A Leading Lady Is Born? Ranking Music Diva Film Debuts


With Lady Gaga earning rapturous reviews for her film debut in A Star Is Born, I got to thinking of the great ladies who came before her—those larger-than-life, wildly talented women who dared to be unsatisfied with dominating just one medium. Only time will tell where Gaga falls in this pantheon of multi-hyphenates, but until her Oscar speech, I’ve compiled a ranking of the greatest cinematic debuts by female singers. Divas, if you will. Based not only on the quality of the performance, but the diva’s resulting film career and crossover success, these 15 performances are as diverse as the women who created them—they, for the most part, have the range.

  1. Britney Spears, Crossroads

    Not quite a girl, and not quite yet a woman, Brit made her only proper feature film in this critically-derided road trip flick written by future mega TV producer Shonda Rhimes. For her efforts, Spears won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress and, rather obnoxiously, Worst Song for “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”—arguably the best thing to come out of this movie.

  2. Christina Aguilera, Burlesque

    Can someone just answer me this question that has bugged me since I first saw Burlesque (in theaters, thank you very much): Where in GAY HELL was the duet between Cher and Xtina? In a heartbreakingly egregious example of a missed opportunity, this mediocre musical had the audacity to have Cher busting a window with a crowbar but not Christina and Cher busting a window with their harmonious belt? Unforgivable. Though she was, in my opinion, pretty good in her film debut, Aguilera has shied away from other roles, only recently appearing in the Amazon movie Zoe this past April.

  3. Beyoncé, Austin Powers in Goldmember

    Beyoncé is amazing at so many things, but her acting career has always been a rare chink in her otherwise flawless armor. Though the third and final installment in the Austin Powers series was the most successful, box office-wise, Goldmember was just…a mess. And Bey’s performance as Foxy Cleopatra is cringe-worthy for any number of reasons. But as a perfectionist, the future Mrs. Carter would continue working at her craft, and would go on to be nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for Dreamgirls, star in the modern day cult classic Obsessed, and earn perhaps the best reviews of her film career in Cadillac Records playing Etta James.

  4. Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember

    Fans of This Is Us may have forgotten that Mandy Moore started out as a singer in the Britney/Christina mold with the infectious confectionery pop standard, “Candy,” featuring the immortal lines: “I know who you are/ Your love’s as sweet as candy/ I’ll be forever yours/ Love always/ Mandy.” After a small role in The Princess Diaries, Mandy gave us more in the schmaltzy, rather forgettable teen Kleenex drama A Walk to Remember. Though she wouldn’t begin to reach her true acting potential until 2004’s Saved! playing noted mean girl Hilary Faye Stockard.

  5. Mariah Carey, Glitter

    Mariah technically made her debut in 1999’s The Bachelor, an unfortunate rom-com starring Chris O’Donnell and a slumming Renée Zellweger, wherein Mariah plays a temperamental opera singer. It’s a bit part—a cameo, really—that no one cares about unlike one of the most spectacular bombs in modern cinematic history: GLITTER. Rotten Tomatoes, which gave the film a walloping 7% score, claims Glitter is not bad enough to be good and they’re right—it’s so bad it’s amazing. The film coincided with a particularly rough period in Carey’s public life and career, which saw a dramatic downturn until she emancipated her inner Mimi. Carey, though, would eventually redeem herself, turning in a gorgeous performance in Lee Daniels’s Precious, opposite Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sidibe and Oscar-winner Mo’Nique.

  6. Madonna, Desperately Seeking Susan

    I’ve already explored, in-depth, Madonna’s film canon, and her feature debut remains her best (or at least, best reviewed) movie. Despite winning a Golden Globe for her lead role in Evita, Madge never quite recaptured the magic of Susan.

  7. Mary J. Blige, Prison Song

    Two-time Academy Award nominee and perennial Queen of Hip Hop Soul Mary J. Blige had a long road to her triumph last year in Mudbound, beginning with this 2001 drama written by Blige’s co-star Q-Tip and produced by, for whatever reason, Robert DeNiro. After Prison Song, Blige’s film roles were few and far between, but little did we know there was a Oscar-caliber performance in her just waiting to come out.

