God, there’s just something about watching Cher knock men down a peg. She just turned 75, and it still hasn’t gotten old.
Perhaps that’s why, in addition to single-handedly legitimizing Auto-Tune and being the only Kennedy Center honoree famous for straddling naval artillery, Cher has made an entire acting career out of playing determined and dominant women. Directors put her in the proverbial ring with Republican judges, hitmen, Nicolas Cage, and literal Satan. They write roles for her where her singularity is paramount. She plays widows and single mothers, artists, and eccentrics. She is rarely cruel, but she takes no shit. She yells, smokes, performs voodoo, wears skin-tight everything, fucks on the first date, and sings “Fernando” as heart-shaped fireworks illuminate the Grecian night. And we eat it up.
Given Cher’s enduring on- and offscreen self-made wonder-woman persona, it’s easy to gloss over the course correction responsible for it. As The Witches of Eastwick asserts, sometimes it takes a man to help a woman step into her power. Her early biography is dominated by first husband Sonny Bono, her constant co-star during her first forays into acting via The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which debuted in 1971 and remains notable for its namesakes’ cheeky marital banter. On it and the variety shows that followed (Cher, hosted solo, and post-divorce reunion The Sonny and Cher Show), her well-timed retorts and bored-wife act hint at the unfazed feminine persona she would spend the rest of her career perfecting. But as it happens, unshackling from Sonny was no blaze of feminist glory. Her then-lover and music-industry magnate David Geffen did the legwork of negotiating her out of Sonny’s contracts, which he’d compare to “slave labor.”
Cher didn’t waste her freedom. Determined to act, she embarked on Hollywood in earnest in the 1980s, the confidence of her performances and her characters belying profound professional anxiety. She nearly backed out of Silkwood for fear of working with Meryl Streep (their on-set friendship endures to this day) and was shattered when people laughed upon seeing her name in the trailer. She thought Moonstruck was a nonstarter. She “wasn’t sure” about her acting in Mermaids.
Throughout her ’80s heyday, Cher on film was the diva unmasked and un-Mackie’d. She wept when she realized how dowdy Silkwood director Mike Nichols wanted her to look, then embraced such transformations again and again. But transformation is Cher’s entire game. That she silenced the scoffs by becoming a respected actress is so quintessentially Cher. We gave her an inch and she took home an Oscar.
Oh, did I mention that she’s stunning? Cinema is the art of glittering images, and Cher glitters. Nowadays her mere appearance onscreen is cause for celebration. That’s not to suggest her immaculate bone structure ever did the heavy lifting; in fact, given nothing to do but sing pretty and look hot in feature debut Good Times, she’s hopeless. It is precisely because Cher made herself into an idealized modern woman — not just sexy, but funny, frank, ambitious, smart, and talented — then channeled that persona into her roles that we love to watch her fight and win battles of the sexes. Her femininity crackles with energy. “Are you always this aggressive after sex?” Bob Hoskins asks her in Mermaids, post-coitus and incredulous. Her effortless answer says it all: “You call this aggressive?”
15. Good Times (1967)
There is a teensy handful of ’50s and ’60s pop-star vehicles worthy of a legacy, and the majority include either the most popular rock star ever or the most popular rock band ever. Of these rare good ones, the formula is simple: the sheer force of the pop personalities at the height of their powers, a script that plays to their strengths, and great songs. Good Times has none of these things. By 1967, Sonny and Cher were in decline, their pro-marriage and anti-drug message rejected wholesale by a generation discovering the joys of casual sex on acid. The script is laughably unambitious, meaning Good Times is a movie about Sonny and Cher deciding whether or not to make a movie. (Spoiler alert: They decide the movie biz is not for them. A similar decision ought to have been made here in the real world, but alas.) And the music sucks. Absolutely no one wants or needs a bizarre downtempo take on “I Got You Babe,” but you can have one anyway. Cher plays an anesthetized version of herself who passes the screen time by wearing clothes, talking to a dog, having great legs, and complaining about Sonny’s motorcycle. She flounders in front of the camera, albeit in less annoying fashion than Sonny. In his review, Roger Ebert declared director William Friedkin no Richard Lester, the director responsible for the Beatles’ cinematic successes. That was true then, and as it’s difficult to imagine Richard Lester going on to make The Exorcist or Cruising like Friedkin did, it’s true now. Skip it.
