Some Actors Can Sing, and Some Shouldn't

Mamma Mia! The lady can sing.

Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do? Now the woman widely regarded as the greatest living actress is winning kudos for belting out ABBA songs in the movie version of the musical "Mamma Mia!"

"Why is Meryl doing a musical? Because she can do whatever she wants," New York casting director David Vaccari said. "But she's not doing it unless she can do it well."

It's always a surprise for audiences when actors known more for their acting than their singing break out into song on the big screen. And some surprises are more pleasant than others. While Streep got cheers for her performance, her co-star Pierce Brosnan got jeers.

"People were definitely laughing," said movie musical fan Kim Fine, 23, who saw the movie in Chicago. "It felt a little bit strange, just to hear him sing. You could tell the whole theater felt it."

But maybe that was the point. Entertainment Weekly's reviewer wrote: "And just wait until Pierce Brosnan warbles 'S.O.S.' You'll laugh. And then you'll be charmed."

This is, after all, a film based on disco-pop arias from the oft-parodied Swedish group ABBA.

"In 'Mamma Mia!' you have a couple people gamely attempting to carry a tune," said Carl DiOrio, deputy film editor at The Hollywood Reporter. "Some pull it off better than others. But I haven't seen any evidence that Brosnan's lesser abilities in that regard will serve the movie in any sort of negative way. You almost have to give him points for being gamely enough in his efforts."

In Streep's case, she actually can sing. "She always had a reputation as being able to sing," Vaccari said. "People have said that about Glenn Close, as well. People in the industry know they can sing. But not everybody in Middle America knows it."

"Until they surface in vehicles like these, people not necessarily known for their singing abilities are going to rise and fall in whatever the particular vehicle they choose to sing in," DiOrio said.

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix rose to the challenge, doing their own singing in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line." Phoenix spent months at rock and roll boot camp, strengthening his voice and learning how to play guitar, to step into Cash's boots.

"I was surprised just to get through a song!" Phoenix told CNN in 2005. "I never sang before ... so to suddenly go to John was so odd to me. ... It was very strange to have to use a part of my voice that I didn't know existed."

Shocked by his Golden Globe win, he said, "Who would ever have thought that I would win in the comedy or musical category?"

But it was Witherspoon who took home the Oscar for her portrayal of Cash's wife, singer June Carter Cash. To prepare for the role, she took six months of extensive voice lessons and learned to play the autoharp.

Of course, she also had some singing chops to start with.

"I wanted to be a Broadway kid. I wanted to be on Broadway when I was 12, so I had singing lessons, but nothing prepared me for what it's like to stand in front of a microphone and hear it played back to you," Witherspoon told the Associated Press. "It's so humbling, and it made me really appreciate people who are naturally gifted."

Phoenix and Witherspoon have raised the bar for actors singing on screen. Actors can't get by anymore with having their voices dubbed by real singers, like Natalie Wood did in the screen version of "West Side Story."

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