  8. Janet Jackson, Poetic Justice

    Janet actually started out as an actress on television shows Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes, and Fame, before achieving musical superstardom beginning with 1986’s Control. She returned to her acting roots with John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, co-starring the late Tupac Shakur. The film received mixed reviews—Janet won both the Golden Raspberry for Worst New Star and the MTV Movie Award for Best Female Performance—but its song “Again” went on to be one of Jackson’s biggest hits and landed her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

  9. Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo Despite a series of mildly successful albums, Liza was mostly known as Judy Garland’s daughter. She first graced screens as a baby in her mother’s 1949 film, In the Good Old Summertime and had a small role in 1967’s Charlie Bubbles. Her breakthrough, however, came with 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo, for which she garnered her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. She would win three years later for Cabaret.

  10. Cher, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

    Technically, Cher made her film debut in 1967’s Good Times with then-husband Sonny Bono, playing themselves. Then there was 1969’s Chastity, written and produced by Bono, but who the hell has ever seen that? For all intents and purposes, Cher’s proper film debut came with Robert Altman’s 1982 ensemble dramedy, for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. I chose this as Cher’s entry because it began one of the most auspicious singer-actor film careers ever, as she would go on to star in Silkwood the following year with BFF Meryl Streep, before beating out Streep for Best Actress at the 1988 Academy Awards for Moonstruck.

  11. Dolly Parton, 9 to 5

    The ’80s were a great decade for Dolly Parton’s film career, starting with the feminist workplace comedy classic 9 to 5, which spawned the equally classic Oscar-nominated theme song, and culminating with the 1989 weeper Steel Magnolias. Parton was a natural on-screen and 9 to 5 showcased her comedic chops and undeniable chemistry with co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. An immediate hit, it spawned a sitcom, a Broadway musical—with original songs by Parton—and as of this year, a planned sequel. Talk about a film that keeps on giving. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Dolly’s cameo on Fonda’s and Tomlin’s Grace and Frankie.

  12. Bette Midler, The Rose

    If you look up “range” in the dictionary, you’ll get this film debut. Bathhouse Bette, as she was known back in the ’70s when she played the gay bathhouses in New York, was mostly known for singing standards and traditional pop, but in this rock musical based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin, La Midler let it rip. She sweats and growls and rocks the hell out of this performance, which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination I still think she deserved to win. But Sally Field in Norma Rae thought differently.

  13. Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard

    One of the quintessential singer-turned-actress roles, Whitney Houston ascended to a whole other level of fame with this blockbuster and its accompanying soundtrack. Grossing over $400 million worldwide, and spawning the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time, The Bodyguard was in production purgatory for decades. Originally proposed in 1976 as a vehicle for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen, and later Ross and Ryan O’Neal, the project was eventually released for its 1992 production. Though reviews were less than kind, to put it mildly, The Bodyguard cemented Houston as a global phenomenon and opened the door to The Preacher’s Wife and, most importantly, Waiting to Exhale. And of course, Houston took Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and sang the living hell out of it.

  14. Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues

    Miss Ross really set the template for the modern pop diva crossing over into film, a trajectory followed by everyone from Madonna to Mariah to Gaga. A pop star in the truest sense of the word, Ross wowed audiences and critics with her turn as Billie Holiday, announcing the arrival of a new acting talent. Sadly, the promise she achieved with her first film never truly came to fruition, though she picked up a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer (a discontinued category) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Still, Ross continued to act here and there throughout the ’70s and ’80s, most notably in Mahogany and The Wiz.

  15. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl

    Babs had already nabbed an Album of the Year Grammy for her debut, 1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album, as well as three subsequent nominations in the same category when she reprised her Tony-nominated role as Fanny Brice in 1968’s Funny Girl. She won the Oscar for Best Actress but, in an Academy first (and only), tied with Katharine Hepburn, who as usual, didn’t bother to show up to the ceremony. Gaga seems to be following in Streisand’s footsteps, both of them now having starred in an iteration of A Star Is Born. Streisand’s version, generally considered inferior to Judy Garland’s, nevertheless nabbed her an Oscar for Original Song for the AM gold classic “Evergreen.”

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat