Tawdry and overheated, featuring arguably the blowsiest cinematic catfight since Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, this year’s surprise hit thriller Obsessed is no one’s idea of a respectable movie. The story follows an investment banker (Idris Elba) whose marriage to his former secretary (Beyoncé Knowles) is threatened by a psychotic office temp (Ali Larter). Mashing up elements of Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, and even Jungle Fever, the movie turns more hysterical and daffy as it goes along. By the climax, Knowles is forced to deliver lines like “You think you’re crazy? I’ll show you crazy. Just try me, bitch,” while Larter finds herself literally swinging from the chandelier.
Yet if Obsessed wins no points for elegance, it certainly shows us a cheesy good time. And its considerable success at the box office (it debuted at number one and grossed more than $65 million domestically) reveals something else unexpected: Houston-born Knowles, who rose to international celebrity as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child before moving on to a platinum-selling solo career, has fashioned herself into a movie star. She has appeared in only six films in the past seven years—one an instantly forgotten trifle ( The Fighting Temptations), another a certifiable dog ( The Pink Panther). But along the way she has made intelligent choices, shifting easily between artistic-minded projects ( Dreamgirls, Cadillac Records) and commercial ones ( Austin Powers in Goldmember) and performing with a modesty you might not expect from someone said to be a diva. Obsessed, which was marketed partly on the strength of her brand, brought her slow-burning film career to a boil. More than any crossover since Bette Midler, she seems to understand how to cultivate a screen image that can last for years. She might even have the chops to become a major actress.
The path from musical to cinematic icon is, of course, a notoriously rocky one that has produced more than a few female casualties over the years. Sometimes pop stars choose to play unintentionally campy versions of themselves (Mariah Carey in Glitter). More often, they prove to have truly dreadful taste in material (everything Madonna made after Desperately Seeking Susan and everything Jessica Simpson has ever made). In the case of Jennifer Lopez, early promise in Selena and Out of Sight devolved into woebegone vanity projects like Bordertown and El Cantante. (Male musicians seem to have an easier time of all this, perhaps because so many of them—including Willie Nelson, Mos Def, and Justin Timberlake—are content to play supporting characters and leave the heavy lifting to the “real” actors.) But right from her splendid debut, in Goldmember, playing Austin Powers’s tough-talking, pistol-packing, blaxploitation-inspired sidekick, Foxxy Cleopatra, Knowles seemed to grasp what many others have not: As an inexperienced actress, you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but not so far that you make a fool of yourself. Sporting a giant Afro and a series of gorgeously form-fitting leather and lamé costumes, she glides through her scenes with an infectious easy-does-it grin, putting a honey-coated spin on decidedly dopey dialogue (“You have the right to remain sexy, sugar”). The part is so small and goofy that her technical limitations hardly seem to matter.
That willingness to blend into an ensemble and never bite off more than she can chew has served Knowles very well. Despite the accusations that have been leveled at her over the years—that she and her father, Matthew Knowles, elbowed out the ablest members of Destiny’s Child and that her ego eventually caused the group to disband—she never tries to make herself bigger on-screen than the material. Take another look at her underappreciated work in Dreamgirls, in which she plays the Diana Ross-inspired Deena Jones, a beautiful but only marginally talented musician who is chosen to replace her less glamorous friend (Jennifer Hudson) as the lead singer of a sixties girl group. In her scenes opposite Hudson, Knowles graciously steps aside and