Gotta Sing, Gotta Act!

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?

Frank Sinatra *for use with Nancy Sinatra piece*

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.

Garland 01

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.

Bowie 01

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!

20 Responses Gotta Sing, Gotta Act!
Posted By Brian Doan : July 3, 2013 1:53 pm

Great piece, Greg (and thanks for mentioning Prince, whose film presence is really underrated, I think). Someone– Margo Jefferson, maybe?–mentioned in a piece several years ago that Sinatra’s acting talent was fluid enough that it went the other direction, too, back into the music: that those great 50s and 60s albums with Riddle and Billy May were Sinatra’s version of the “Method,” as Sinatra called upon sense memory to really inhabit and perform the songs. He was so, so good as a film actor.

Posted By Brian Doan : July 3, 2013 1:53 pm

Great piece, Greg (and thanks for mentioning Prince, whose film presence is really underrated, I think). Someone– Margo Jefferson, maybe?–mentioned in a piece several years ago that Sinatra’s acting talent was fluid enough that it went the other direction, too, back into the music: that those great 50s and 60s albums with Riddle and Billy May were Sinatra’s version of the “Method,” as Sinatra called upon sense memory to really inhabit and perform the songs. He was so, so good as a film actor.

Posted By Andrew : July 3, 2013 3:30 pm

When I watch Guys and Dolls I am always struck how Sinatra owns the screen when he sings and Brando owns it he talks.

And on an unrelated note: I have also wondered about what sort of movie career Elvis might have had if the ‘big action star guy’ roles had existed in the early sixties. What if wasn’t stuck being some sort of awkward cross between Frankie Avalon and Rock Hudson but could have been an early Bruce Willis or the like.

And drifting even farther afield: I really enjoy Johnny Hallyday in Man on the Train. (Definitely a singer who did movies but it just came together in that one.)

Posted By Andrew : July 3, 2013 3:30 pm

When I watch Guys and Dolls I am always struck how Sinatra owns the screen when he sings and Brando owns it he talks.

And on an unrelated note: I have also wondered about what sort of movie career Elvis might have had if the ‘big action star guy’ roles had existed in the early sixties. What if wasn’t stuck being some sort of awkward cross between Frankie Avalon and Rock Hudson but could have been an early Bruce Willis or the like.

And drifting even farther afield: I really enjoy Johnny Hallyday in Man on the Train. (Definitely a singer who did movies but it just came together in that one.)

Posted By Doug : July 3, 2013 4:19 pm

There’s a theme in many Sinatra movies-he’s the big cheese, the Boss, unmarried, challenged by lesser minds/characters whom he bests through simply being Sinatra.
He’s always morally superior to lesser minds/Society/hypocrites, whether as a gangster in “Robin and the Seven Hoods”, a lawyer in “Can Can” or a thief in “Ocean’s 11″.
He could sing-an amazing voice. And he could act, but I think that in many of his(rat pack/comedic roles)he wasn’t acting so much as using the films to “Walter Mitty” away from was going on in his off screen life.
He was often married, so onscreen he plays unmarried.
The “Legions of Decency” types which looked down on smoking/drinking/chasing women…offscreen they might denounce his lifestyle. But onscreen he could thumb his nose at them and their morality.
I’m with Andrew-if Elvis had been able to break out of the teen idol movie star matrix and do better films, it would have been great.
But we cherish what we have rather than mourn what wasn’t.

Posted By Doug : July 3, 2013 4:19 pm

There’s a theme in many Sinatra movies-he’s the big cheese, the Boss, unmarried, challenged by lesser minds/characters whom he bests through simply being Sinatra.
He’s always morally superior to lesser minds/Society/hypocrites, whether as a gangster in “Robin and the Seven Hoods”, a lawyer in “Can Can” or a thief in “Ocean’s 11″.
He could sing-an amazing voice. And he could act, but I think that in many of his(rat pack/comedic roles)he wasn’t acting so much as using the films to “Walter Mitty” away from was going on in his off screen life.
He was often married, so onscreen he plays unmarried.
The “Legions of Decency” types which looked down on smoking/drinking/chasing women…offscreen they might denounce his lifestyle. But onscreen he could thumb his nose at them and their morality.
I’m with Andrew-if Elvis had been able to break out of the teen idol movie star matrix and do better films, it would have been great.
But we cherish what we have rather than mourn what wasn’t.

Posted By Emgee : July 4, 2013 3:25 am

“She wasn’t nominated for Best Actress for The Wizard of Oz.”
She couldn’t be nominated because she was not yet 18 years old when making the movie. Instead she did win the special Academy Juvenile Award, which was pretty much the highest award she could get at that age.

Posted By Emgee : July 4, 2013 3:25 am

“She wasn’t nominated for Best Actress for The Wizard of Oz.”
She couldn’t be nominated because she was not yet 18 years old when making the movie. Instead she did win the special Academy Juvenile Award, which was pretty much the highest award she could get at that age.

Posted By Stephen White : July 4, 2013 5:04 am

I had never heard about the age limit for Oscar nominations before. Obviously the rules must have changed sometime between then and Anna Paquin winning an Oscar at age 11.

This was an interesting read, especially in light of Anne Hathaway having just won an Oscar essentially for singing one song. I think a lot of people would say the same about Jennifer Hudson. I don’t know if I’m completely comfortable with the thought that singing in a movie is exactly the same thing as acting, but I’ve been given something to think about. While certain movie musicals give me great enjoyment, I generally find the musical numbers themselves to be an interruption of the plot. The plot grinds to a complete halt while we get five minutes of a character telling us via song how he or she feels at a particular moment (“I Could Have Danced All Night”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, etc.).

