Best Performances from Musicians Turned Actors, Ranked

Lady Gaga is insurmountable in the entertainment business. The multi-platinum and global award-winning actress, singer, songwriter and superstar is celebrating her birthday today. With it, we are ranking the best performances from female musicians turned actresses since 1986, our Mother Monster’s birth year.

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The ability to artistically explore both music and acting is not a skill that is often displayed in the Hollywood business well (has anyone tried to watch “Cool as Ice” starring Vanilla Ice?). There have been many to revere from the stages of “American Idol” to a musical melodrama under Lars von Trier’s vision, and including Gaga, we’ve seen the best masterclasses from these artists.

After smaller roles in movies like “Machete Kills” (2013) and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (2014), Gaga made her leading lady premiere opposite Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut “A Star is Born” (2018). She became the second person to be nominated for acting and songwriting in the same year, following Mary J. Blige the year prior. Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) and Leslie Odom Jr (“One Night in Miami”) have followed consecutively since.

She’s garnered an impressive 29 Grammy nominations, winning 12, including recently for best pop duo/group performance for “Rain on Me” from her album “Chromatica.” She’s currently ranked ninth for the most Grammys won by a female artist behind Beyoncé (28), Alison Krauss (27), Aretha Franklin (18), Adele and Alicia Keys (15), Ella Fitzgerald, Emmylou Harris and Leontyne Price (13) and is tied with CeCe Winans.

Before her double Oscar mentions, she was nominated alongside Diane Warren for the original song “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary “The Hunting Ground” (2015). The pair lost the award to Sam Smith for “Writing’s on the Wall” from the James Bond film “Spectre.” Warren is currently nominated for a record 12th nomination this year for “Io Si” from “The Life Ahead.”

The world awaits Gaga’s next venture as Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci.” Portraying Maurizio Gucci’s ex-wife, who arranged to have him killed, the United Artists release assembles a smorgasbord of Oscar winners and nominees, including Adam Driver Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto and Al Pacino. Back in January, Gaga was named one of the 36 most anticipated performances coming in 2021.

The 10 best performances from female musicians turned actors since (with a clip from their best scenes) is down below—Happy Birthday to the Queen of Pop.

Honorable mentions: Mariah Carey in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (2009), Beyoncé Knowles in “Dreamgirls” (2006), Madonna in “Evita” (1996), Mandy Moore in “Saved!” (2004), Barbra Streisand in “The Prince of Tides” (1991)

10. Bette Midler in ‘For the Boys’ (1991)

Role: Dixie Leonard
Film: “For the Boys” (1991)

Directed by: Mark Rydell
Written by: Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez, Lindy Laub
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

The scene that proves it: “Stuff Like That There”

Yes, I too feel that Bette Midler’s best performance is 1979’s “The Rose,” but remember, we’re covering the last 35 years. Even with that said, her performance in Mark Rydell’s dramedy may be far from a perfect movie, but Midler’s commitment to any musical bit is deliciously entertaining. It would be worthy of a revisit, as the film also stars the incredible and Oscar-nominated actor George Segal, who we just lost on March 23.

I also credit the film with giving the inspiration to one of Kelly Clarkson’s top two best “American Idol” performances in the inaugural season during Big Band week.

9. Queen Latifah in ‘Chicago’ (2002)

Role: Matron “Mama” Morton
Film: “Chicago” (2002)

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Bill Condon (based on the musical “Chicago” by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, and the play “Chicago” by Maurine Dallas Watkins)
Distributor: Miramax

The scene that proves it: “When You’re Good to Mama”

New Jersey native Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah, was a fixture in the rap community with four albums under her belt before she found mainstream success in the big-screen musical adaptation “Chicago.” And that’s not to say she hadn’t delivered anything relevant beforehand, with fiery turns in films like “Set It Off” (1996) and television shows such as FOX’s “Living Single.” One of five hip-hop and R&B artists to receive Academy Award nominations or wins for acting – Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”), Jamie Foxx (“Collateral” and “Ray”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) and Will Smith (“Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”) – Latifah’s sexy and scene-stealing turn is lusciously charged in this best picture winner, worthy of every accolade it received.

