to take bloody revenge on a man who dares to lay an unfriendly hand on her. Yes, it’s a bizarre erotic screed in close proximity to full-blown exploitation, and that didn’t stop it from coaxing some of the most raw, go-for-broke work of Her Madgesty’s career. But whether she likes it or not — and she doesn’t, having attempted in vain to buy it out of circulation and having reportedly stormed out of a private screening with Lewicki in a fit of obscenities — the film’s 60 surreal minutes rank among her literal finest hours.

5. Michael Jackson — The Wiz (1978)
In Victor Fleming’s 1939 original, actor Ray Bolger animated the Scarecrow by wobbling around like a shambolic pile of limbs liable to collapse at any moment. Who better to follow through on that sprightly physicality than Michael Jackson, the dancer who seemed to have reached a gentleman’s agreement with the forces of gravity? His fleet-footed sidekick shakes, rattles, and rolls through Harlem and beyond, recalling Chaplin in the studied specificity of his physical comedy. Even from under a dense slab of makeup and prosthetics, a state he’d come to know well, Jackson nails the puppy-dog sweetness that made Dorothy miss him most of all. Both director Sidney Lumet and music supervisor Quincy Jones objected to Jackson’s casting, but his dear friend and leading lady Diana Ross insisted on his involvement. He showed them all; Lumet changed his tune after one meeting with the then 19-year-old, and Jones agreed to produce Off the Wall on set.

4. Britney Spears — Crossroads (2002)
Shonda Rhimes hot take: Crossroads is a slightly grislier disaster than the high-casualty plane crash she plopped into Grey’s Anatomy to put a spicy button on season eight. But Britney Spears emerges miraculously unscathed from the wreckage, giving a guileless performance of fresh-off-the-bus innocence in a road movie that happens to take place in a car. As she, her gal pals, and a dashing stranger make their way from the heartland to the gleaming showbiz promise of Los Angeles, Spears simulates her own journey from small-town Louisiana girl to the next big thing. She has her first experiences with how weighty and cruel the adult world can be, albeit in ridiculous after-school-special terms, and Spears vividly shows the last embers of naïveté getting stamped out of a character growing up a little too fast. Her climactic number succinctly captures both her precise niche as an actress and the key to her allure as a public figure — not a girl, not yet a woman.

3. Whitney Houston — The Bodyguard (1992)
A widely adored superstar chanteuse with gold-plated pipes, the role of Rachel Marron didn’t demand a lot of range from Whitney Houston. And it’s true that her chemistry with co-star Kevin Costner is more From Justin to Kelly than Bogie and Bacall. But for viewers in 2018, a middling effort like The Bodyguard can exist solely as a vessel to contain the immense ability and personality of Whitney Houston. She plays Rachel as a personification of passion, exuding so much sexuality that it’s the only way she knows how to take petty vengeance on Kevin Costner’s body man assigned to her detail. Houston brings the prima donna archetype crashing down to earth when she begins peeling back the layers of her character all the way to a soft and vulnerable core, where this reputed high-maintenance nightmare wants only to be liked.

2. Tina Turner — Tommy (1975)
Some singers looking to get their feet wet in cinema will start relatively modestly, testing the waters with a smaller, simpler role that allows them to get comfortable on a live set before taking a bigger leap. Tina Turner is not “some singers.” For her silver-screen debut, she mustered all of her brassy, untempered, room-filling Tina Turner-ness to portray the wildest character in a psychedelic rock-and-roll fantasia from one of the era’s most essential bands. Modern messiah and pinball virtuoso Tommy encounters Turner as the Acid Queen, a fully unhinged narco-diva who sweeps our boy up into a trippy fetish game involving soft BDSM and a whole lot of syringes. Manically mugging for the camera like it may very well be her next victim, clad in a Little Red Riding Hood getup and Atari-inflected knight’s armor, she condenses all the energy of a full-length concert into five minutes. A producer shells out for Tina Turner, they get exactly what they pay for.

1. Diana Ross — Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Like Athena springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, the esteemed Ms. Ross entered the world of acting with a talent, confidence, and presence that others must hone over a course of decades. She had no intention of making things easy for herself, diving right in with the kind of troubled-genius biopic usually available only to the Julianne Moores and Cate Blanchetts of the world. Her take on the sad tale of Billie Holiday runs the gamut of tragedy, from abuse at home to drug addiction to the constant yoke of racism, and the sheer force of her emoting imbues melodrama that could’ve easily overreached into scenery-gnawing with a painful credibility. (It helps that the scenes of singing are heart-stoppers across the board.) It was an audacious gambit, but sometimes, when you bite off more than you can chew, you manage to choke it all down anyway.

Lady Gaga, Cher, and Other Pop Stars’ Film Debuts, Ranked