POP crossovers

According to Webster’s (online) dictionary, “burlesque” is either a form of literary satire or “a theatrical entertainment” consisting of “short turns, comic skits and sometimes striptease acts.” It is also a verb (“to imitate in a humorous or derisive manner”). Webster’s entry doesn’t mention — yet — that it is also a movie.

Someday, perhaps: Burlesque, which opens Friday, stars the dynamic duo of Cher and Christina Aguilera as the two ends of the time-space pop-star continuum: Ex-dancer Tess (Cher) is the struggling owner of Los Angeles’ imperiled Burlesque Lounge, a place under siege by speculative big-business types and its own staff’s imbroglios; Ali (Aguilera) is the big-voiced small-town wannabe who’s going to save the joint, come hell or high notes (the idea that audiences will buy Aguilera as a small-town anything seems something of a leap, but, hey).

Whether the movie will be embraced as a return to A Star Is Born or a relapse into Showgirls will have to wait for its opening. No inference should be drawn from the fact that its first-time director, Steve Antin, is best known for producing the Pussycat Dolls.

By virtue of casting, Burlesque enters a hallowed tradition: the making of the pop idol into the movie star. OK, “star” isn’t always the case, but Aguilera should take comfort from history: It isn’t all that bleak.

The good

If one wanted to get all prehistoric about it, Bing Crosby had been a pop phenom when he won an Oscar in 1945 for Going My Way (he’d been preceded on screen by Prohibition Era teen-idol Rudy Vallee).

Movie icon Doris Day had been a successful singer, pre-Rock Hudson; The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is one of the great joys of ’60s cinema, and Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for Funny Girl (1968). A little later, there was Cher, who got an Oscar nomination for her first substantial film role ( Silkwood) and was chosen best actress three years later for Moonstruck (1987). Bang bang, she shot her critics down.

The most successful pop-screen transitions, though, have been by people now so successful on screen that the public has almost forgotten they were musicians to begin with — Will Smith, say, or Queen Latifah. Mark Wahlberg has done well for himself (in The Departed, if not The Happening). Erstwhile rapper Ice-T, who now spends his time huffing and puffing around Law & Order: SVU, delivered a startling series of performances in the early ’90s ( New Jack City, Ricochet, Trespass) and immediately went from “rapper-actor” to “actor.” LL Kool J. Mos Def. The hip-hop scene has been a fertile one for Hollywood.

One of the more interesting adventures in pop-star casting was Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), which starred James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Neither gave what would be called a dynamic performance, but each was perfect, in a near-perfect movie. A few decades later, Justin Timberlake — who, it must be said, stunk up the place in Alpha Dog — is terrific as Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network. Timberlake’s ancient ancestor, Mick Jagger, has had a similarly checkered screen career — including Performance, Enigma and a quite credible job in The Man from Elysian Fields.

The bad

Who comes immediately to mind? Mariah Carey, unfortunately, who despite serious competition still seems to be a contender, with Glitter. But she really redeemed herself with Precious last year, which brings us to … Madonna! (“Have you ever watched animals make love, Frank?” she asked Willem Dafoe in the woeful Body of Evidence.)

Despite her rampaging success almost everywhere else, Madonna has remained the movies’ Immaterial Girl. Evita? Although she got decent reviews for this one and even won a Golden Globe. Maybe Who’s That Girl is a better example. Shanghai Surprise? (“Shock” was more like it.) Swept Away? (OMG!) Still, she’s had her moments — arguably in Dick Tracy, and certainly in A League of Their Own as the loosely hilarious Mae Mordabito.

But when you come right down to it, The King of Rock and Roll is also the reigning monarch of bad movies: Elvis Presley made 33 feature films, all but two ( King Creole and Jailhouse Rock) are virtually unwatchable, other than by his most rabidly partisan fans. Not that it was entirely his fault: As journalist Alanna Nash recounted in The Colonel, her 2003 biography of Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, the singer always wanted to make more serious films. He was an admirer of contemporaries such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, and wanted to emulate them. But he was cattle-prodded by the Svengali-like Parker into a series of features so paralyzingly formulaic and stilted they have their own category — Elvis Movies. When you consider both badness and output, no one else comes close.

The unspeakably ugly

They really need no further explanation: Britney Spears in Crossroads; Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice; Kelly Clarkson in From Justin to Kelly; all the Spice Girls in Spice World; Jennifer Lopez in Enough. Sometimes it’s the fault of the movies. And sometimes, it’s not.

A revealing look

Considering what’s available on the Web (not that we’ve looked), the conventional “striptease” seems positively quaint. Given its PG-13 rating, Burlesque — like most mainstream movies that touch on the subject — will be emphasizing the “tease” over the “strip.” But it’s not like it’s something we haven’t seen before.

The most famous movie about the most famous stripper (or “ecdysiast,” as she preferred) was Gypsy, the 1962 musical about onetime national institution Gypsy Rose Lee. The movie Gypsy — as played by Natalie Wood — delivers a performance chaste enough to pass muster by the Children’s Television Work-shop.

Far lustier, although equally unrevealing, was the “fan dance” (a sibling of stripping) delivered by Sally Rand (Peggy Davis) for the edification of the astronauts and their wives in The Right Stuff (1983). It was one of the more bizarre moments in both the movie and (as recounted by Tom Wolfe in his book) the history of the Mercury space program.

Far more graphic, just for instance, was the Demi Moore performance in Striptease (1996), but many prominent performers have played strippers — if not always with Moore’s devotion to craft/equipment: Lindsay Lohan ( I Know Who Killed Me); Natalie Portman ( Closer); Jessica Alba ( Sin City); Salma Hayek ( From Dusk Till Dawn); Marisa Tomei ( The Wrestler); Elizabeth Berkeley and Gina Gershon ( Showgirls); Rose McGowan ( Grindhouse). Not to mention, all those guys in The Full Monty (1997) — all of which was a lot more mild than wild.

Cinema’s most poignant striptease, if it can even be called that, occurs in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975): Cornered into taking it off for a roomful of boorish Southern businessmen, the untalented, heartbreaking Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) gives them a strip devoid of tease, and in the process figuratively emasculates the entire room. It makes the whole exercise preposterous. As well it should.


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