What about performers who are primarily considered actors but who sang in a lot of their movies? Do they get the respect they deserve as singers? I’m thinking of someone like Marilyn Monroe. Can you even go buy a CD of her songs? Once in a while, someone like Grace Kelly or Debbie Reynolds or (gasp) Lee Marvin would have a freak hit on Top 40 radio from a song they performed in one of their movies, but by and large, it doesn’t seem there was much effort to market these musical performances outside of their original medium.

Posted By Stephen White : July 4, 2013 5:04 am

I had never heard about the age limit for Oscar nominations before. Obviously the rules must have changed sometime between then and Anna Paquin winning an Oscar at age 11.

This was an interesting read, especially in light of Anne Hathaway having just won an Oscar essentially for singing one song. I think a lot of people would say the same about Jennifer Hudson. I don’t know if I’m completely comfortable with the thought that singing in a movie is exactly the same thing as acting, but I’ve been given something to think about. While certain movie musicals give me great enjoyment, I generally find the musical numbers themselves to be an interruption of the plot. The plot grinds to a complete halt while we get five minutes of a character telling us via song how he or she feels at a particular moment (“I Could Have Danced All Night”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, etc.).

What about performers who are primarily considered actors but who sang in a lot of their movies? Do they get the respect they deserve as singers? I’m thinking of someone like Marilyn Monroe. Can you even go buy a CD of her songs? Once in a while, someone like Grace Kelly or Debbie Reynolds or (gasp) Lee Marvin would have a freak hit on Top 40 radio from a song they performed in one of their movies, but by and large, it doesn’t seem there was much effort to market these musical performances outside of their original medium.

Posted By Doug : July 4, 2013 6:23 am

Barbra Streisand. I love her voice. She is truly one of the most talented people who needs people in the world. But her acting?
My favorite of her films is “What’s Up, Doc?”. Her early stuff is great; “The Owl and the Pussycat” being a good example.
My respect for Streisand went south beginning with “Yentl”.
A great I.B. Singer story, but she just happened to be 30 years too old AND the wrong gender to play Yentl. An artist would have picked a different story, or a different role in the same movie, but Barbra? Push and cram and change everything, weakening the film. It’s not terrible, and “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” is a great song, but the movie was twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be.
For me, she’s been unwatchable since “The Prince of Tides”.

Posted By Doug : July 4, 2013 6:23 am

Barbra Streisand. I love her voice. She is truly one of the most talented people who needs people in the world. But her acting?
My favorite of her films is “What’s Up, Doc?”. Her early stuff is great; “The Owl and the Pussycat” being a good example.
My respect for Streisand went south beginning with “Yentl”.
A great I.B. Singer story, but she just happened to be 30 years too old AND the wrong gender to play Yentl. An artist would have picked a different story, or a different role in the same movie, but Barbra? Push and cram and change everything, weakening the film. It’s not terrible, and “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” is a great song, but the movie was twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be.
For me, she’s been unwatchable since “The Prince of Tides”.

Posted By poorarchivist : July 4, 2013 12:52 pm

Many screen actors are also powerful onstage, but there is a star element that often gets lost in the transition. I can’t imagine seeing Frank Sinatra in a stage musical. He would’ve been great, to be sure, but he would not have been FRANK SINATRA. Likewise with Judy Garland. I would say their star power goes beyond the ability to act and sing. Instead it is the way they seem to fit onscreen.

Great article! This blog is always a pleasure to read.

Posted By poorarchivist : July 4, 2013 12:52 pm

Many screen actors are also powerful onstage, but there is a star element that often gets lost in the transition. I can’t imagine seeing Frank Sinatra in a stage musical. He would’ve been great, to be sure, but he would not have been FRANK SINATRA. Likewise with Judy Garland. I would say their star power goes beyond the ability to act and sing. Instead it is the way they seem to fit onscreen.

Great article! This blog is always a pleasure to read.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 6, 2013 11:59 pm

Emgee, there never was an age limit for the Oscars. Giving special Oscars to actresses like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland was just a convenient way to avoid handing out a nomination over an older, more established star. Still, it did happen. Jackie Cooper was all of nine years old when he was nominated for Best Actor for Skippy.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 6, 2013 11:59 pm

Emgee, there never was an age limit for the Oscars. Giving special Oscars to actresses like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland was just a convenient way to avoid handing out a nomination over an older, more established star. Still, it did happen. Jackie Cooper was all of nine years old when he was nominated for Best Actor for Skippy.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2013 1:48 pm

Bowie does have one great musical moment that comes to mind, performing an elaborate number in Julian Temple’s splashy adaptation of Absolute Beginners, complete with a giant typewriter and flying Vespas. But it’s a minor role in the film, as is The Kinks’ Ray Davies who plays one of the main characters’ fathers and gets to sing “The Quiet Life” in a set reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’ in The Ladies Man.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2013 1:48 pm

Bowie does have one great musical moment that comes to mind, performing an elaborate number in Julian Temple’s splashy adaptation of Absolute Beginners, complete with a giant typewriter and flying Vespas. But it’s a minor role in the film, as is The Kinks’ Ray Davies who plays one of the main characters’ fathers and gets to sing “The Quiet Life” in a set reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’ in The Ladies Man.

Posted By robbushblog : July 8, 2013 5:15 pm

I have long pondered “The Great What-If” regarding Elvis’s movie career. It upsets me. The Colonel infuriates me.

Sinatra, though…he got to show what he could really do. And he was great.

Posted By robbushblog : July 8, 2013 5:15 pm

I have long pondered “The Great What-If” regarding Elvis’s movie career. It upsets me. The Colonel infuriates me.

Sinatra, though…he got to show what he could really do. And he was great.

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