Commentary: Sure, he moonwalked, but he never eased on down the road to a film career


Today, as Michael Jackson is memorialized, his posthumous coronation as the self-styled King of Pop will be complete.

The title always seemed grandiose, but at least during the 1980s, riding the trifecta of massive hit albums "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" and their spinoff videos and concert performances, Jackson ruled over pop culture -- almost.

For there was one medium he never conquered: movies. And that failure is telling.

Going back as far as Al Jolson, who gave voice to some of the first words spoken on film in 1927's "The Jazz Singer," generation-defining musical stars have gravitated toward movies to reach wider audiences and, in some cases, move beyond their musical personas.

Not so Jackson. He leaves behind a couple of cameos and a theme-park appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's Disney attraction "Captain EO," which shuttered at Disneyland in 1997 and since has disappeared from Disney parks.

But he starred in only one feature film, 1978's "The Wiz," playing the Scarecrow to his pal Diana Ross' Dorothy in the movie version of Broadway's all-black take on "The Wizard of Oz." Although reworking Frank L. Baum's fantasy in black vernacular worked onstage, it didn't translate to film once director Sidney Lumet decided to set the action in contemporary New York, with the World Trade Center Plaza standing in for Emerald City.

The movie was a critical and commercial bomb: Box Office Mojo lists its domestic gross at $21 million. Nominated for an Oscar for her first film, 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues," Ross had stumbled with the fashion-world melodrama "Mahogany," so when critics piled on, complaining she was too old to play Dorothy, her film career was over.

Jackson, though, was just 20 when "The Wiz" was released, and he got some good notices. If he'd been seriously interested in pursuing films, the door was open.

There were plenty of precedents for a pop star to make it in movies.

Several generations earlier, Frank Sinatra, looking beyond the screams of his bobby-soxers, amassed an impressive film resume, crooning his way through a series of musicals from "On the Town" and "Guys and Dolls" to "High Society." At the same time, he challenged himself by pursuing dramatic parts: He campaigned for the supporting role in "From Here to Eternity" that won him an Oscar and secured a best actor nomination for exploring drug addiction in "The Man With the Golden Arm."

Although they didn't treat film with the same degree of seriousness, Elvis Presley and the Beatles also used movies to augment their recording and concert careers.

Presley parlayed his country-boy image into a string of musical vehicles -- "Jailhouse Rock," "Blue Hawaii" and "Viva Las Vegas" among them -- that became a virtual genre unto themselves. The Beatles hitched up with director Richard Lester for a couple of movies, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" that captured and contributed to Beatlemania.

Taking a slightly different tack, Mick Jagger used film not to promote the Rolling Stones but to establish his own image as a provocateur, playing a hedonistic, ambisexual rock star in 1970's "Performance" and, that same year, an Australian outlaw in "Ned Kelly."

By the time Jackson arrived on the scene, though, he didn't need Hollywood and the exposure it offered. Music videos had arrived. Beginning with 1983's "Billie Jean," he starred in a series of elaborate ones that effectively functioned as mini-musicals, showcases drawn to his specifications.

Jackson wasn't immune to the lure of Hollywood: He talked from time to time of starring in a movie version of "Peter Pan," but that project never materialized. At the peak of his success during the mid-'80s, who needed to slow down for the yearlong commitment a movie would have demanded?

By then, Hollywood, usually all too happy to draft an established superstar, from the music or sports worlds, couldn't figure what to do with Jackson anyway.

On video, he was a shape-shifter -- morphing into a zombie in "Thriller," a panther in "Black and White" -- but his image had become hazy. Unlike Sinatra's world-weary romantic or Presley's restless roustabout, he no longer fit a recognizable type. Onstage, he could hide behind the military costumes, strobe lights and smoke effects; on film, in close-up, his increasingly ravaged face would have been exposed.

Plus, Jackson, by then a man of glittery surfaces, showed no appetite for looking inward, for exploring any deeper reality that a serious acting assignment might have required.

Just imagine: What if someone had proposed a remake of "Sunset Boulevard"? After all, Gloria Swanson was just 50 when she bravely starred in the Billy Wilder film that used her own history as a silent-film star and turned it inside out. Could Jackson have summoned the willingness to bare himself in something similar, to play a fading pop star -- "It's the videos that got small!" -- holed up in his decaying fantasy of a mansion?

Probably not. But now we'll never know.