14. Stuck On You (2003)
With all due respect to Osmosis Jones, few filmographies have aged worse than the Farrelly brothers’, to whom the pinnacle of comedy is located at roughly the same height as some schmuck’s scrotum stuck in a zipper. But if the formula works and results in infinite production dollars, stick to it! That likely explains how Stuck On You netted Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon as hockey-playing and burger-flipping conjoined twins Walt and Bob. In all fairness, the premise is one of the Farrellys’ more humane: The twins move to L.A. so Walt can pursue his acting dreams and Bob can meet his online girlfriend. Once there, they encounter Cher (as herself but noxiously diva-fied and startlingly unfunny), who is herself desperate to weasel out of a TV show that “makes Touched by an Angel look like Trainspotting.” In an attempt to get the whole affair canceled, she requests Walt as her co-star. The plan backfires and turns Cher into the butt of so many boring jokes, including an ass-expanding visual gag and a scene of her watching TV in bed with Frankie Muniz. (Get it?! Because Cher likes younger men! And a woman choosing to date Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise in their primes instead of shrivel up and die at age 35 is pedophilia!) Her performance is as tired as the rest of the movie, but as for the “Cher the Wealth” sign hanging above her office, well, credit where it’s due.
13. Chastity (1969)
Pre-’80s cinema Cher is a truly unfortunate state of affairs, and the same can be said for Chastity. Having failed to recapture those crazy youths with the abject failure of Good Times, the couple pivoted to a zeitgeist-y road movie about a lost girl looking for love. Sonny does not grace us with his presence, but he remains in the driver’s seat as screenwriter and producer with a suffocating air of, “How do you do, fellow kids?” Cher plays the titular role of a young runaway spouting ’60s free-spirit nonsense — “Why do people have to be something? I don’t want to be anything right now,” or cringier yet, “I don’t dig the way people use God” and “I wonder why dykes are dykes” — while rebuffing men, at least until she decides to give prostitution a whirl in a Mexican border town. The movie’s most egregious narrative device is Chastity’s childhood sexual trauma, which she deals with by flinging herself around strangers’ houses, albeit with manic conviction. Cher is hopeless here, bound to a stilted inner-monologue voiceover, a half-baked lesbian-relationship sequence, and insistent close-ups. Smack dab in the middle of cinema’s finest era for lost girls (Estelle in More and Daria in Zabriskie Point, for instance), Chastity offers no real explanation for its protagonist’s directionless-ness or its own. No wonder she stuck to TV for the next decade.
12. Faithful (1996)
The last of Paul Mazursky’s feature films, Faithful is an overlong, mindless one-room (well, one-mansion) drama with nothing to say despite all the talking. Cher plays long-suffering wife Maggie, no kids, one Rolls-Royce. Today is her 20th wedding anniversary, and in celebration her husband has decided to give it a go with his secretary (a walking pair of tits, and still not the most insane aspect of this movie’s gender politics). To expedite this process, he hires hitman Tony (Chazz Palminteri) to dispose of Maggie. But wouldn’t you know it? The hitman and the victim start chatting, and Maggie has a sob story where she was just about to kill herself when he broke in and interrupted her — but is she lying to play to his sympathies? Don’t worry, the movie won’t make you actually care. Tony has a sob story of his own about his sister, cue melancholic jazz, cue flashback, and there’s a real fun little exchange where Maggie suggests that they might as well have pleasant sex since Tony is supposed to rape her anyway. Eventually hubby comes home, and that’s when the movie bets it all on fake-outs that fool no one. Because it’s the ’90s, there is a subplot involving a shrink — “I never whacked a woman, Doc!” With its nonsensical writing that requires an empty platitude every third line and a cumbersome twist every 20 minutes, Cher’s would-be decent performance and chemistry with Palminteri has nowhere to go. For a movie about killing your wife, wasting Cher is Faithful’s most heinous crime.
