Is Harry Styles a Movie Star?

Now is the season of Harry Styles, movie star. Last month, under a cloud of gossip as far-reaching as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the feminist psycho-thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” came out in theatres, featuring Styles onscreen as a suave mid-century husband and offscreen as the pop star who beguiled the film’s director, Olivia Wilde. (The latest chapter in this never-ending soap opera involves Wilde making her paramour a very special salad dressing, possibly cribbed from Nora Ephron’s novel “Heartburn.”) This week, Styles appears in the second installment of his one-two cinematic punch, the gay period drama “My Policeman,” directed by the British theatre veteran Michael Grandage, with whom Styles seems to have had no backstage entanglements, romantic or salad-related.

For a twenty-eight-year-old pop idol who ranks among the world’s biggest male heartthrobs, this cannonball into film acting is an event—one that was heralded by appearances as Rolling Stone’s “first-ever global cover star” and at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where frenzy followed him wherever he roamed. On paper, Styles’s foray into the movies is a big deal for Hollywood, which is always on the prowl for bankable leading men but rarely handed one with preëxisting superstardom. But it also carries the risk of a belly flop. Can this guy even act? Now that the results are in, the question has received mixed to negative answers. But ancillary to that question is a possibly more relevant one: Is Harry Styles a plausible movie star? It’s a job requiring less facility for transformation than sheer magnetism—something an international pop star presumably has at his fingertips.

Chris Pine, Harry Styles, and the director, producer, and actor Olivia Wilde on the set of New Line Cinema’s “Don’t Worry Darling.”Photograph by Merrick Morton / Courtesy Warner Bros

The trend of popular musicians making the leap to movie stardom dates as far back as the big bang of talkies, “The Jazz Singer” (1927), with Al Jolson doing more or less what he did in his stage act—including, notoriously, blackface. Sound in film had been attempted in fits and starts, but the force of Jolson’s stardom—complete with his catchphrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”—gave sound the emotional wallop it needed to revolutionize the art form. Since then, most music stars who became movie stars did so by re-creating, or refracting, their larger-than-life personae onscreen. Elvis Presley brought his swinging hips and seductive croon to “Jailhouse Rock” and “Viva Las Vegas.” Diana Ross inhabited a legendary predecessor, Billie Holiday, in “Lady Sings the Blues.” David Bowie drew on his otherworldliness in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Labyrinth.” Lady Gaga played a megastar in “A Star Is Born” and a campy diva in “House of Gucci,” touting her vanish-into-the-role Method techniques even as her pop image underlined every scene in crimson lipstick.

Other music stars have made more varied choices. Frank Sinatra was a version of Frank Sinatra in “Guys and Dolls” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” but he could adapt his Rat Pack machismo to war dramas (“From Here to Eternity”) and political thrillers (“The Manchurian Candidate”). Madonna used film roles to reinforce her shape-shifting image—punk bad girl (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), femme fatale (“Dick Tracy”), global luminary (“Evita”)—but also added spark to the ensemble of “A League of Their Own.” One of the most surprising music-to-screen careers belongs to Cher, who played an unglamorous lesbian sidekick in “Silkwood” before coming into her own as the star of “Mask” and “Moonstruck,” for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress; her ability to strip her gaudy image for roles and then suit back up in Bob Mackie gowns for Oscar time came at no expense to her idiosyncratic star power.

Styles, commendably, has gone more the Cher route in his choice of roles so far. In 2017, he made his feature début, as a soldier in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” placing him in a vast ensemble and in a fight for survival that left little room to coast on charm. Notwithstanding a cameo in Marvel’s “Eternals,” as some sort of intergalactic prince, he seems intent on playing regular blokes, albeit ones with perfect hair and puppy-dog eyes. Neither “Don’t Worry Darling” nor “My Policeman” is a rock-star vehicle, and you can sense his desire to challenge and prove himself. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” for which Styles was a last-minute substitute for Shia LaBeouf—a situation that has received no press attention whatsoever—he plays what appears to be a doting spouse in a nineteen-fifties suburb. Without spoiling the big twist, let’s just say that his character, Jack, isn’t any of those things. Much of Styles’s job involves looking snappy in vintage suits and vintage cars—all part of the nostalgic illusion that drives the plot—and, in one inexplicable scene, tap dancing like a marionette. The character would make more sense if Styles had any hint of menace or brutishness (which LaBeouf has in excess), qualities that instead fall to Chris Pine, as a kind of men’s-rights cult leader. Pine and Florence Pugh, as Jack’s wife, dominate the movie, whereas Styles tends to recede. The mode in which he looks most comfortable is pulsing sexual desire; Jack’s penchant for cunnilingus, though hard to square with his chauvinist backstory, is played with conviction.

Sexual yearning is also at the heart of “My Policeman,” in which Styles plays Tom, a cop in nineteen-fifties Brighton who has a winsome romance with a naïve schoolteacher named Marion (Emma Corrin). Once they marry, Marion realizes that Tom has a big secret: he has been having a torrid, illegal affair with their friend Patrick (David Dawson), a curator. As their pretty lives shatter, we see the same three characters in rueful middle age, reunited in a drab beach house. This gives Styles’s scenes the air of lush recollected youth. In his uniform—and, eventually, out of it—he has a languid, laconic sexiness, fitting his role as a working-class crush object. He’s less at home with anguish; his climactic scenes with Corrin are fine, but you can sense him revving up for his big speeches. It’s tempting to imagine the part in the sturdier frame of, say, Paul Mescal, who, in the tender new film “Aftersun,” conveys the pain and doom of a man in an emotional vise using little more than half glances and unspoken thoughts. Styles doesn’t have the chops to layer his character so economically. As in “Don’t Worry Darling,” he’s most convincing when his desire finally lets loose—he kisses Patrick like a man starved for air.

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