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Norah Jones and Singers Who Act

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WHO ARE YOUR NOMINEES FOR THE BEST SCREEN PERFORMANCE EVER BY A SINGER TURNED ACTOR?

In yesterday's DVD blog, we discussed Sweeney Todd star Johnny Depp and other actors who sing onscreen or try to. Let's turn the tables today and save the hot spot for singers who act or try to. The timing is just right, what with Norah Jones opening this weekend in My Blueberry Nights, the first English-language film from Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). Jones isn't called on to do much thespian heavy lifting. But her natural, unaffected beauty — a perfect compliment to the bell-like clarity of her singing voice — is the canvas on which Wong Kar-wai paints his romantic fable of love lost and found. Jones plays Elizabeth, a jilted lover who seeks solace in a Manhattan diner run by Jeremy (Jude Law). I recently asked Jones how she,with zilch experience at acting, made herself cry during her breakdown scene. "I just thought of how scared I was making my first movie and trying to cry," she said, "and I cried like a baby, take after take." Laughing, she added, "it was no problem." In one scene, Law leans over a sleeping Jones and licks a bit of ice cream still clinging to her upper lip. The moment is pure Wong Kar-wai — dreamy, jazzy and sexy — and Jones is unconscious for it.

Which brings me to singers whose screen performances make greater demands. Back in the day, Oscars or at least serious praise were lavished on pop singers who brought their emotional readings of lyrics to dramatic acting. I'm thinking of Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity), Dean Martin (Rio Bravo), Bing Crosby (The Country Girl), Judy Garland (A Star Is Born), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Bette Midler (The Rose), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Liza Minnelli (Cabaret), and Cher (Moonstruck). On the rock side, Mick Jagger (Performance), David Bowie (The Man Who Fell To Earth), Bob Dylan (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sting (Stormy Monday) held up their end. Hell, even Elvis made a good one (King Creole) between the craptaculars Col. Parker forced him into.

But what about today? Madonna (Body of Evidence) pioneered a parade of diva debacles, including Mariah Carey (Glitter), Britney (Crossroads), and Jessica Simpson (The Dukes of Hazzard). Eminem (8 Mile) and Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) occupied center screen with distinction, and then gave up on acting. Other than Will Smith, who parlayed a rap start into movie superstardom, it's hard to find singers making an acting mark except in supporting roles. American Idol's fifth runner-up in Season Three, Jennifer Hudson, took a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Dreamgirls and upstaged, outacted and outclassed Beyonce, who had the lead role. Queen Latifah won a supporting nomination for Chicago. Rappers seemed to make an easy slide into acting, with Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood), Ice T (New Jack City), Luadacris (Hustle and Flow), Snoop Dogg (Training Day), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), and Mos Def (Be Kind Rewind) kicking it just outside the star spot. Good marks too for Alicia Keyes (Smokin' Aces), Mandy Moore (Saved!) and country greats Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade) and Tim McGraw (Friday Night Lights).

OK, so who are the singers out there with the stuff to make it all the way?

Justin Timberlake showed exceptional promise in Alpha Dog, and upped the ante on Saturday Night Live where his comic touch on "Dick in a Box" suggested leading man possibilities. He's got star quality.

And so does Sean John Combs, whether you call him Puff Daddy, P Diddy or just Diddy. He stood out in the crowd in Made and Monster's Ball, and recently on TV in A Raisin in the Sun, in a role created on screen by Sidney Poitier, took the star spot as if by divine right. If I missed anybody, now's your chance to howl.

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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