8. Janet Jackson in ‘Poetic Justice’ (1993)

Role: Justice LaRue
Film: “Poetic Justice” (1993)

Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

The scene that proves it: “If I’m a bitch, then your Mama’s a bitch, bitch.”

There’s not one, but two musicians in the leading roles of this ’90s classic. In Academy Award-nominated director John Singleton’s sophomore effort after becoming the youngest director nominee for “Boyz n the Hood” (1991), it would be interesting to see how this new, more accepting crop of AMPAS members would have responded to the film, particularly the turns from Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Their chemistry is undeniable, as it explores the grief of a woman following her boyfriend’s death in South Central L.A., and how a chance encounter with a postal clerk shows the raw emotions of life for young Black America in the ’90s.

We could all use a new John Singleton movie these days. I hope he’s sleeping well.

7. Janelle Monáe in ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Role: Mary Jackson
Film: “Hidden Figures” (2016)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi (based on the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Sherrerly)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

The scene that proves it: “Make You the First”

The uplifting and empowering “Hidden Figures” found its way to awards attention in its respective year, nabbing nominations for best picture and even winning the prestigious SAG ensemble prize over eventual Oscar-winner “Moonlight.” One of the snubs in the acting categories that year was singer, songwriter, rapper, producer and model Janelle Monáe. Also an impeccable highlight in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” the Kansas City native had one of the biggest breakout years for an actress in 2016, and both roles would have been worthy of Oscar attention. Mary Jackson’s powerful courtroom scenes are among the film’s standout moments, along with anytime she’s sharing the screen with her co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.

Since then, she’s been dabbling in different genre films, most recently in the horror film “Antebellum” and Gloria Steinem’s biopic “The Glorias.” Her Academy moment is nearing, I suspect.

6. Mary J. Blige in ‘Mudbound’ (2017)

Role: Florence Jackson
Film: “Mudbound” (2017)

Directed by: Dee Rees
Written by: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees (based on “Mudbound” by Hillary Jordan)
Distributor: Netflix

The scene that proves it: “I won’t be working for them, I’ll be working for us.”

This film helped Netflix to emerge as not just a studio of movies but also a harbor for underrepresented voices in Hollywood. After dropping at Sundance, they picked up Rees’ historical drama and brought it to the cinema-loving community, garnering noms for adapted screenplay (Rees is the first Black woman, and Virgil Williams is the first Black and Puerto Rican mixed descent ever nominated in the category), cinematography (Rachel Morrison is the first woman nominated) and two nods for multi-platinum and Grammy-winning artist Mary J. Blige. Blige became the first person to be nominated for acting and songwriting in the same year, and was the first Black woman to receive multiple noms. Her chemistry with her co-stars Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan are some of the movie’s highest points.

We patiently await her upcoming turn as Dinah Washington in Liesl Tommy’s “Respect” with Jennifer Hudson.

5. Courtney Love in ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’ (1996)

Role: Althea Leasure
Film: “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996)

Directed by: Miloš Forman
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Distributor: Sony Pictures

The scene that proves it: “Nobody on this planet wants their religion and their porn mixed together.”

The late Miloš Forman, the two-time Oscar-winning director of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984), had nothing to prove when he took on the life of pornographer Larry Flynt (played exquisitely by Woody Harrelson) and his clash with religious institutions and the law. And yet, there he was, giving us one of the most vital outings, and with it, lead singer of the band Hole, Courtney Love, in one of the best performances of the 1990s. For this new generation of cinephiles, venturing into the past of classic movies, you forget that Love offered this brave and indelible portrayal just two years following the death of her husband and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, while battling drug addiction (she was ordered to take multiple urine tests while filming, passing them all). You could consider this another stunning example of art saving lives.

4. Cher in ‘Moonstruck’ (1987)

Role: Loretta Castorini
Film: “Moonstruck” (1987)

Directed by: Norman Jewison
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

The scene that proves it: “Snap Out of It.”

