Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 3, 2013
If you tune into TCM on July 4th, you’ll be in luck. Not only will you get a great selection of patriotic Hollywood fare, but quite a few musicals, too. Frank Sinatra’s in two of them, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Anchors Aweigh. Sinatra was just one in a long line of singers who became actors, ranging from Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the studio era to Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and David Bowie at the demise of it all the way up to Jennifer Hudson today. Singers and Hollywood have always gone hand in hand but are they judged fairly when it comes to acting or does their talent at singing carry them through?
Judy Garland may be the best actress who was also a great singer. While there have been many great acting talents who could sing, Garland had a voice that was stunning and a talent for singing that matched the vocal power. But she was also an incredible actress, giving truly emotionally resonant performances in movies like The Wizard of Oz and A Star is Born. And in those movies, her singing was just as important to the performance as the acting or, better put, the singing was acting, only in song. She wasn’t nominated for Best Actress for The Wizard of Oz which is a real shame because her delivery of Somewhere Over the Rainbow alone was worth the award itself. Her rendition of that song, sung longingly around a bale of hay and a tractor, was some of her best acting in the movie. In fact, it was some of her best acting ever. But often, we separate the two, judging one a fine singer but only a so-so actor, as if the two were completely different things.
Garland never won an Oscar but Sinatra did, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity, a non-singing part. He was good in the role but, honestly, he’s better when he sings because his singing is tied in with how he performs. I think his performance in Guys and Dolls is better than his performances in either From Here to Eternity or The Man with the Golden Arm because while there may be a lot of people who can sing, very few could carry a song in a movie like Sinatra. He had a confidence and energy to his numbers that counted as a performance as much as any straight acting piece.
A great example of what I’m talking about also happens to be a movie showing on July 4th here on TCM. In fact, it’s the July 4th movie to end all July 4th movies, Yankee Doodle Dandy. James Cagney plays singer/songwriter/dancer/entertainer George M. Cohan to perfection and won the Oscar for it. Now, a lot of people have noted over the years how odd that Cagney didn’t win for one of his great and blistering gangster portrayals, like Public Enemy or White Heat (and, hey, I admit, that’s a performance for the ages) and that the Yankee Doodle Dandy win happened because he was showing he could do more than crime films and we had just gotten involved in World War II meaning patriotism at the box office got rewarded at the awards ceremonies. Baloney! While all of that may have played into it that doesn’t change the fact that Cagney used song, dance and straight dialogue delivery together to meld a perfect performance out of some very fairly surface, flag-waving material. And Michael Curtiz turned it all into what I think is a quite exceptional film for its kind.
Later, in the sixties, Barbra Streisand came into the popular consciousness with a string of albums showcasing her powerful voice and a Broadway performance that became legendary, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. When the film was adapted to the screen, Streisand won Best Actress (in a tie with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter) in a move that seemed to acknowledge, like Cagney all those years before, that the singing was just as much the performance as anything else.
A mere four years later, the same thing happened again, twice. In 1972, both Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey won Oscars (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively) for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Watching it again recently, Minnelli is truly impressive. Her straight dialogue and song performances are both powerfully done in a way that gives two different looks at the character. Since the songs are performed separately from what’s going on in her life, unlike most musicals, she has to give two performances, really. One, a straight dialogue performance and the other, a singing performance. What’s impressive is how well she separates the two while making them fit together perfectly.
But the real history making moment came with Grey’s win for Best Supporting Actor. His performance doesn’t contain any monologues, any hard hitting dramatic scenes behind the stage, any emotionally wrenching moments of despair. Nope, he’s the emcee and his performance is delivered through song and dance. That he won Best Supporting Actor was an acknowledgement, at last, that singing and dancing alone could be considered great feats of acting.
Since then there have been plenty more singers who have made the transition to film with varying degrees of success. In 1972, Diana Ross did an excellent job as singing legend Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues but lost out to Minnelli. Rock star David Bowie made several films, from personal favorite The Man Who Fell to Earth to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence but unlike his fellow singers, he stuck with straight acting, for the most part, rather than take on singing roles. Paul Simon made One Trick Pony and performed the songs well and did okay with the dialogue but didn’t really bring the two together until the end of the movie when he’s recording the album in the studio. Prince made Purple Rain and his singing so overpowered his dialogue scenes that the performance felt skewed (the musical performances are powerful enough to carry the rest, though). Blending the two, like Garland and daughter Minnelli did so well, and Cagney and Sinatra, is a talent that isn’t freely available to everyone. When someone has it, it’s something to be admired and respected. And acknowledged. After all, singing’s just acting to music. And when you gotta sing, you gotta act!
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