Cher's Era

During her brief '80s reign as one of film's biggest stars, Cher didn't disappear into roles—she brought her indelible presence to bear on women thought to be invisible and cast them into the light.

February 24, 2017
Mayukh smiles at the camera in front of a city backdrop

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (2021). His biography of the Indian-born Old...

In August of 1983, director Mike Nichols called Cher to tell her that the trailer for Silkwood, the movie they’d just worked on together, would be playing in theatres before the latest Tom Cruise film, Risky Business. Cher was thrilled. She rallied the people closest to her, her sister Georganne and assistant Deb Paul, to come to a packed cinema in Westwood, California. Cher would try her best to blend in with the crowd. As the names of the film’s familiar stars, Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell, flashed across the screen, the audience did not bat an eye. But when Cher’s name appeared, they began howling with laughter.

This laughter, Cher would later confess, broke her “into a million pieces, like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.” Georganne and Deb Paul were both choking back tears, perplexed at the callousness of the audience’s reaction. But the American public was predisposed to viewing her as one half of Sonny & Cher, the groovy pop-singing duo who had risen sensationally to fame nearly two decades prior with such hits as 1965’s “I Got You Babe,”believing she was more at home on a gaudy Vegas stage than on celluloid.

The laughter was an echo of what she’d heard more than a decade earlier with the release of Chastity in 1969a failed star vehicle helmed by her then-husband Sonny Bono. In that film, Cher played the titular Chastity—a gangly, morose, beatnik teen who, disaffected and angst-ridden, embarks on a cross-country road trip, dabbling in lesbianism and sex work as a means of suppressing memories of sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood. The film displays a kindergarten understanding of this trauma, deploying it as a cheap narrative device. The couple had drained their bank accounts to finance that film in the hopes it would make Cher a movie star. Their plan backfired spectacularly: it was viciously panned and plunged them into bankruptcy.

The experience of filming Chastity had stultified Cher’s acting career and sullied her reputation. But she had wanted to be a movie star for as long as she could remember. In the same decade that she released the hit singles “Half Breed” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” she quietly pursued film roles, auditioning unsuccessfully for parts such as the one that would go to Stockard Channing in The Fortune (1975). In 1981, she moved to New York and enrolled in acting classes at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, eventually taking lessons with Strasberg himself.

It paid off. In the 1980s, Cher staged a dazzling coup, leaping successfully from the world of music to cinema, inspiring both professional reverence and audience affection. She made six films that decade, working with a cabal of cool kid male auteurs, from Robert Altman to Peter Bogdonavich to Mike Nichols, and amassed a coterie of awards for them: an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and a Cannes Best Actress award, perhaps the most coveted award an actress could receive.

You might think that, after such a run, Cher would be spoken of in the same breath as that era’s heavyweights—Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep. Time has muddied the waters, though. There is a new generation of moviegoers who know Cher as more of a daft personality, she of the bewitchingly unintelligible Twitter presence, an institution at once revered and simplified. But cultural consecration involves a great deal of forgetting, and it bears remembering why, for a brief but vital period three decades ago, Cher was a movie star.


Cher was lucky that her mother Georgia personally knew Kathryn Reed Altman, wife of director Robert Altman. He was then casting for his 1982 Broadway production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a 1976 Ed Graczyk play concerning a cadre of James Dean fans who reunite in their deserted West Texas town of McCarthy on the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Cher’s music career had, at that point, reached a standstill. She was finding that work unfulfilling and hated the outcomes. Her 1982 album I Paralyze was released with little fanfare. Instead, she tended to the more difficult dream of being an actress, even if that avenue was less profitable. Georgia told Kathryn that Cher, then 35, was in town and actively looking for workCher would play Sissy, a spunky, brittle counter girl who wears a boastful facade. Her enormous breasts inspire awe. “I’d kill for them boobs,” one character quips to her early on.

Altman cast Cher on the strength of her celebrity appeal. He had already assembled a cast of actresses with distinct personas: Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) brought a porcelain, tremulous quality to all her roles; Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) was off-kilter and disoriented. Altman knew that Cher’s name recognition would bring people to this little-known play in droves. He got what he wished for. The crowds were fervent—costar Kathy Bates even griped that Cher's fans brought flashbulb cameras to the show, defying Broadway protocol.

