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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

Looking to the stars for a little Hope

Everybody wants to be a something dash something.

Jennifer Lopez is called a singer-actress, though she can't sing, and is less an actress than a celebrity. Her ex, Sean "P. Diddy -- The One J.Lo Didn't Marry" Combs, collects titles like rare coins, and fancies himself a prodcuer-rapper-mogul-actor-restaurateur-fashion maven, when he's really the luckiest man in America. Eminem makes one movie, in which he essentially played himself, and instantly gets to claim membership in the Hollywood leading-man club.

Ah, the hyphens come cheap these days.

It's not enough for rappers to rap, singers to sing, or actors to act. Now, everyone with a modicum of success in one field strives to be branded as a double- or even triple-threat talent. Instead of the skills to back up their claims, they have outsized egos telling them they are artists and entertainers, instead of the flavor of the moment.

You know the notion of the multitasking celebrity has reached a disturbing new level when Jimmy Kimmel -- excuse me, that's comedian-talk show host Jimmy Kimmel -- on his late-night show recently introduced Tyson Beckford as an actor-supermodel. To date, Beckford's most notable acting gig came in the video for 50 Cent's "21 Questions." And, no, I don't count the headache-inducing "Biker Boyz," in which Beckford was billed below actor-rapper-singer Kid Rock.

Whatever happened to entertainers, the actors who could sing, the singers who could dance, and the dancers who could act? Frank Sinatra, for example, danced quite capably alongside the great Gene Kelly in such beloved musicals as "Anchors Aweigh" and "On the Town," and played straight dramatic roles in "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Man with the Golden Arm," and "From Here to Eternity," which earned him a best supporting actor Academy Award. Oh, and he was also one of the best singers in the history of popular music.

Most of the great entertainers, including Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Judy Garland, are long gone, and now two more also belong to the ages -- Bob Hope and Gregory Hines.

Though these men were different performers from different eras, their careers were sustained for decades by their remarkable versatility. Hope was first and foremost a comedian, but he was also an able actor, singer, and hoofer. Hines, called the best tap dancer of his generation, began performing with his brother Maurice, and with his father and brother as Hines, Hines and Dad. He showed off his abilities as an actor in "White Nights," "Running Scared," and "Waiting to Exhale," and also had a hit R&B ballad, "There's Nothing Better Than Love," a duet with Luther Vandross in the 1980s.

But it's rare to find current performers who possess a similar breadth and depth as entertainers. Who today could score a showbiz career Grand Slam by winning the Academy Award, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony, as did Rita Moreno, probably best known to younger audiences for her portrayal of Sister Peter Marie on HBO's now-defunct series "Oz"?

That's why the most remarkable thing about "Chicago," the Academy Award-winning film arriving on DVD today, wasn't its flashy resurrection of the American musical, the shock of seeing Richard Gere in a watchable role, or even the architectural splendor of Queen Latifah's cleavage, which has since been surgically downsized. It was Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Having already established herself as an compelling actress in such films as "Traffic" and "High Fidelity," Zeta-Jones proved in "Chicago," that her talents exceeded interpreting a screenwriter's words. She not only acted the part of vampy murderess Velma Kelly to within an inch of its life, but also sang and danced with an authority, confidence, and spirit not seen on screen in decades. It was a dazzling, Oscar-winning performance, marinated with the old school blood, sweat, and tears of performers who could do it all, and made the movies all the richer for it.

Zeta-Jones is one of the few today who has earned the right to add as many hyphens to her job description as she likes. She's a throwback, and perhaps a hopeful sign that the well-rounded entertainer is primed for a comeback. If not, we'll have to endure all those other acting rappers and singing actresses who regard themselves as double-threat, when their only threat is that they're pretty mediocre at both.

Renee Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at rgraham@globe.com

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