Our favorite Brooklyn Italian Loretta Castorini, portrayed magnificently by the iconic Cher, is the brightest spot of an illuminating film from the ’80s. Because this list focuses on the last 35 years, the film selection of Cher’s best work is a technicality, as I feel her career-topping work is in Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” (1983). Alongside a range of incredible actors, including Nicolas Cage, Oscar-nominee Vincent Gardenia and fellow Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis, she finds the laughs and heart of John Patrick Shanley’s scribal masterpiece.

3. Lady Gaga in ‘A Star is Born’ (2018)

Role: Ally
Film: “A Star is Born” (2018)

Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters (based on the 1954 screenplay “A Star Is Born” by Moss Hart, the 1976 screenplay “A Star Is Born” by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Frank Pierson and the story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson)
Distributor: Warner Bros.

The scene that proves it: “I’ll Never Love Again”

The widespread acclaim of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut was palpable when it premiered at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. Nabbing eight Oscar nominations, two of which were for the goddess herself — for original song for “Shallow” (shared with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt) and actress in a leading role. Taking on the fourth inception of a film done to death in cinema, Gaga made Ally lovable, relatable and tenderly accessible for the audience. She finds everything about Ally that works and pushes it to the forefront of her performance, even if it makes her painstakingly vulnerable. That’s proven by none other than the closing number “I’ll Never Love Again,” a shattering moment for the viewer, closing the film on an ultimate high. And who can forget the other underrated “Always Remember Us This Way” as another example of authenticity and soulful deliveries?

Let’s bring on the “House of Gucci.”

2. Jennifer Hudson in ‘Dreamgirls’ (2006)

Role: Effie White
Film: “Dreamgirls” (2006)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Bill Condon (based on the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen)
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

The scene that proves it: “One Night Only”

The acting debut of “American Idol” season three contestant Jennifer Hudson is simply one of the very best in the last 20 years. While it’s hard to ignore that the showstopping number “And I Am Telling You” doesn’t prove the depth of her excellence, it’s never wasted time to talk about her beautiful infections on “One Night Only” or the powerful rupture of “I Am Changing.” Under the watchful talent of writer and director Bill Condon, the seventh-place finisher is an acting tour-de-force. She’s also elevated by a vigorous ensemble including Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose and another singer-turned-actress, Beyoncé Knowles.

Winning the Oscar for supporting actress (as, inarguably, the lead of the movie), she continued to have equal success with her music, winning two Grammys for R&B album for her 2009 self-titled debut and musical theater album (2017’s “The Color Purple”). Maybe she can make her way back with “Respect” from Liesl Tommy later this year, portraying the singing icon Aretha Franklin.

1. Björk in ‘Dancer in the Dark’ (2000)

Role: Selma Jezkova
Film: “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars on Trier
Distributor: Fine Line Cinema

The scene that proves it: “I’ve Seen It All”

A film that divides the film community is always worth discussing, and it’s hard to find an example greater than Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” starring the Icelandic musician Björk. As a factory worker who is suffering from a degenerative eye condition, working to save money to save her son from the same fate, her performance was revered by many, with some failing to connect with von Trier’s narrative structure, which is atypical nowadays with any of his new outings. Although she was nominated for the original song “I’ve Seen It All,” written by herself, von Trier and Sjón, the actress failed to make the acting lineup, which is one of the best in history (consisting of Ellen Burstyn from “Requiem for a Dream” and winner Julia Roberts from “Erin Brockovich”). The trio lost the award to Bob Dylan for the song “Things Have Changed” from “Wonder Boys.”

To add insult to injury, the song is also among Björk’s 15 Grammy nominations, none of which resulted in a win, as recently as 2019’s nomination for alternative music album for “Utopia.”

Perhaps teaming up with director Robert Eggers on the upcoming film “The Northman,” which he co-writes with Sjón, will bring Oscar redemption as the Slav Witch. Crossing our fingers.

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