11. If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
Given her politics, it’s no surprise Cher eagerly attached her mid-’90s star power to If These Walls Could Talk, the episodic, decade-spanning HBO abortion drama Demi Moore spent years trying to get made. Hers isn’t the only serious wattage: Moore produces and leads the 1950s vignette as a widowed nurse desperately fumbling her way into the whisper network; Sissy Spacek is an overworked mom of four hesitant to adopt her daughter’s bra-burning ’70s politics; and Anne Heche is a ’90s architecture student whose married boyfriend (Craig T. Nelson, for all of three minutes) would really appreciate it if his wife didn’t find out about this. This isn’t subtle filmmaking — although films that use hemorrhaging on the kitchen floor after a botched back-door procedure as a major plot point rarely are. Cher directs the ’90s vignette and plays the comparatively minimal role of Dr. Thompson, a disciplined abortion provider motivated by a high-minded sense of reproductive justice but pragmatic enough to wear a bulletproof vest in the parking lot. Empowered and unbothered, she’s bafflingly friendly with the small group of conservative Christian women stationed outside the clinic door, and the cracks in her cool façade show only when the anti-abortion protesters arrive en masse. It’s a bit part, but she handles the split between private frustration and outward-facing confidence well enough. Despite the movie’s catchphrase-y and occasionally ham-fisted treatment of the pro- and anti- sides of the abortion debate, it still lands its gut punches, even the ones you see coming.
10. Mask (1985)
There are movies that are compassionate toward disability, and movies that aren’t. Mask’s treatment of plucky teenaged protagonist Rocky Dennis, suffering from the rare bone disorder lionitis that causes facial deformity, puts it in the former category. But just because Mask is compassionate doesn’t mean it’s good, or that the film’s “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” message isn’t ham-fisted. Cher plays Rusty, Rocky’s mother and on-again, off-again biker-chick girlfriend to Sam Elliot’s Gar. Cher’s Rusty is at first unflappable, so unfazed by his facial difference and short life expectancy that she seems nearly in denial about it, telling off a doctor who dares give a grim prognosis within the movie’s first ten minutes. She spends her remaining screen time portraying her drug dependency struggle a little too closely to an unfit-mother caricature, complete with door-slamming and smug dealers welcoming her back and overwrought fights. It’s fun to watch her make out with Sam Elliot in a funhouse, although the arc of that relationship feels like an afterthought. To be fair, she netted Best Actress at Cannes; on Twitter, she gave herself a solid B+. But when it comes to emotional complexity, Cher’s given far better.
9. Suspect (1987)
Before celebrated screenwriter Eric Roth was penning the latest remakes of Dune and A Star Is Born, he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for thrillers of varying degrees of quality. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and simply wonder how many pages of Suspect’s original screenplay were left on the cutting-room floor. It’s anyone’s guess why will-bang-you-for-your-vote lobbyist Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid, eye-rolling his way through jury duty) is motivated to help public defender Kathleen Riley (Cher) crack a case involving — oh Lord, here we go: a Supreme Court justice who shoots himself, the tape he records prior to doing so, his dead secretary, her car, a deaf-mute homeless Vietnam vet (Liam Neeson, disarmingly youthful), hand tattoos, a single cufflink, and a file-cabinet key. It’s a bit of a bore with a lame gotcha ending and dubious ethics, namely that the ends (cracking the case) justify the means (some casual jury-tampering). Relatively un-glammed, Cher is plenty convincing as an overworked public servant with a heart of gold, and especially assured and subtle during Kathleen’s courtroom monologues and face-offs with humorless judge Matthew Helms (John Mahoney). But it’s a bit of a doozy, no matter how well she manages to deliver lines like, “Don’t hustle me, okay? You can save that bullshit for your friends on Capitol Hill!” Yeah! Those crooks in Washington!
8. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018)
Good on Ol Parker, writer and director of — a simple “2” would have sufficed, but fuck it — Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again for making us wait for the true diva. It must have taken some discipline to keep Cher offscreen for the first 80-plus minutes of the movie, but it’s an excellent choice. By the time she finally appears as promised, you’ve already spent over an hour in suspended ABBA-mation, and her fashionably late arrival ushers in the movie’s last, sparkliest, and most decadent high. As you may recall, people went gaga. “What was it like to work with Cher?” demanded late-night hosts the world over, to which her co-stars provided rave reviews. Her appearance inspired such mania because it felt like an encore to a filmography and a lifelong performance of being Cher. That’s why Ruby Sheridan is written as a hilarious, glamorous diva who wears white suits, doesn’t have frown lines, and wipes away a tear before calling Amanda Seyfried’s singing “a little pitchy.” Who needs conflict? Not Cher, not now. With the other characters’ featherlight marital and party-planning troubles resolved, she swoops in for a happy ending of her own accompanied by Andy Garcia. It’s earned and fabulous.
