10. If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
HBO produced this heavy-handed but affecting anthology film on the topic of abortion, premiering it at the Toronto film festival on the combined star clout of Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek and, of course, Cher, who also directed the third (and best) of its segments. It remains her only directorial credit, and she would have done well to keep at it. She shows a sure touch with actors, herself included, uncharacteristically restrained as a benevolent abortion doctor working through a violent anti-choice protest. It is enough to make you wonder whether HBO should have kept her on its books. Surely there could have been a place in The Sopranos for Cher.
By the 00s, Cher had mostly checked out of acting: cue a brief phase of as-herself cameos, including two droll appearances in Will & Grace, and a slightly more extended gag role in this surprisingly tame Farrelly Brothers comedy about conjoined twins attempting to make it in Hollywood. As the haughty superstar Cher, who hits on the exploitative idea of sabotaging a dreadful sitcom she is contractually obliged to star in by choosing one of the twins as her co-lead, she cannily and wittily caricatures herself, not letting her mere casting be the joke. Her salty comic timing is more on point than anything else in this oddity.
8. Suspect (1987)
With three starring vehicles, 1987 was Cher’s annus mirabilis as an actor; the year it seemed she might actually become a full-time movie star and put her pop career second. This gripping, if hokily plotted, legal thriller was the oddest fit for her. As a Washington DC public defender assigned to a deaf, homeless Vietnam vet accused of a high-profile murder, she struts around in her character’s drab grey suits as if she might at any point shed them to reveal a leather-and-lace leotard beneath. What she does bring, however, is the fierce conviction necessary to pull off a ludicrous, twist-bearing courtroom monologue at the climax.
In the first of her 1987 successes, Cher had a lot of star power to compete with. She was one of the titular suburban sorceresses, sure, but so were Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon, and all three were working opposite Jack Nicholson as the devilish lothario they summon. And yet, in this popular but overblown adaptation of John Updike’s subtler, nastier sexual satire, she comes off best. As Alexandra, a wry, wary artist and single mother, her slightly jaded sensuality feels closer to Updike’s tone than the others, and she is the steeliest sparring partner for Nicholson’s manic mugging. She beat his then-lover Anjelica Huston to the role, but Huston would have the last laugh, pipping Cher to roles in The Grifters and The Addams Family.
Having initially been cast opposite the then-rising British starlet Emily Lloyd in this sweetly quirky family drama, Cher objected that they didn’t look sufficiently alike to be convincing as mother and daughter. Lloyd was booted off in favour of the star’s preferred choice, Winona Ryder, and successfully sued the studio for a six-figure sum. It was worth the trouble: as an introverted teen and the flighty mother who repeatedly mortifies her, the pair clash and quarrel on screen with an intensity that gives the otherwise bouncy proceedings some ballast. Meanwhile, it is also the film that gave Cher (who had hitherto kept her singing and acting careers largely separate) that joyous, chart-topping cover of The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss) – a win all round.
5. Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Nobody has a kind word for the Golden Globes these days, but here’s one: they were the only major awards to nominate Cher for this stagey, strangely haunting Robert Altman curio, and they were right to do so. She is imaginatively cast and deeply moving as Sissy, a small-town washout attending a rather tragic reunion for a James Dean fanclub. This was Cher’s first serious film role after some flimsy attempts to cash in on her Sonny & Cher stardom more than a decade before, and Altman thoughtfully plays on her then-tacky public persona: the character’s gradually revealed sexual and bodily insecurities catch us by surprise.
Unless you count her film-lifting cameo at the end of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, this garish, wonderfully knowing backstage musical was Cher’s last major film role, as well as her first in more than a decade. The verve and good humour with which she attacks it make one wish she had made more. Ostensibly, it is Christina Aguilera’s vehicle: she plays an aspiring performer who makes it as the star attraction of Cher’s Sunset Strip burlesque club. But the elder diva eats her alive, from her first, witheringly delivered putdown (“And you are in my mirror because?”) onwards, and also knocks out the film’s funniest musical number in Welcome to Burlesque: equal parts Bob Fosse zazz and Mae West leer. Why Cher didn’t make more movie musicals is a question for Hollywood’s conscience, but this burgeoning camp classic is one to treasure.
Cher often tells an anecdote about being in the back of a public cinema when the first trailer for Mike Nichols’s Oscar-targeting Karen Silkwood biopic played, and being devastated by the audience’s laughter when her name cropped up on screen. Surely nobody was laughing – for any reason – when they finally saw this solemn drama, in which Meryl Streep excels as the eponymous nuclear whistleblower. That was to be expected: the surprise was Cher matching her beat for beat as Silkwood’s rough-edged lesbian roommate Dolly Pelliker, her standard glitz a distant memory beneath lank, shadowing locks and gangly body language. But this wasn’t an empty deglam stunt: there is a real, wounded person beneath the unflattering get-up.
2. Mask (1985)
After winning best actress at Cannes for this surprise Peter Bogdanovich hit, Cher was annoyed not to be nominated at the Oscars. Gamely showing up as a presenter in a magnificent headdress, she pointedly quipped: “As you can see, I got my handbook on how to dress like a serious actress.” Her pique was justified. As Rusty Dennis, the fiercely protective biker-chick mother of a teen with disfiguring craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, she had finally found the role that meshed her transformative acting ambitions with her naturally larger-than-life persona, while her spiky tenderness saves the film from maudlin disease-of-the-week territory. This ought to have been her Erin Brockovich or The Blind Side, although the Academy would rectify that two years later.
“Snap out of it!” With apologies to her formidable set of rivals for the 1987 best actress Oscar – including her bestie Meryl Streep and perennial bridesmaid Glenn Close – Cher probably won it the second she hard-slapped Nicolas Cage across the face with that much-quoted but peerlessly incensed line reading. Everything came together perfectly for her here: a funny, full-hearted script, a perfectly integrated supporting ensemble, and a leading role as the romantically bewildered Italian-American widow Loretta Castorini, smartly synced to her own persona’s blend of been-around-the-block weariness and witchy glamour. Small wonder her interest in acting seemed to wane after she got the gong: she had nothing left to prove.