This article contains very mild Don’t Worry Darling spoilers.
Harry Styles is not terrible in Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. Which is not to say he is particularly good. Like a fancy ‘50s dinner party where the meal is neither fish nor fowl, the performance is adequate; a rough-around-the-edges first attempt at being a leading man that doesn’t technically distract from the movie. It doesn’t help it either.
Unfortunately, with a film titled Don’t Worry Darling that is a problem. By the very notion of its moniker, in which the slow-boiling menace of being gaslit by your partner is implicit, the most important role after the “darling”—who is here portrayed by a magnetic Florence Pugh—is that of the husband telling her not to worry. In the actual Gaslight movie of 1944, from which sprang the popular term for misleading the almost always female spouse, Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for enveloping audiences into her Gothic nightmare. However, you still needed Charles Boyer to sell the persuasive insidiousness of a man patronizing her to the point of madness.
Despite being a blindingly charismatic presence behind a mic, onscreen Styles struggles to convince the audience that he’s an everyman, never mind the Beelzebub on Pugh’s shoulder. Of course Don’t Worry Darling has many other problems, some of which far overshadow Styles’ simple serviceability. Still, Wilde’s vision of a Norman Rockwell hell does flicker to life from time to time. And these moments of dread most persuasively appear when Chris Pine, who plays Styles’ smug boss, finally gives Pugh a sparring partner worthy of her talents. When actors of that caliber cross swords, you feel the sparks ignited by their tension.
This is all to say we’re not ready to damn Styles as an actor yet. He’s still young, and was convincing enough in his admittedly smaller role in Dunkirk, and we have not yet seen his next turn in My Policeman. Even so, Styles’ Don’t Worry Darling performance evokes the ghost of a seemingly eternal problem that comes whenever Hollywood casts a pop star or beloved musician: What can they bring to the film besides the stunt of instant audience recognition and curiosity?
During the much vaunted Golden Age of Hollywood, Tinseltown was more shameless about relying on a.m. radio darlings to sell tickets over the need to sell stories. During the 1950s, where Don’t Worry Darling’s insulated community of Victory exists, some of the highest paid movie stars were music men first: Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. Heck, one of the biggest latter day successes of MGM’s famed musical assembly line under Arthur Freed—the veritable Marvel Studios of its day—was 1956’s High Society. That movie starred Crosby and Sinatra together(!), trading barbs and singing new Cole Porter tunes.
All that star power made it one of the highest grossing movies of its year, but even then the picture ran into major roadblocks with the critics. Perhaps that was inevitable, however, since it was a remake of the far superior The Philadelphia Story (1940) from 16 years earlier. And before Crosby and Sinatra sleep-walked through those roles, they belonged to the far more game Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart—opposite Katharine Hepburn no less, who with no disrespect to High Society’s Grace Kelly, is one of the greatest actresses the screen has ever seen. Another way to put this is that if you need to cast someone as an everyman journalist who looks down on the excesses and vanities of the rich, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life makes a lot more sense than the guy Lauren Bacall dubbed the biggest rat of the Rat Pack.
This is not to pick on Sinatra, who was far better in far better movies before and after High Society. It’s just that like so many other musicians, he brought a lot of baggage to the movies—and his secondary talent of acting rarely was able to get past those stacks of luggage trailing behind him. Recently, Baz Luhrmann brought attention to that irony of show business in his Elvis biopic where the so-called “King of Rock ’n Roll” has his hard edges sandblasted away for middle America by a manager who took Elvis Presley off the road where he was a revolutionary rock star and placed him into increasingly generic (read: awful) musical rom-com programmers.
As much else with Presley, there’s a whiff of unfulfilled potential in this. After all, he did show some traces of actual acting talent in a few early pictures like Flaming Star, but he never got to fully explore that side because audiences and his management were uninterested in seeing him really try. But in defense of that cynicism, what were the odds Presley ever would have amounted to the standards set by the actors he idolized? Could he ever have been as good as James Dean or Marlon Brando?
Such has been the fate of many a pop star who went to Hollywood: From Elvis on down through the years, performers can move newspaper ink, and later internet traffic, but they don’t necessarily move you as dramatic thespians. Think of Madonna as Evita, Beyoncé as Diana Ross in all but name, or Justin Timberlake in almost any of his leading roles. There’s often a ceiling for performers who consider acting as a side gig that can be pursued between albums, and more often than not it can limit what they can do onscreen.
Yet many of these musicians mentioned in this article can be used to marvelous effect too. Timberlake, always a funny showman back when he regularly hosted Saturday Night Live, struggled and failed to become an action star after giving wooden performances in movies like In Time (2011) or Runner Runner (2013). But he practically stole David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). That film, which is considered by many to be one of the first masterpieces about the millennial generation, wasn’t dabbling in stunt casting by making Timberlake Sean Parker, the founder of Napster; Timberlake was cast because the baggage he brought as a pop star worked to the movie’s advantage.
At the time, Fincher said he didn’t necessarily think that Parker, a college dropout who revolutionized music streaming culture, was as cool as the young gun singing “SexyBack.” But to a then-college nerd like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network, who is desperate to make as much of an impact on the digital landscape as Napster did, Parker would look like Justin Timberlake. It was brilliant casting that made Zuckerberg’s seduction into the burgeoning 21st century tech scene of Palo Alto seem alluring and dangerous.
There are just as many good stories about pop star casting through the years. That also goes back to Sinatra who was used terrifically in From Here to Eternity (1953) and continues on to Eminem playing a version of himself in 8 Mile (2002), or more recently Lady Gaga receiving an Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born (2018), in which she plays…. a rising pop star who has a killer ballad. Also I personally cannot imagine better casting than David Bowie as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) or as a decadent and bedazzled Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986).
Stunt casting can work, and some musicians can even be great while being confined by a limited range. So we’re not ready to close the book on Styles yet or suggest his acting career can head in only one direction… but his performance in Wilde’s film does give reason to worry.