7. Burlesque (2010)
In a New York Times profile coinciding with the Burlesque’s 2010 release, Cher told Frank Bruni her acting truth, declaring, “I’ve never tried anything more than playing who I am. If you look at my characters, they’re all me.” This is especially true with Burlesque, in which she plays Tess, the owner of a financially strapped burlesque club and den mother to its dancers, namely Christina Aguilera’s wide-eyed Allie. Between the backstage melodramatics, pauper-versus-prince suitors, and Champagne-hued music-video maximalism, it’s a little Moulin Rouge!, a little Showgirls. But Tess is pure Cher, uncowed by offers from real-estate developer Marcus, unfazed by her nagging ex-husband (who once refers to himself as “Mr. Tess”), responds to an insult by taking a tire iron to a car window, and drinks Patrón straight from the bottle. She has a pair of numbers of her own: the sultry “Welcome to Burlesque,” then anthemic ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which Cher thinks should have been a “BIG HIT.” It’s stupid, bawdy, low-stakes fun that knows its audience, always a virtue. In other words, it’s no mistake that Cher and Stanley Tucci’s movie-highlight repartee borders on gay porn. Figuratively speaking, of course.
6. Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
While accepting her Best Actress Oscar for Moonstruck, Cher referred to Silkwood as her “first movie.” We’ll allow it, but there is no Silkwood without Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, first a stage play, then a film adaptation about a rural Texas James Dean fan club reuniting on the anniversary of his death. After a disastrous first table read for the initial Broadway run, director Robert Altman told her, “You really can’t act, but I had a really hard time taking my eyes off you.” She made her Broadway debut (and the subsequent film) alongside an off-kilter marvel of an ensemble cast: Kathy Bates, Sandy Dennis, Marta Heflin, Sudie Bond, and a captivating Karen Black. The production received poor reviews, but Mike Nichols attended a matinee and offered her Silkwood in her dressing room once it was over. Onstage and onscreen, Cher plays the brassy and busty good-time girl Sissy, lounging across counters and breezing through the store, struggling with the private agony of a mastectomy and the dissolution of her relationship. She pulls energy toward her in exchanges with co-stars both gleeful and downright excoriating, enlivened by the unspooling collective and personal tragedies the club members negotiate. The script returns to James Dean’s untimely demise again and again, but for Cher, Jimmy Dean is an artistic rebirth.
5. Tea With Mussolini (1999)
Drenched in the golden light and classical romance of the Florentine sun, Tea With Mussolini is about as breezy as World War II movies get, taking a light touch to the historical gravitas and voyeuristic moral incredulity that is the subgenre’s dramatic currency. Cher gives an overflowing performance as vivacious American socialite Elsa, who’s partial to Picasso, fur stoles in summer, champagne, and the rich husbands who pay for it all. She’s one of a handful of sophisticated expat women involved in raising a local boy, their status abroad in jeopardy as fascism creeps through Italy. Draped in spectacular Ermanno Scervino costumes, Cher’s Elsa radiates the insouciance of a pre-war American expat. When asked if all American women are as exciting as she is (following a verse of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in that sumptuous contralto), she puffs on her cigarette and drawls a languid, “Alas. No.” This moment alone justifies why director Franco Zeffirelli thought she was the only woman for the part. Elsa is romantic and ostentatious but commands a perceptiveness and self-awareness that Cher doesn’t have to force, playing the ideal foil to Maggie Smith’s sniffing aristocrat Lady Hester. Against a backdrop of swaying cypruses, winding streets, and cathedral frescoes, Cher, Lily Tomlin, and the dames (Smith, plus Joan Plowright and Judi Dench) ham it up without getting melodramatic. Fascist dictators come and go, but la dolce vita is forever.
4. Mermaids (1990)
Frank Oz and Lasse Hallström can keep the dark versions of Mermaids they envisioned during their brief individual attachments to the project. With Richard Benjamin at the helm, Mermaids is the movie it should be: a sweet coming-of-age story with heart and tolerable cheese. Cher is Mrs. Flax, a hyper-liberated eccentric prone to polka dots and skipping town once her latest married man disappoints with daughters Kate (Christina Ricci, all of four feet tall) and Charlotte (18-year-old Winona Ryder, teetering on total ’90s domination) in tow. Charlotte is determined to douse the flower of her youth with the weedkiller of devout Catholic piety, to which Mrs. Flax can only respond with well-meaning, wonderfully funny exasperation. “Charlotte, we’re Jewish,” she deadpans upon finding her daughter knelt before a blessed-virgin figurine. Watching her new boyfriend (Bob Hoskins) and her daughters dish out mashed potatoes and rapid-fire conversation at the dinner table after years of eating separately, she sits and watches, dumbfounded. The hopeless incompatibility of her laissez-faire spiritedness with Charlotte’s authoritarian if hormonal morality gives the movie its friction and humor, but it’s Mrs. Flax’s recognition of their similarities that gives Mermaids its catharsis. “If you hate my life so much, why are you doing your damnedest to make the same mistakes?” she demands in a mother-daughter fight suffused with latent tenderness. It’s a tone-perfect match and performance from both. Cher always, Winona forever.