Reviews weren’t terribly kind, though Cher drew better-than-expected notices. “Next to the rest of this dreary amateur night, Cher's cheery, ingratiating nonperformance is almost a tonic,” Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote in a particularly backhanded review, arguing that her non-acting constituted its own accidental style. But Andrew Sarris called her a “revelation.”

Jimmy Dean’s Broadway run lasted just fifty-two performances, but the film adaptation that followed fared better. Shot in seventeen days on a shoestring budget of $800,000, it unfolds as an elliptical fever dream, Altman’s restless camera blurring the line between past and present. And it was on screen in this role that Cher’s performance augured the arrival of a major talent. In the last thirty minutes of the film, she tearfully mourns the loss of her natural breasts, her pride and joy, to breast cancer, which forced her to get a mastectomy. The scars repulsed her husband. “Sissy’s got them rubber tits!” her character screams at one point as she confesses that she no longer has breasts to the rest of the cast. Cher turns her back to the camera in this moment. There is no close-up, that cinematic device that begs for sympathy, just Cher’s wavering contralto voice unspooling years of pain that this woman has tried, and failed, to suppress.

She found an early champion in The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. "Cher is simple and direct in her effect, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to slip into the character of an aging small-town belle with a Texas accent,” Kael wrote. David Denby echoed Kael’s praise in New York Magazine: "With her smoky voice and cartoon smoldering eyes, Cher is the flagrant soul of cheap-waitress commonness; ungovernable, self-mocking, intensely likable, she's perfect for the role.” For Jimmy Dean, Cher found herself nominated in the supporting actress category at the Golden Globes and in the thick of an Oscar conversation, unsure of whether to campaign as a lead or supporting actress. She lost the Golden Globe to eventual Oscar winner Jessica Lange for Tootsie, and, with both lead and supporting races unusually crowded that year at the Oscars, she wasn’t nominated in either category.


In March of 1982, following a Wednesday matinee of one Broadway performance of Jimmy Dean, Mike Nichols approached Cher backstage. He was dazzled by her performance, and asked her to play a supporting role in his upcoming film. Without seeing the script, she said yes.

It would be a biopic of Karen Silkwood, the Oklahoma plutonium processing plant worker who died under suspect circumstances after exposing unsafe practices by her employers. Meryl Streep, the rising star of American cinema who had already won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980 (she would win her second in April of 1983 for Sophie’s Choice), would play Karen. Cher would be Dolly Pelliker, Karen's drab and dour lesbian roommate. Dolly exists at the periphery of Silkwood, quietly smitten with our doomed heroine.

The real-life Karen was a huge fan of Cher, but Cher didn’t even know who Karen Silkwood was. She was, however, overwhelmed by the chance to work with Streep, whom she idolized. She would later learn the fear was mutual. Streep said she “felt intimidated at the very thought of meeting Cher. I mean, in photos she always looks so wonderfully thin, and so beautiful and stylish.” Over the course of filming, though, the two developed a warm working relationship. Nichols, whom Cher called Dad, nurtured Cher’s talents.

Cher had been instructed not to wash her hair or wear any makeup in the mornings on set. Nichols would even conduct a towel test on her face to check for makeup every morning before they began shooting. Upon seeing Cher in this state, co-star Kurt Russell said, “What are you supposed to be?” Cher ran to the bathroom and cried.

Casting Cher in the role of Dolly may seem to fit in the timeworn tradition of beautiful women decoupling themselves from their glamour to convince audiences that they are serious about their craft. Elizabeth Taylor gained weight to play Martha, the embittered and childless wife to Richard Burton’s walking crisis of masculinity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); in Monster (2003), Charlize Theron roughed herself up to “become” serial killer Aileen Wournos, pockmarked and disheveled. This is one of the constants of the American awards system, heralding a woman’s cosmetic bravery as an achievement of its own. Cher did receive a Golden Globe for her performance, and went on to receive her first Oscar nomination for the role.

