“You only get one shot. Do not miss your chance to blow – this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” — Eminem
Throughout film history, musicians and athletes have put their celebrity to use as actors to varying degrees of success. Some of these stars (Queen Latifah, Justin Timberlake, Arnold Schwarzenegger) have gone on to tremendous careers onscreen, while others (O.J. Simpson, Mike Ditka, Christina Aguilera) flailed before getting out of the game.
Then there are the one-and-done cases: the celebrities who starred in one – and only one – major feature film in their careers. This raises the question of how these single star performances stack up against one another, no? Well, question asked, question answered.
9. The Spice Girls – Spice World (1997)
For children of the ’90s, Spice World was a beloved glam indulgence, the highest (and loudest) expression of pop fanaticism imaginable. But looking at the film now, what once felt like a self-addressed valentine to the best-selling female group in history (from an idea by and starring the quintet) now looks like something of a fun-house mirror: shiny, warped, and even grotesque in its distortions of real personalities. It comes as no surprise that the group never made another movie together – for all their collective might as musical icons, the Spice Girls were mere wannabes as actors.
8. Britney Spears – Crossroads (2002)
Like the Spice Girls, Spears’ first silver-screen star vehicle came at the height of her power in the industry. But when Crossroads was released, the singer was quickly maligned for being the worst actor in a movie slick with schmaltz and more than a touch of internalized misogyny. While it’s true that Spears fares poorly against heavyweights like Dan Aykroyd and Kim Cattrall, her role as small-town Georgia girl Lucy drove the movie to financial success, demonstrating not for the last time that enough charisma can carry even the sloppiest project to the finish line. To her credit, Spears made a courageous cameo as the fembot version of herself in Austin Powers: Goldmember that same year.
7. Howard Stern – Private Parts (1997)
Stern’s role in this film based on his own life story isn’t his best performance onscreen – that would be his appearance as flatulent superhero Fartman during the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Still, the “Howard Stern” character played by the King of Entertainment was infinitely warmer than the smarmy persona honed on air during Stern’s shock jock years. Not only does “Howard” convincingly fall in love with Mary McCormack’s Alison Stern (the real Howard Stern is now married to Beth Ostrosky); he also goes toe-to-toe with the frantic and comically detestable tour-de-force that is Kevin “Pig Vomit” Metheny (played by a wonderful Paul Giamatti). As for Robin Quivers and Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, who also appear in their first film roles, it’s probably best that we never got Private Parts 2.
6. Michael Jackson – The Wiz (1978)
While it’s true that Michael Jackson also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain EO and in the much-beloved Moonwalker anthology (not to mention some of the most influential music videos ever), The Scarecrow in The Wiz represents Michael’s only starring role in a theatrically released feature. As Dorothy’s (Diana Ross) bubbly, cowardly buddy, Jackson’s performance was rewarded with strong reviews, with Roger Ebert saying he “fills the role with humor and warmth.” The film is far from perfect – underwritten and charmless, it may be master director Sidney Lumet’s least accomplished work – but Jackson ultimately comes off as an endearing goofball with a Broadway-ready voice.
5. Jackie Robinson – The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Many who remember Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42 from earlier this decade may be surprised to learn that a superior film about the life of the baseball legend featuring Robinson as himself exists. The Jackie Robinson Story, which fuses newsreel footage with staged scenes featuring character actors Ruby Dee and Louise Beavers, was an early example of the “what’s real vs. what’s not” docudrama genre so prevalent today. Robinson does much of the heavy lifting, proving 5 years before Elvis Presley broke big in Love Me Tender that even a novice actor can command the frame if directed correctly. Sadly, this movie is hardly shown anymore – even in film history courses – but it’s worth seeking out for Robinson’s powerful performance alone.
4. Michael Jordan – Space Jam (1996)
Perhaps the most iconic one-off performance on this list, Michael Jordan’s role as himself in Space Jam remains a touchstone for children around the world. Space Jam was groundbreaking at the time for its post-Roger Rabbit hybridization of live action and animation. But the real shock 23 years later remains MJ, who acquits himself better than (almost) any professional athlete had before him. As the bemused straight man to the likes of Bugs Bunny and Bill Murray, Jordan allows himself to be the butt of every joke; but with a sly, crackling wit, he also produces a couple dozen wisecracks himself without so much as an ironic smirk. It’s truly impressive, downright legendary comedy. A re-watch is more necessary now than ever: with Terrence Nance’s Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James impending, His Airness may soon lose his crown.
3. Eminem – 8 Mile (2002)
The rapper known as Eminem has proved to have a healthy sense of humor about himself: He let Bruno tea-bag him at the MTV Movie & TV Awards; he traded barbs with Ray Romano in Funny People; and he even faked his own coming-out-of-the closet in The Interview. His most astonishing achievements, however, remain the lead performance and Oscar-winning songwriting he contributed to 8 Mile, the Curtis Hanson-directed drama drawn in part from the musician’s early life in Detroit. Eminem was already a star when the film came out, yet he succeeds in earnest portraying Rabbit as a repressed, volcanically angry stand-in for the disenfranchised many of Motor City. As a result, the film remains one of the strongest ever made about hip-hop, poverty, and the ties that bind them.
2. LeBron James – Trainwreck (2015)
“I really have to ask you a question. Don’t hurt him.” It won’t be long before the G.O.A.T. no longer fits on this list. For now, then, let’s luxuriate in his ingenious casting as a stingy, over-protective version of himself in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. Ostensibly conceived as a star vehicle for Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, James and his delicious one-liners steal every scene, including the bloopers, with the same effortless elegance he brings to the court. Watching him cut-up about Downton Abbey, some might find it infuriating that one of the wealthiest and most admired athletes in history is also one of its funniest; nonetheless, respect must be paid where due.
1. Björk – Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dancer in the Dark is neither for the faint of heart nor for the casual Sugarcubes fan. If anything, Lars von Trier’s traumatic epic about a woman (Björk) slowly going blind is intended to mock those who idolize the pleasantly surreal, sprite-like Icelandic singer. Instead, Von Trier replaces her charm and warmth with a drained, disturbing sense of hopelessness. So effective was her performance under Von Trier – whose direction, it’s been suggested, was intensely abusive – that director and star together received an Academy Award nomination for the original song “I’ve Seen It All,” a miserablist dirge sung amongst laborers on a countryside railway. It isn’t hard to understand why Björk might not want to act in a film again (once bitten, twice shy); but as one-hit wonders go, hers may be the best of all time.