1. David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
There’s always been something alien about David Bowie—who, after all, launched his career as a “Space Oddity”—so casting him as an extraterrestrial looking to borrow a cup or 5 million of water to save his dying planet is a no-brainer. With his angular, androgynous face, a body that could double as a coat rack, and an accent that’s one part haughty Englander and two parts Alpha Centauri, Bowie has all the obvious physical attributes to play the starman who comes to meet us and blow our minds. But his most unique strength lies in the intangible, ethereal way he floats through Nicolas Roeg’s equally dreamlike film, yet still manages to ground it all in humanity. When Bowie’s cloud of wonder and naïveté dissipates into a detached, cynical stoicism as he’s corrupted by American excess, he invests it all with a sensitivity and seriousness that makes his inhuman character feel flesh-and-blood sympathetic.
2. Lyle Lovett, The Player (1992)
Like a lot of musicians who step onto the big screen, country singer and songwriter Lyle Lovett is less an actor than a presence waiting to be exploited, which director Robert Altman does particularly well. Lovett appeared in a number of Altman’s later movies, with memorable turns in Short Cuts (1993) and Cookie’s Fortune (1999), and his first film appearance was in Altman’s bitingly hilarious Hollywood satire The Player. When big-shot producer Tim Robbins starts getting threatening letters, he assumes it’s one of the hundreds of prospective screenwriters he’s ignored; he tracks down the most likely suspect, an embittered Vincent D’Onofrio, and, when things get ugly, sort-of-accidentally murders him. The threatening letters continue, though, and that’s when Lovett enters the picture, haunting Robbins’ every move, stalking him at public events with an eternally bemused squint. Like most of the film’s reveals, the truth about Lovett’s character deflates the mystery, but it’s still a memorable debut; just the way he awkwardly wanders into a gathering recalls the dark wit of his best songs.
3. Bobby Darin, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)
Always a savvy operator when it came to his career, Bobby Darin was angling toward a future in Hollywood almost from the moment he hit it big with the goofy 1958 novelty record “Splish Splash.” Largely steering clear of kitschy teensploitation movies, Darin sought out smaller roles in meatier productions. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting performance in Captain Newman, M.D., an ensemble piece about the goings-on in the psychiatric wing of a World War II Army hospital. Darin’s big money scene comes halfway through the film, when under the influence of sodium pentothal and the soothing voice of Gregory Peck, he relives the plane crash that left him shell-shocked. It’s a raw, raw scene, and Darin throws himself into it fully, not allowing even a trace of the “Splish Splash” guy to sneak through.
4. Mos Def, Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Considering that Be Kind Rewind is about two man-child friends (one of whom is Jack Black) who make their own versions of movies like Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2, it very easily could have turned into The Jack Black Show. After all, with all that manic comic energy gushing forth, there can be very little room for anything or anyone else. But as anyone who has seen him on Chappelle’s Show can testify, Mos Def can be funny too, in a much different way. In Be Kind Rewind, Def’s video-store clerk is warm, genuine, and hilarious, and his quieter, gently comic presence nicely tempers Jack Black’s immense, grandiose Jack-Blackness, often even stealing the show.
5. Will Oldham, Old Joy (2006)
Bearded, reclusive indie-rocker Will Oldham actually started out as an actor, landing a substantial role in John Sayles’ Matewan when he was 17. Oldham gave up his Hollywood dream after just a couple of years, but lately he’s returned to movies, lending his high Southern lilt and gnomish appearance to the kind of offbeat films where he won’t seem out of place. Oldham is especially impressive in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, in which he plays a nomadic free spirit who goes on a camping trip with his more settled-down best friend. It’s clear the two men have little in common anymore, and while London just wants to make it through the weekend, Oldham wants something he can’t express. His performance is alternately creepy and sympathetic—largely because on some level he knows he’s creepy. Oldham is hard to look away from, even when the prospect of spending even one more minute with his New Age theories and smothering affection seems intolerable.
6. Björk, Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Dictatorial Danish director Lars von Trier and idiosyncratic Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk endured such a contest of wills while working on the bleak musical Dancer In The Dark that the latter claimed she’d never act again. (And she hasn’t, outside of an appearance in her husband’s art-film Drawing Restraint 9, where she did more posing than acting.) Though most people seem to remember her performance in Dancer In The Dark primarily for the florid, Björky musical numbers, she’s every bit as riveting when she isn’t singing, and is instead quietly portraying a factory worker with failing eyesight, struggling to maintain her optimism as one indignity after another is visited upon her.