Praise for Cher in Silkwood was couched in the language of disappearance, as a woman’s deglamorization on screen often is. Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter was amazed with Cher’s work as the “dingy, puppylike roommate,” who, like her co-stars, “crystallize[d] our admiration and sympathy for people trying simply to earn a living and live their lives.” There was a touch of apprehension in the acclaim from The New York Times’s Vincent Canby: “Whether or not Cher is a great actress, I'm still not sure, but when you take away those wild wigs she wears on television, and substitute something a little less riveting for her crazy Bob Mackie gowns, there's an honest, complex screen presence underneath.”

This idea, that Cher, in de-glamorizing, had uncovered an essence of actorly truth, remains the dominant critical read of her performance. Even David Thomson, a harsh critic of Cher’s acting abilities (“Face, it, Cher is a celebrity, and making her a wallflower is addled,” he wrote in the sixth edition of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film), would later concede when it came to her work in Silkwood. “Dowdy, louche, working class, bitter, and reckless,” he said in 2014, “it is a performance that so far exceeds Moonstruck as to make Oscar melt with embarrassment.”

There is a tinge of condescension in this critical position—the idea that an actress, when she is at her best, becomes a character in a role so taxing it renders her invisible. It’s especially true for this particular performance: The sentiment reads like an expression of shock that a woman like Cher, seen by the world as a sentient Barbie doll, could cross over to film and have the result be anything but a blazing, easily mockable failure.

The decades-old suggestion that Cher disappeared into this role seems like a glaring misread of her work, especially when considered in the wider context of her filmography. She doesn’t disappear in this role; that’s the point. Cher’s persona is hard to stifle. The element of conscious self-restraint evident in the performance creates the impression that Cher is working hard to find this woman in herself. There’s a tension between Dolly’s outer and inner worlds that seem fundamentally irreconcilable, and this is the essence of the character.

Cher, by her own admission, didn’t want to play glamorous women. Her “heroes in film, for the most part,” she explained, “are usually people that you wouldn’t know about unless someone like me brought them to the screen, like everyday kinds of people.” These women—like Dolly, like Sissy—would typically recede in any other tableau, but Cher, through her forceful presence, would make these invisible women visible.


In December of 1983, Cher received the script for Peter Bogdanovich's Mask, the film that would see her transition from character actress to leading lady. Bogdanovich was once respected for his directorial work on The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973)but hadn’t made a comparable film in years. Mask, intended to be his comeback, told the story of real-life Rocky Dennis, a teenage boy in Southern California with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a condition that made his face look as big as a grown lion’s. It guaranteed his death at 16.

Cher plays Rusty Dennis, Rocky’s mother, a woman who wears studded leather jackets and thigh-highs and owns a Harley-Davidson. The role was written with Cher in mind. Screenwriter Anna Hamilton kept an 8x10 glossy of Cher beside her desk as she penned the script. Bogdanovich, too, was drawn to Cher after he wrote a story on Sonny and Cher for the Sunday Evening Post two decades earlier. “Cher has an element of danger,” the real-life Rusty, working as a consultant on the movie, said. “You never know what she’s going to say or do next. We share that element of danger.”

Early on, Cher liked Bogdanovich's style of directing—he “tells you exactly what to do and you listen to it and then you do what you want to do.” Over the course of filming, though, tensions between the two flared. Bogdanovich frequently ignored Cher’s suggestions. The production company decided to cut two scenes that Bogdanovich had deemed crucial to the film’s continuity and stamped out Bruce Springsteen songs, the real-life Rocky’s favorite, for Bob Seger melodies due to licensing issues. Cher sided with the production company and endorsed the final product. To Bogdanovich, this registered as a betrayal.

Actor Val Kilmer, with whom Cher was in a relationship at the time, walked out on her during the filming process. “That was very painful,” she said of the breakup, “and it took me a long time to get over it, but it helped my acting a lot. I was also being beaten up daily by Peter. That helped too.” This fed a performance that was blunt and clear-eyed. Cher gets many scenes in which to flex her fast-talking muscles, facing a world that views her son through the prism of his facial disfigurement and nothing else.

