Does Lady Gaga possess the thespian talent to pull it off? She already has a Golden Globe for “American Horror Story” to go along with her six Grammys. Now, with her first starring role in a feature film, the just-opened fourth remake of “A Star Is Born,” she’s on the edge of potential Oscar glory.
You could say the true test of potential staying power for female singers has been the screen test. Doris Day aced hers in the golden age of Hollywood, and so, in the rock era, did Cher, after several flubs (including the 1969 flop “Chastity”). Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler both started in the theater but became famous on the national stage for top 10 albums before movie starring debuts launched them into another stratosphere. Judy Garland signed her recording and film contracts almost simultaneously, but movie glory overtook hit singles on the way to her best actress Oscar nod for the 1955 retelling of “A Star is Born.” Rapper and “Chicago” Oscar nominee Queen Latifah, country queen Reba McEntire, and “This Is Us” star Mandy Moore aren’t on their acting level, but each has enjoyed solid acting careers on TV. Jennifer Lopez successfully made the transition in reverse.
Beyond them, things have been shakier for multi-threat female music stars. In the 1970s, Diana Ross earned an Oscar nomination for “Lady Sings the Blues,” and Olivia Newton-John secured her pop-cultural immortality with her role in “Grease,” but both failed to become major movie players. So did Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston, Courtney Love, Bjork and Beyoncé, despite initially successful forays into Hollywood.
Aside from a minor arc on “Nashville” in 2015, Christina Aguilera pretty much gave up after enjoying decent box office returns opposite Cher in 2010’s “Burlesque.” Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson — who, like Lopez, was an actress before she was a singer — have spotty acting resumes, and the less said about Cyndi Lauper in “Vibes” or Britney Spears in “Crossroads,” the better, though Lauper offset her compact reign as a chart queen by branching into TV and Broadway, winning both a Primetime Emmy and a Tony Award.
It’s not always the singers’ fault. Many end up in C-level vehicles like Carey’s “Glitter” and Lopez’s “Gigli.” Few get to be surrounded by A-list talent while playing to their strengths. Like Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” and Bette Midler in “The Rose,” Gaga hedged her Hollywood bets by playing what she knows — a singer, which guarantees that even if we aren’t moved by the acting, we’ll be blown away by the singing. And she’ll score extra points with the Academy for writing much of the music she performs in the latest “A Star Is Born.”
She’s already completed a 2018 triumvirate of female singing superstars killing it in Hollywood. In the past year, Mary J. Blige made major movie moves by earning a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Mudbound.” Rihanna also gained Hollywood ground as an above-the-title co-star to Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in “Ocean’s 8.”
But no one has upped the game requirements like Gaga. Sure, she won the Globe in 2016 (a second GG, for best performance by an actress in a motion picture — musical or comedy for “A Star Is Born” is practically a fait accompli), but underscoring the lack of respect it earned her, Leonardo DiCaprio was caught on camera giggling as Gaga walked by his table to accept her prize.
Now, if Gaga becomes the third actress to earn a best actress Oscar nomination for “A Star Is Born” (following Garland and Janet Gaynor, star of the 1937 original version), she’ll join a more narrow and prestigious circle. And if she wins, there likely will be no snickering in the house. She’ll be venturing into hallowed territory where only three other female performers previously better known as singers — Barbra Streisand, Cher and Jennifer Hudson — have gone before.
Was being cast by director and costar Bradley Cooper just a fluke or part of Gaga’s master plan from the start? After all, pop stardom can be a tenuous thing, especially for women. Some have been able to keep rolling for decades (Cher released her 26th album, “Dancing Queen,” on September 28, and Barbra Streisand, who starred in the last version of “A Star Is Born” in 1976, launches her 36th, “Walls,” on November 2), but the average hit-making phase of a female pop star is only five to 10 years.
Diversification has become key to long-term survival. When Jessica Simpson’s music failed to set the charts ablaze as spectacularly as her peers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the noughties, she became one of the first reality-TV stars with “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.” She later parlayed her MTV stardom into a fashion empire. Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Posh Spice and others all have launched labels of their own.
Meanwhile, Aguilera, Stefani, Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus and Kelly Clarkson each has taken a turn or several in one of the swivel chairs on “The Voice.” Clarkson, who already made the unlikely leap from “American Idol” winner to bonafide pop star, will transition from “The Voice” coach to talk show host in the fall of 2019 with NBC’s “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”
Gaga’s route, however, has been the road previously traveled — usually rather clumsily — by Madonna, the pop star to whom she’s most often compared. But Italian-American heritage, chameleonic ways, and the striking similarities between Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” might be where their common ground ends. After Madonna won her Golden Globe for “Evita,” her movie career sputtered downhill.
With “A Star Is Born,” which has already received rapturous reviews (a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Gaga’s second-coming-of status might be upgraded to Cher and Streisand. She’s considered a virtual shoo-in for a best actress Oscar nomination, and according to GoldDerby‘s latest predictions, she’s got 4/1 odds of taking the trophy home.
The prize could be hers to lose, but other singing ladies may have won already. If “A Star Is Born” is the box-office smash it seems destined to be (the film tallied $42.6 million in its opening weekend in the U.S.), it might help make them more hire-able in Hollywood. No doubt, it will open new doors as casting directors scramble to recreate Gaga’s resurgent success story.
Does that mean Gaga’s “Telephone” duet partner Beyoncé, who was once attached to “A Star Is Born” with Will Smith as her co-star, will now feel compelled to relaunch her film career after nine years of dormancy? Will Taylor Swift’s role in the 2019 movie musical “Cats” launch hers? Could Adele take top billing in a future movie musical, say, the Dusty Springfield story? Gaga’s star-is-reborn narrative has raised the bar they’ll all have to cross.