3. Silkwood (1983)
For a movie about the brutalization of the American working class and getting fried by plutonium from the inside out, Silkwood exercises surprising restraint. It’s neither sensationalist nor preachy. Co-written by Nora Ephron, Silkwood reveals its deadly heart slowly, through mundane asides and careful gestures at first. As lesbian plant worker Dolly Pelliker, a de-glammed Cher nails an Okie accent and orbits the movie’s primary relationship between Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwood and her boyfriend, Drew (Kurt Russell, hot off two John Carpenter movies), so much so that we experience her sex scene from inside Karen and Drew’s bedroom, the two of them laughing uncontrollably. The following morning, Dolly shrugs them off: “You two ain’t exactly a silent movie yourselves.” Cher makes a distinct impression, her depleted resignation a powerful counterweight to the increasingly determined and justifiably paranoid Karen. Dolly’s stone-faced reactions are subtle and chilling, never more so than when she witnesses, unmoving, a Geiger counter tick to life over her bathroom sink. Later, she delivers the movie’s most loaded line — “Karen, they know everything about us” — with unnerving flatness. Compared to the roles that would follow, Dolly’s Cher-ness and screen time is minimal, but no less affecting for it.
2. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The first of Cher’s three 1987 releases and director George Miller’s first movie following the Mel Gibson Mad Max trilogy — no armchair-diagnosing that artistic turn from masculine to feminine interpretations of power, please! — The Witches of Eastwick is fabulously entertaining and surprisingly ageless. Its politics are bizarre and its fluctuations between satire and sincerity remain beguiling; it is beholden to neither Strong Female Lead clichés nor dated gender politics. As Daryl Von Horne (a.k.a. Satan), Jack Nicholson is a chauvinist pervert happy to pontificate on how marriage suffocates women and guide a trio of witches into their powers. Cher plays Alex Medford, a widowed mother and sculptor partial to reproductions of the Venus of Willendorf (a pitch-perfect art-nerd detail, to Miller’s credit), swept up by Daryl alongside Susan Sarandon’s Jane and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Sookie. Alex and Daryl’s fiery interactions power the movie with chaotic energy, particularly during their initial meeting when she tells him he’s not interesting enough to make her sick, then jumps his bones. Her surrender to his unconventional seduction in the intervening moments is among her finest close-ups. (Also on this list: her teary appraisal of La Bohème in Moonstruck, you know it’s coming.) As sassy and pragmatic Alex, she plays into the movie’s fabulous outrageousness with dramatic panache and believable feeling. And she has never been more fun to watch.
1. Moonstruck (1987)
Here we go. Yes, Moonstruck is hands down Cher’s best role, set against the delicious and pre-Giuliani backdrop of bygone Italian New York. The reason is simple: Loretta Castorini is the pinnacle of that warm but whip-smart combination Cher does perfectly, but she plays it in a way that’s completely unto itself and entertaining. Far from a romantic heroine, Loretta is a widowed accountant in her late 30s who goes to confession, lives at home, and agrees to marry walking blobfish Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) in the movie’s opening act. Naturally it takes a collision of wills and nether regions with Johnny’s opera-obsessed brother, Ronny (a wild-eyed Nicolas Cage, age 23 to Cher’s 41, hallelujah!), to get things going. Cher sells the movie’s bawdiest moments with smart timing, often couching them in unimpressed pragmatism or plausible denial. She refuses to indulge Ronny, responding to his threat to cut his own throat with a shrugging, “Maybe I should come back another time.” When he literally sweeps her off her feet and marches to the bedroom, she half-relents: “Oh God, okay, I don’t care, I don’t care! Take me, take me to the bed!” Cher’s take on Loretta is her crucial creative combination perfected. Loretta is a wholly original character with real depth and a killer accent, but she’s wonderfully alive onscreen thanks to Cher channeling her own trademark determined femininity and fiery intelligence. And when it hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s a little something we like to call amore.