The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival under the dark cloud of Bogdanovich and Cher’s conflict. The two, like divorcing parents feuding over a child, held separate press conferences for the film and bad-mouthed one another on the red carpet. Cher still won the good graces of the Cannes jury, headed by Czech director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) that year. She shared the Best Actress trophy with Argentine actress Norma Aleandro. “What’s happening to me now reminds me of those old movies where the secretary trips and her glasses fall off and her boss exclaims, Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful,” Cher said of her Cannes win. “It’s like finally people can see that I’m just like everyone else. I have many different sides.”

Released stateside in March of 1985, the film earned Cher breathless press and another Golden Globe nomination. “It was obvious from her work for Robert Altman in Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that Cher had a lovely range as an actress,” Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote. “It might have been evident in Silkwood, except that we never got a chance to see Cher's character in close-up. She still works with something of a mask of her own, but the depths underneath it are powerful.” Mask was a confirmation of the promise she displayed in Jimmy Dean and Silkwood, now in a film that gave her a more full-bodied lead role.

But both Bogdanovich and Cher’s willingness to thrust this ill-will into the public arena, some biographers suspect, left a sour taste in the mouths of Academy Award voters that year. She was ultimately left off the list of Best Actress nominees at that year’s Oscars, a snub that routinely appears on lists of the more shocking omissions of the Academy Award nominations.

Cher took it as a slight against her quest to be taken seriously. As a form of retaliation, she devised a plan to get the Academy to sit up and pay attention to her, resulting in one of the more indelible moments in the history of the awards. Presenting the Oscar to Cocoon’s Don Ameche for Best Supporting Actor, she waltzed on stage in a feather headdress and violently bejeweled, skin-exposing costume.

“As you can see, I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress,” she joked. It was as much a fuck you to the governing body who chose to overlook her performance as it was a statement of purpose. A “serious actress”? Cher would be one on her own terms. If there were rules for how to be a serious actress, she would rewrite them.


1987 would turn out to be a banner year for Cher in cinema.

The press Cher received for Mask afforded her the luxury of becoming picky with her roles. She turned down Diane Keaton’s role in Baby Boom and Debra Winger’s in Black Widow.

Just months after the Oscars, in May of 1986, she got an offer from George Miller, the Australian director then best known for the Mad Max movies. He was mounting a movie adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick, a book by John Updike about three female friends in New England who, one by one, fall prey to the whims of loutish man. This would give her the opportunity to work with the era’s greatest stars, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon.

Though Cher was cast at the behest of Warner Bros., the studio backing the film, due to her cachet, Miller was hesitant. He knew her only as half of Sonny & Cher, and figured she was better off in an Atlantic City showroom than in one of his movies. Shortly after Cher accepted the role, Miller backtracked on his original offer. He lied to her that Nicholson, who would play the film’s satanic male romantic lead, didn’t find her pretty enough to convincingly play one of his love interests. The production team stood by Cher and fought for her inclusion. By that point, she was a bankable star.

On set, Cher found Miller inattentive. (“I’m telling you, we didn’t get a thing out of the director. It was a bitch,” she said of her experience working with him.) She didn’t like the script much, either.But the role of Alex, a sculptress, was one that came naturally to her. Eastwick gives Cher one particular set piece speech, similar to the many she had in Mask, in which she lists the manifold repulsive attributes of Nicholson’s boorish Daryl before ending with the admission that he isn’t “even interesting enough to make me sick.”

After Eastwick wrapped, Cher began work on Moonstruck, directed by Canadian director Norman Jewison of In the Heat of the Night (1967) fame. Moonstruck was filmed between November 1986 and February 1987. Cher compared it to “getting paid lots of money to have a good time with a bunch of people you wouldn’t have minded spending time with anyway.” She would play Loretta Castorini, the Italian-American widow who works as a bookkeeper and dresses in earth-toned cardigans. She’s due to be married to a man she doesn’t love (Danny Aiello), and ends up falling for his brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). The role was a summation of Cher’s talents an actress. It gave her a chance to work in her natural register—tough, funny, and no-nonsense—with shades of her earlier dramatic work playing guarded, evasive wallflowers.

