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Actors You Don’t Expect to See in a Hollywood Musical

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Later this year, we’ll see dramatic tough guy Russell Crowe singing his way through a role in the movie version of “Les Miserables.” That got the staff here at The Jimbo List thinking: how many other unexpected actors have popped up in Hollywood musicals? See what you think.

ALBERT FINNEY IN “ANNIE”

Who could forget Finney as Daddy Warbucks? As I recall, it was something of a shocking choice back in 1982. The movie did okay at the box office, and I thought Finney brought a full-bodied energy to the character – even if he wasn’t necessarily a gifted singer or dancer. And he looked good with the chrome dome.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN IN “HAIRSPRAY”

Here was some inspired casting, having the sublimely strange Walken play the husband of John Travolta-in-drag. Walken’s warbling isn’t great, but it works fine in this situation. He’s being ironic, sarcastic and yet somehow real, all at once.

CLINT EASTWOOD AND LEE MARVIN IN “PAINT YOUR WAGON”

This casting, on the other hand, did not work. Listen, I love Clint, but his singing sounds like a guy with a mouth full of Saltines trying to hail a cab. Marvin, meanwhile, has a voice so rumbling it needs to be measured by a seismograph. Luckily, the story is funny and bawdy enough to make the singing seem like comic relief.

RICHARD GERE IN “CHICAGO”

Gere deserves plenty of credit for his terrific work in the terrific movie version of “Chicago.” He can’t dance and can’t sing, yet he’s very effective as shady lawyer Billy Flynn. How is this possible? Movie magic, I tell ya.

SUSAN SARANDON IN “ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW”

It’s easy to forget how daring Sarandon’s performance was in “Rocky Horror” in 1975. She played Janet, who went from demure to devilishly sexy during the course of the movie. “Rocky Horror,” of course, became one of the greatest cult films of all time, while Sarandon went on to fame as a dramatic actress.

ROD STEIGER IN “OKLAHOMA”

Hard to picture, isn’t it? Steiger, the sturdy, intense dude from “The Pawnbroker,” as bad guy cowpoke Judd in “Oklahoma”? It’s true, though. Surrey with the fringe on top, indeed.

THE CAST OF “EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU”

Woody Allen assembled perhaps the most unlikely cast for any musical of any era: Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn and Allen himself. That was the gimmick, actually – the absurdity of these serious people just breaking into song.

JIMMY STEWART IN “BORN TO DANCE”

Later in his career, Mr. Stewart got a lot of mileage out of his crummy crooning in 1936’s “Born to Dance.” He sang a song called “Easy to Love,” and it’s so bad it’s sort of cute.

CHRIS COOPER IN “THE MUPPET MOVIE”

Oh, this is a bad bit of rap. Cooper is a wonderful actor, and he gets props for attempting this, but it’s painful. He plays a bad guy who expresses his greed and low-down ways in a rap song that is best experienced via the fast-forward button.

TREAT WILLIAMS IN “HAIR”

Williams gives this one his all, and I liked his performance. My gripe with the movie is that although it is well made, it was oddly dated by 1979, when it played in theaters. It was a story rooted deeply in the anti-war, hippie culture of the late 1960s; it seemed like a period piece a decade later.

JOHNNY DEPP IN “SWEENEY TODD”

In a movie that surprised audiences with its stylized, graphic violence, Depp does some amazing work. He plays a deranged barber who takes out his grievances with a straight-edged razor. He also does one hell of a lot of singing. Depp doesn’t shy away from a single note.

PIERCE BROSNAN, COLIN FIRTH AND STELLAN SKARSGARD IN “MAMMA MIA!”

I know this was Meryl Streep’s movie, but who in the world gave the green light to Brosnan, Firth & Skarsgard? That trio couldn’t carry a tune even if you spotted them the first two verses and the melody. They’re so bad, in fact, that I developed a new respect for their bravery as performers. We’ve all got to hope there’s never a “Mamma Mia II.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Crowe.

Cinema’s Great Chameleons

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Lots of actors use makeup and special effects to change their appearance for roles, but only a handful seem able to innately transform themselves on a regular basis. Luckily for us, many of them are plying their craft currently. Here are some of them, along with a few of their predecessors.

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS

I can’t wait to see this guy play Abraham Lincoln, which is his next project. Day-Lewis disappears entirely into his characters, from Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” to Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” His acting has a powerful, intense quality.

PETER SELLERS

I’m certainly not alone in thinking Sellers was a genius. Rather than trying to find the emotional core of historical figures, he developed fully-realized characters out of whole cloth. Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, Chance the gardener – I loved them all.

SACHA BARON COHEN

To me, Sacha Baron Cohen is the heir to Peter Sellers. His commitment to his characters is total, which, in this era, includes taking on the guerrilla film making format of “Borat.” It will be interesting to see if he takes his talent to more dramatic roles, as Sellers eventually did.

SEAN PENN

Great, great actor in the lineage from Brando to DeNiro on down. One thing distinct about Penn, I think, is that he has a particular facility for tinkering with his voice and mannerisms. Harvey Milk (“Milk”), David Kleinfeld (“Carlito’s Way”), Jeff Spicoli (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Matthew Poncelet (“Dead Man Walking”) are very different dudes.

ROD STEIGER

Steiger found a niche starring in movie biographies of everyone from W.C. Fields to Napoleon. Those weren’t my favorites, though. Try out this double feature: Steiger’s Southern bigot sheriff from “In the Heat of the Night,” followed by his Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker.”

NICOLE KIDMAN

Kidman’s career is often overshadowed by her personal life, which obscures a terrific filmography. She can play ditzy, sexy, neurotic, tragic and depressed. She also has a great flair for dialects.

CHRISTIAN BALE

The key to Bale’s acting, as much as anything else, is the way he adapts the contours of his own body. He was emaciated in “The Machinist,” wiry and wired in “The Fighter,” and buff as Batman.

JOHNNY DEPP

Thanks mainly to Tim Burton, Depp has had multiple opportunities to play with accents, wigs, timing and even singing. Throw in a funky pirate and an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, and you’ve got an exceptional gallery of characters.

MERYL STREEP

Streep’s reach and range are so amazing, so consistently on the mark, that it’s easy to take her for granted. She’s played Australian, Italian, British, Polish, highbrow, lowbrow, powerful and homeless. Her accents are flawless and her acting is unsurpassed.

Great chameleons, all. Now it’s your turn – which ones did I leave out?