7. Kris Kristofferson, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is often considered one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser films: a work-for-hire piece that he signed onto just to maintain his professional momentum after Mean Streets. But Alice is a rich film all on its own, combining old-fashioned melodrama and gritty realism in ways that Scorsese would repeat with less success a few years later in New York, New York. Kris Kristofferson’s performance—as a rancher who courts bruised single mother Ellen Burstyn—is largely peripheral to the story, but Kristofferson’s gruff mutter and bearish presence are central to the affect Scorsese is trying to achieve. Alice is Douglas Sirk crossed with Elia Kazan, and Kristofferson is Scorsese’s hulking, inarticulate Brando figure, bringing an odd, low-boil energy to a broadly emotional romance.
8. Elvis Presley, King Creole (1958)
Elvis Presley was often mocked for his limited acting ability, but his weaknesses were primarily the fault of the material. In his better movies, Presley retained his rocker charisma, yet because of his Southern drawl and charmingly awkward, non-actorly line readings, he often came off as realer than most movie stars. And in one of his rare serious roles in King Creole, Presley shone. King Creole is a moody coming-of-age piece directed by Hollywood legend Michael Curtiz, and as a high-school dropout who’s undermined his singing career via an association with crime boss Walter Matthau, Presley is at his most convincingly haunted. For two hours, he becomes an actor who sings, not a singer who acts.
9. Ricky Nelson, Rio Bravo
With John Wayne playing another morally absolute cowboy, and Dean Martin carrying all the pathos as a town drunk on the shaky road to redemption, there isn’t much for Ricky Nelson to do in Rio Bravo other than look pretty and bring in the teenagers. It’s commendable that the TV star and budding rock ’n’ roller took on a thankless task as bobby-soxer bait and still managed to hold his own, especially given reviews that chided him for sticking out like a Brylcreemed thumb. Yes, he’s far too callow to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with two of America’s manliest men, but that’s sort of the point. Besides, the feeling that his character (like Nelson) is in way over his head actually helps shade in the subtext behind the brash young gunslinger, and it adds a layer of tension to the story about men pressed into duty by circumstance. And pandering though it may be, when Ricky takes the spotlight to croon “Get Along Home, Cindy,” it’s one of the film’s purest moments of joy.
10. Ice Cube, Boyz N The Hood (1991)
Though he also displayed considerable comedic skills in Friday (we’ll just pretend we’ve never heard of Are We There Yet?), Ice Cube is still at his caged-panther best when he’s prowling the tough streets of South Central and acting like, in the words of one of his songs, “the wrong nigga to fuck wit.” John Singleton’s epochal ghetto drama bristles with violence at every turn, but it’s also surprisingly sympathetic, and much of that comes from Cube as a crack-slinging gangster out to avenge his brother’s murder. True, Doughboy never hesitates to pull out his gun to solve a problem, but he’s also weighed down by the sad inevitability of that endless cycle of violence he can’t seem to shake. Lesser performers might have let Doughboy dissolve into gangsta caricature, but Ice Cube plays him as something much more complex: a sidewalk soldier who’s a criminal, but still does everything he can to maintain some semblance of order in a place abandoned by the law.
11. Eminem, 8 Mile (2002)
It’s perhaps no great stretch to play some thinly fictionalized version of yourself, but Eminem still brings unexpected dimension to the role of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, a dirt-poor white rapper struggling for respect in ’90s Detroit. While he’s predictably electric in the film’s claustrophobically staged, climactic battle-rap scenes, the smart-mouthed Slim Shady also reveals a knack for quieter moments. It’s the stoic world-weariness and pent-up rage he conveys through his pained, hooded eyes and the humility (a rarity in hip-hop) with which he embraces Jimmy’s vulnerability that makes those rapid-fire verses all the more explosive. It remains to be seen whether he can bring the same poignancy to any of the other myriad acting projects he’s been attached to—most of which seem to be slam-bang shoot-’em-ups, so probably not—but 8 Mile still goes a long way toward suggesting there’s an actual man behind Em’s increasingly juvenile persona.
12. Dwight Yoakam, Sling Blade (1996)
Dwight Yoakam achieved country-music superstardom, but he didn’t take the easy route. He took risks, toured with punk bands, and made daring artistic choices at a time when mainstream country was at its most calcified. So it’s understandable that when he began his career as a movie actor—following up on youthful pursuits of stage acting and stand-up comedy—he’d be equally adventurous. While he’s turned in many notable performances in his screen career—including a laconic cop in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and a blunt, violent thug in Panic Room—his most unforgettable role was as the drunken, abusive Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade. In any other movie, it would have been a breakout performance that made Yoakam an instant star; he just had the bad luck to turn in his most electrifying role in a movie that belonged entirely to Billy Bob Thornton. Still, settling into a career as a respectable character actor ain’t bad for a guy with nine platinum records.
13. Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The movie that made Frank Sinatra a legitimate movie star and rejuvenated his career (and led to a lot of speculation about a certain scene in The Godfather) was From Here To Eternity. The movie that got him an Oscar nomination was The Man With The Golden Arm. But the best performance he ever gave was in John Frankenheimer’s extraordinarily taut thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Sinatra always had to struggle to be taken seriously as an actor; even when he’d shed his bobby-soxer image and settled into a reputation as one of the greatest singers of his era, he was haunted by the fear that every role would be his last. If that had been true of The Manchurian Candidate, it would have been a hell of a way to go. It’s an amazingly tight performance, by turns morose, triumphant, ironic, and tragic. Sinatra may not have had a tortured life, but in one film at least, he did a stupendous job of portraying a genuinely tortured soul.
14. Levon Helm, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
It’s said of some of the most memorable performances that the only way an actor can prepare for them is by living them. That’s certainly true of Levon Helm’s unforgettable turn as Ted Webb, the hangdog father of Loretta Lynn in the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. The real-life Webb raised a family of eight on miner’s wages that brought him barely above the poverty line in a tiny Kentucky town called Butcher Hollow; Helm himself was the son of impoverished cotton-pickers in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. And while Webb saw his daughter escape a life of grinding deprivation through her musical talents, Helm did the same thing himself, becoming a self-taught player of a dozen instruments on his way to a successful career as a member of the Nighthawks, the Hawks, and The Band, with a side trip as a drummer for Bob Dylan, plus a robust solo career. With his long face, rugged lines, and deep Arkie accent, he had absolutely no trouble selling the essence of Ted Webb.
15. Mick Jagger, Performance (1970)
Performance is aptly named: it’s questionable whether you can call what Mick Jagger (whose career as a thespian has been spotty at best) does in it “acting,” but it’s definitely performing. The word takes on multiple meanings in this Nicolas Roeg film: It’s also slang for a mob enforcer, of the kind played by James Fox. Fox is on the run from his former colleagues after refusing an order, and he holes up with Jagger, who, in his screen debut, essentially plays Mick Jagger: a burnt-out rock star who’s similarly hiding from the world after having lost his way. Performance isn’t so much a movie as it is Roeg’s most sustained and successful mind-fuck. And Jagger was at a point in his career (having recorded a series of masterful bum-out albums soaked in death, drugs, and bad vibes) where he was note-perfect as the quasi-Satanic figure doing most of the fucking. It was a tenor he’d never reach again as an actor.
16. John Lurie, Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
John Lurie is an odd little musician, and Stranger Than Paradise is an odd little film. He and his brother Evan had achieved some success, largely due to their work as the postmodernist quasi-jazz outfit the Lounge Lizards, when fellow New York scenester Jim Jarmusch asked Lurie to appear as the lead in the film about an enervated slacker whose life is disrupted by the arrival of his beautiful Hungarian cousin. (Lurie co-stars with another fine acting musician, Richard Edson, Sonic Youth’s original drummer.) Although Jarmusch would cast him again opposite Tom Waits in Down By Law, Lurie is at his best in Stranger Than Paradise: His barely reactive personality and genial air of non-shit-giving perfectly suits the movie’s narrative air of people for whom life is just something that happens as they sit around waiting. Jarmusch’s visual technique of long shots interrupted by breaks of leader film is nicely reflected in Lurie’s occasional outbursts of temperamental energy, followed by a superhuman degree of lethargy.
17. Tom Waits, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
A singer with the face of a character actor, Tom Waits has done wonderful work in films by Jarmusch, Robert Altman—both of whom he worked with several times—and others. Waits also appeared in several films by Francis Ford Coppola, most memorably in the director’s 1992 take on Dracula. Where most films build on the mumbly barfly elements of Waits’ persona, Bram Stoker’s Dracula summons the violent, campy Waits as the Transylvanian’s bug-eating lackey. Waits creates a character whose coiled insanity constantly threatens to explode, and occasionally does.
18. Justin Rice, Mutual Appreciation (2005)
To be fair, Justin Rice’s first outing as a leading man doesn’t stretch him too far. He’s playing a musician, and a show sequence has him playing stripped-down versions of songs from his real band, Bishop Allen. But Rice is the perfect leading man for Andrew Bujalski’s seemingly rough-hewn but immaculately crafted comedy of slacker manners: amiable and cute as a button, blessed with natural comic timing, and also able to convey a serious lack of substance as troubling as it is endearing. Rice parlayed this role into a number of turns in mumblecore films, about which he’s frequently the best thing; in response, vengeful critics have blasted him as smarmy and sexless. But even those who don’t think he’s funny find it hard to trash his portrayal of romantic passive-aggressiveness, excruciatingly delineating the persona of a guy who wants so badly to be likeable that he can’t say anything unpleasant, no matter how obvious it is. “I don’t even want to be your girlfriend,” one of his crushes announces. “I can’t even do that thing where I’m not your boyfriend but we still make out,” he replies, and that’s as far as he can articulate. She has to do the rest of the work herself.
19. Ludacris, Hustle & Flow (2005)
Former radio personality Ludacris is a consummate entertainer, so a move to the big screen was inevitable. His role as a drunk-and-stoned rap superstar named Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow wasn’t much of a stretch, but he made the most of his limited screen time. Ludacris’ scenes with Terrence Howard’s frustrated pimp/aspiring rapper are charged with an exhilarating tension that explodes into violence when Howard discovers that Ludacris has cavalierly destroyed his beloved demo tape. Ludacris is appropriately larger than life as the man who can make or break Howard’s hip-hop dreams, a magic man who ultimately doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
20. Courtney Love, The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a brief period of time in the mid-’90s where it looked like Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole and visible widow of Kurt Cobain, might actually make a go of it as a legitimate movie star. Though she’s been in movies before and since (most notably playing Andy Kaufman’s girlfriend in the 1999 biopic Man On The Moon), no one role did a better job of capturing Love’s singular mixture of piss-drunk party girl and angel on a tear. Playing Althea Leasure, Flynt’s eventual wife, Love served as a surprisingly effective emotional core to the legal struggles that served as the movie’s focus, a reminder of the populace Flynt wanted to reach. She perfectly captured the character’s vulnerability, and there’s an honesty in her performance that’s hard to ignore. Her character’s eventual drug addiction and inevitable overdose made all Flynt’s victories seem just a little hollow.
21. Paul Williams, Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
Supposedly, songwriter Paul Williams was first offered the role of Winslow Leach, the steel-toothed, artistically screwed title character of Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise. Not wanting to look like he was criticizing the recording industry, Williams chose instead to take on the role of Swan, the preternaturally gifted, delightfully diabolical record producer who serves as Leach’s guide to damnation. Williams’ score, including solid songs like “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” and “Somebody Super Like You,” gives the movie its tone, but his performance as Swan gives it its bite. His diminutive stature and wry cynicism help ground De Palma’s more esoteric flights of fancy, creating the perfect threat for a rock ’n’ roll world. It isn’t the sort of performance one would expect from the writer of “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song,” and it’s all the more impressive as a result.
22-23. Gary and Martin Kemp, The Krays (1990)
Just as the Kemp brothers’ band, Spandau Ballet, was more successful in their native Britain than in the U.S., their subsequent careers as actors have made an impact at home while barely registering in America. But the role that won them their widest acclaim, and launched both their acting careers, deserves attention on both sides of the pond. In The Krays, skillfully directed by Peter Medak, Gary and Martin play another set of real-life twins—the notorious London mobsters of the 1960s, Ronald and Reginald Kray. Martin played Reginald, the psychotically violent enforcer of the gang, while Gary played the brilliant but unstable leader, Ronnie. Both Kemp brothers—strikingly handsome and alternately gregarious and sadistic—hit just the right note in portraying the Krays, who dominated London’s organized crime world in the Swinging ’60s. It’s an electrifying set of performances, and it seemed to portend big-screen stardom that never quite arrived for the Kemps; while both have kept busy as actors since The Krays was released, neither have again gotten their hands on as juicy a role.
24. Deborah Harry, Heavy (1995)
Blondie singer/firebrand Deborah Harry scored her first big role in David Cronenberg’s 1983 cult classic Videodrome, and she’s done lots of bit parts, but it wasn’t until James Mangold’s uber-indie 1995 film Heavy that she really got a chance to do some acting. (Her strut and rapping in the “Rapture” video don’t count, no.) In Heavy, she plays exhausted with real skill—a waitress in a small town who lives with petty jealousy and a sense of defeat. She’s certainly better than her foil, the lovely Liv Tyler. Heavy also features another musician in a key role: Lemonheads singer Evan Dando plays Tyler’s love interest, but there’s a reason his performance didn’t make this list.