In the midst of working on Moonstruck, Cher got another offer for a movie by English director Peter Yates (Breaking Away, Bullitt). She had a week in between the two films. "I had seen her in Silkwood and in Mask and was impressed by a reality that I think she has,” Yates would say. “What she brings is an observation of life. She's inclined to let her intuition take over.” In Suspect, Cher plays a defense attorney in Washington, D.C., who is asked to go to bat for a mute, deaf homeless man (Liam Neeson) implicated in a murder. In the process, she steps into a forbidden affair with one of the jurors, played by Dennis Quaid. Though the film unfolds with plodding procedural stiffness, Cher buoys it with an agile performance. The role requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the fundamental ridiculousness of having Cher play a lawyer is negated by the fact that we are in the presence of a movie star.

When Eastwick came out in June of that year, few reviews singled Cher out for praise, instead commenting that she ingratiated herself well enough into the film’s broad, slapstick milieu. But she surprised critics, and gained momentum for awards, when Suspect opened in October; having been cast against type, it presented a welcome change of pace for her. “There has probably been no piece of casting this year more ineffably Hollywood than Cher as a busy, weary public defender in Peter Yates’s Suspect—Cher as a dedicated drudge,” Kael cheekily observed. “As the coming attractions might put it, Suspect brings you Cher as you've never seen her before. It brings Cher as a smart, tough, no-nonsense Washington public defender who lives entirely for her work,” Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote. “And she turns out to be surprisingly credible in this role, certainly a lot likelier than anything else about Peter Yates's new courtroom thriller, a genre that's a lot less novel than it sounds.” If the film’s efficient, procedural structure was staid, Cher infused some life into those proceedings.

Moonstruck opened on Christmas Day of that year and was an unexpected runaway success, earning Cher the best reviews of her career. The film offered further proof of her versatility; her film career, Eastwick notwithstanding, had thus far confined her to dramatic heavy lifting. In Moonstruck, she had a tartly comic, front-and-center leading part. “As a young widow whose life suddenly shifts 180 degrees under the spell of an extraordinary full moon, Cher finally has a role that lets her comic sensibilities out for a romp,” Benson said. “[She] drops, with a Brooklyn-Italian lilt, into a juicy romantic comedy character as though she'd been brought up in the neighborhood.”

Kael saw this as a realization of Cher’s potential, a consummation of all she could offer as an actress. “Cher is right at home in the screwball ethnic comedy Moonstruck,” she argued. “She doesn’t stare at the camera and act the goddess. She moves around, she shouts, and when she lets her hair down, a huge dark mass of crinkly tendrils floats about her tiny face. (What a prop!) Cher isn’t afraid to be a little crazy here, and she’s devastatingly funny and sinuous and beautiful.” Cher had reached a point in her career wherein her brilliance on film was a given: “Cher, as expected, is excellent,” Denby wrote.

These critical hosannas were accompanied by an onslaught of awards, from the Golden Globe to the Oscar. The nominations alone were seen almost as a fait accompli: when veteran actress Lillian Gish, then 94, was snubbed for The Whales of August that year, she reportedly said, "Now I won't have to go and lose to Cher.”

The audience was ebullient at Cher’s win. Meryl Streep, one of her earliest cheerleaders, was herself nominated against Cher for her work in Ironweed,and rose to her feet within moments of Paul Newman announcing Cher’s name as the winner. The crowd at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles followed suit“In the early eighties,” film historian Douglas Brode wrote in The Films of the Eighties, “Cher’s personal style and off-camera antics may have been too much to accept, despite the star’s box office allure and the quality of her work. But by the decade’s end, the old guard has passed and the hip new Hollywood perceived in Cher—see-through, bare-nearly-all outfits, frizzed hair, frankly stated and unbelted opinions—a person quite appropriate to them.” The Oscar was a fitting completion to the artistic passage she had successfully undergone in that decade, and the goodwill she’d accrued in a remarkably short span of time.


There was an expectation following her Academy Award win that Cher would continue to be a dominant force in American cinema. But her next move was a musical one. In November of 1987, Cher released her self-titled rock album. It was a hit, unlike her album earlier that decade. Another album in 1989, Heart of Stone, would see the release of one of her biggest singles, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” coupled with a music video in which she prances around on a navy ship and straddles cannons.

