This is all to say we’re not ready to damn Styles as an actor yet. He’s still young, and was convincing enough in his admittedly smaller role in Dunkirk, and we have not yet seen his next turn in My Policeman. Even so, Styles’ Don’t Worry Darling performance evokes the ghost of a seemingly eternal problem that comes whenever Hollywood casts a pop star or beloved musician: What can they bring to the film besides the stunt of instant audience recognition and curiosity?
During the much vaunted Golden Age of Hollywood, Tinseltown was more shameless about relying on a.m. radio darlings to sell tickets over the need to sell stories. During the 1950s, where Don’t Worry Darling’s insulated community of Victory exists, some of the highest paid movie stars were music men first: Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. Heck, one of the biggest latter day successes of MGM’s famed musical assembly line under Arthur Freed—the veritable Marvel Studios of its day—was 1956’s High Society. That movie starred Crosby and Sinatra together(!), trading barbs and singing new Cole Porter tunes.
All that star power made it one of the highest grossing movies of its year, but even then the picture ran into major roadblocks with the critics. Perhaps that was inevitable, however, since it was a remake of the far superior The Philadelphia Story (1940) from 16 years earlier. And before Crosby and Sinatra sleep-walked through those roles, they belonged to the far more game Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart—opposite Katharine Hepburn no less, who with no disrespect to High Society’s Grace Kelly, is one of the greatest actresses the screen has ever seen. Another way to put this is that if you need to cast someone as an everyman journalist who looks down on the excesses and vanities of the rich, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life makes a lot more sense than the guy Lauren Bacall dubbed the biggest rat of the Rat Pack.
This is not to pick on Sinatra, who was far better in far better movies before and after High Society. It’s just that like so many other musicians, he brought a lot of baggage to the movies—and his secondary talent of acting rarely was able to get past those stacks of luggage trailing behind him. Recently, Baz Luhrmann brought attention to that irony of show business in his Elvis biopic where the so-called “King of Rock ’n Roll” has his hard edges sandblasted away for middle America by a manager who took Elvis Presley off the road where he was a revolutionary rock star and placed him into increasingly generic (read: awful) musical rom-com programmers.
As much else with Presley, there’s a whiff of unfulfilled potential in this. After all, he did show some traces of actual acting talent in a few early pictures like Flaming Star, but he never got to fully explore that side because audiences and his management were uninterested in seeing him really try. But in defense of that cynicism, what were the odds Presley ever would have amounted to the standards set by the actors he idolized? Could he ever have been as good as James Dean or Marlon Brando?