NEW YORK – His last two albums entered the charts at No. 1. He's stolen the show at the MTV Music Awards for two years running. But can Eminem make it on the big screen?
His legion of fans -- and his equally numerous pool of detractors -- will learn the answer on Nov. 8 when 8 Mile, a gritty street saga starring the controversial rapper, arrives in theaters.
Unlike Method Man, Jay-Z and other rappers who've moved from music to movies, the Detroit native (born Marshall Mathers) is making his film debut in a big-budget drama helmed by an established director (L.A. Confidential Oscar nominee Curtis Hanson).
Rather than the typical quickie comedy or action film directed by a music video wunderkind, 8 Mile harkens back to the teen-idol star vehicles of an earlier era, telling the story of a poor, aspiring rapper stymied by gang rivalries and family problems that are more West Side Story than Boyz 'N The Hood.
But any talk of Oscar buzz may be premature. Even though Eminem has displayed a fondness for role-playing in his provocative albums and videos, the film doesn't demand much of a stretch.
His character, Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr., lives with his single mother (Kim Basinger) in a Detroit slum -- just as Eminem did when he was starting out -- and works menial jobs during the day while participating in amateur rap contests at night.
But this is a kinder, gentler Eminem. The film sanitizes the rapper's real life in ways that may ingratiate him to those who've denounced him: Jimmy has a loving relationship with his mother (Eminem has feuded with his for years and made her the subject of some of his most incendiary raps) and goes out of his way to stick up for a gay co-worker (in real life, his language has made him a frequent target of gay-rights groups).
And in marked contrast to the violent, threat-laden songs Eminem has directed at his ex-wife Kim, Jimmy forgives a cheating girlfriend (Brittany Murphy).
"Rabbit shows a much more narrow range of emotions than I do," said Eminem.
Such moves seem especially shrewd in light of the boos generated during Eminem's appearance at the last MTV Music Awards, which suggested that his shoot-from-the-lip act is in danger of growing stale.
"This movie is going to change the way a lot of people look at him," promised producer Brian Grazer.
Perhaps, then, the real question isn't whether Eminem can make it in the movies, but whether his die-hard fans will brand him a sellout for starring in a film that makes him look like a nice guy.