She laid low until her next movie, 1990’s Mermaids. “I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do,” she said of this dry spell. “I was desperately looking. There are not a lot of great scripts and there are so many women in my area … Because of my age and because I’m a woman, I’m not going to get the best script out of thirty scripts. I’m going to hope that I get the best script out of two or four scripts and I’m going to wait a long time for them.”

Mermaids went through two directors, Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz, before Cher eventually got her way and settled on Richard Benjamin (My Favorite Year, The Money Pit). She modeled her character, a single mother raising two daughters (Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci), after her own mother, Georgia, always itinerant as she moved her daughters from one home to another across the country. It was a role in which she could easily excel, but one that barely stretched her. “The flamboyant Mrs. Flax is too much, which means that she's just about right for Cher,” Vincent Canby wrote. Winona Ryder, then Hollywood’s ascendant ingénue, got most notices for the film, including a National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe nomination in the same category. This gave more ammunition to Cher’s skeptics, as if she had reached the apex of her craft with Moonstruck, and there was nowhere to go but down. “What were we waiting for?” David Thomson, hardly a fan, asked of Cher’s three-year withdrawal from films. “Her Hedda Gabler? Her Elektra? Her Lady MacBeth?”

The gap between Cher’s movies got bigger. Movie sets began to make Cher grow bored and restless. Before long, she became disenchanted with the world of cinema altogether, not helped by frequent bouts of exhaustion brought on by Epstein-Barr virus. More profitable routes, infomercials and music, beckoned, prompting some to suspect that her dalliance with film was a detour on her way to becoming a superstar.


If there is an insistence that actresses must destroy parts of themselves to create anew and appease audiences, Cher eschewed this dictum entirely. One gets the sense, watching Cher on screen, that she is working within her natural register—mettled, tough, and a little sarcastic—to create these characters rather than strenuously trying to reinvent herself as someone she isn’t. Her finest performances were subtle inflections of her widely known persona fused with actorly intuition.

“Look, I have a very narrow range,” she told Frank Bruni, the man who once questioned whether she could act all the way back in 1981, seven years ago. “I’ve never tried anything more than playing who I am. If you look at my characters, they’re all me.”

Cher was speaking to Bruni on the occasion of the release of Burlesque, her most recent live action film. (She lent her voice to animated film Zookeeper in 2011.) Burlesque barely exists as cinema, too genteel to be the trashy fun it postures as. Despite the promise of having the same screenwriter who wrote her Oscar-winning role, John Patrick Shanley, do touch-ups on the script, the film does not know what to do with Cher. It gives her two numbers to belt, including the movie’s bravado-tinged battle cry, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” but little in the way of dramatic heft. The film treats her as less of an actress and more of a monument. Wesley Morris, writing for The Boston Globe, was especially shrewd when he wrote that Cher’s face “remains a peerless instrument,” the kind that “belongs to a wise woman with a performer’s heavy soul.” His conclusion? “A movie called Burlesque is probably not the place to bare it.” As a comeback vehicle, the film was inadequate.

Though it’s somewhat odd to think of Cher in the context of any era other than the one she defined, perhaps her talents would be more widely appreciated today had she risen to prominence in the time of the old Hollywood star system. Her presence in cinema recalls those of screwball comediennes like Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne, who possessed a basic consistency of persona. Nowadays, though, actresses like Meryl Streep have set a new goalpost for American acting, resulting in a conflation of “best” and chameleonic, and a prizing of versatility as it has now come to be measured. Versatility is no longer simply defined as the agility between, say, dramatic and comedic styles, a skill Cher proved herself to possess. Versatility, as it stands today, is now judged through the ability to deftly handle an accent, a willingness to undergo laborious physical transformation, or to go method. The Streep school of acting dominates critical rhetoric surrounding acting at the expense of work like Cher’s, less technical and more spontaneous.

Charisma can’t be reduced to a calculus. Cher’s very being on film provokes fascination and, above all else, identification. In her films, she engages the innocent fantasy that brings so many of us to the movies in the first place: That we can come to know these stars, who look as imposing and untouchable as giants in the public eye, as intimately as we know ourselves.

Mayukh smiles at the camera in front of a city backdrop

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (2021). His biography of the Indian-born Old Hollywood actress Merle Oberon is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Company. He is also working on a book of essays about soap operas. He has received a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing.