Monday, October 7, 2019

Judy: Finale

Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in Judy.

Renée Zellweger gives a fierce, fearless performance as Judy Garland in the new film Judy. She’s the movie’s Atlas, carrying it on her back; it’s not much good otherwise but you wouldn’t want to miss what she does in it. Adapted by Tom Edge from a play by Peter Quilter and directed by Rupert Goold, Judy is set in 1969, at the twilight of Garland’s career – when, bankrupt in her mid-forties, notoriously unreliable and fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she goes to London to perform at the nightclub Talk of the Town. At first you might think, as I did, that what Zellweger is offering up is a brilliant impersonation, that it lacks the spooky lived-in feeling of Judy Davis’s version of Garland in the 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend tracking it down: it’s the most amazing thing Davis has ever done, which means that it’s one of the greatest pieces of acting on record.) But when she finally gets up to sing – Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s singular paean to the power of loneliness, “By Myself,” with the lyrics altered to give it a personal slant – Zellweger’s portrayal takes hold. She gets all the elements of the singer in those late, hanging-on-by-her-fingernails days: the ironic, is-that-all-you’ve-got tone, matched to a widening gaze, as if she’s daring whatever monster she’s confronting to do its worst; the broadening of the cheekbones and the space between her eyebrows and her eyelids as she rides a song like a rollercoaster that threatens to jump its track; the way she uses those fragile shoulder blades, the bones practically bursting through the skin, to express sadness and defiance, sometimes simultaneously; the stiff, stick-like left hand, chopping at the air; the reckless belt in her voice that uses the little bit she has left of her range for an assertive thrust; the slurred final consonants; the self-deprecating pout and the half-closing of the eyes to signal defeat and resignation; the tough-broad, take-it-or-leave-it finish as she takes that weird, marionette bow. Zellweger captures Garland’s sardonic quality – part of her survivor’s apparatus – and the gallantry that made diehard loyalists out of her fans (especially gay men, who identified with her).

You don’t have to like late Judy Garland to be knocked out by Zellweger. God knows I don’t: I’m in thrall to her through her 1950 collaboration with Gene Kelly on Summer Stock (it was their second co-starring feature: he’d played opposite her in his first movie, For Me and My Gal, eight years earlier), but from the 1954 A Star Is Born on I find all that masochism, all that melodrama, painful to watch, and I don’t find the transition from the sweetness of her contralto in her forties movies and recordings to the grasping diva neuroticism of her 1950s and 1960s ones compelling. But the quality of the singing isn’t relevant in Judy; what’s important is what it tells us about the character. Zellweger gets inside the melodrama; you could say that here the melodrama is the point, because it’s the character’s only recourse, the only means left to her to express who she is. The idea behind the screenplay is that when Judy performs, it’s her way of getting her own back after the miserable way she was treated at MGM, after the merciless regimen and the pills and the basic girlish pleasures she was denied, and after her efforts to combat a terrifying sense of abandonment with marriages that never worked out. That’s a reasonable point of view and dramatically effective, and Zellweger gives it coherence. She has to, because neither the writing nor the direction is good enough. The flashbacks to Judy’s MGM days, where she’s manipulated by a proselytizing Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a tyrant masquerading as a paternal figure, are terrible. (Cordery’s lousy, but I’m not sure any actor could make those speeches convincing.) Sewell tries to bring some weight to his couple of scenes as Luft, and Finn Wittrock injects his first one as her final husband, Mickey Deans, with charm and energy, but when he shows up in London to surprise her and starts trying to manage her career, the role fades into a collection of clichés.

But it’s possible to find the picture dreary and maudlin and largely phony and still believe in everything Zellweger does. (Almost everything: her one miscalculation is crying through “Over the Rainbow” at the end.) There’s a programmatic scene where the studio stages a sweet sixteen for Judy (played in the flashbacks by Darci Shaw), months before her real birthday, on the set of The Wizard of Oz as a publicity stunt but won’t let her eat any of the cake because they’ve got her on a continual diet. But much later in the film, after the producer of her London show (Michael Gambon, wasted) fires her for showing up drunk and getting into a shouting match with hecklers in the audience, her pianist, Burt (Royce Pierreson), and Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, from Wild Rose), her sympathetic young English handler, take her out, and when we see the delicacy with which she tastes the cake they’ve ordered in her honor, we know without being reminded that in her mind it’s still a forbidden treat. The big fight she gets into with Mickey (when he disappoints her over a foolish scheme he cooked up to make her enough money so that she can return to the States and be close to her kids) is stock stuff, but when he blames the collapse on her, Zellweger flinches like a has-been boxer felled by a blow he didn’t see coming, and I found myself flinching in my seat too. A subplot about a gay couple whom she reaches out to after a show strains to make a point about why she’s heroic to her gay fans, but Zellweger makes us feel the loneliness that motivates her to spend the rest of the evening with them.

Did people really heckle Garland in London in 1969? That response seems out of character for the English audiences of half a century ago. That’s a quibble; less forgivable is the way Goold cuts away from a couple of Zellweger’s numbers or puts ridiculous Las Vegas-style showgirls behind her during “The Trolley Song” so that they almost crowd her off the stage, especially since the movie doesn’t otherwise imply that Garland is badly served by the Talk of the Town show. These are rookie mistakes – and Goold isn’t a rookie. Most of the time, though, he stays out of the way of his star, and she responds by rescuing one lame scene after another. In one, Mickey suggests naively that it would be great to team her up with The Rolling Stones, and Judy sees the skepticism in Rosalyn’s face. “You don’t think I could do it,” she protests, and then she adds, “He thinks I can do it.” It’s a double-barrel reaction: a failure of confidence rolling over into defensiveness. Zellweger is a genius at such moments, when the character seems to be taking on the world but you know she’s really at war with herself. Her career has been exasperatingly stop-and-start – she did sensational work in The Whole Wide World opposite Vincent D’Onofrio (which nobody saw) and, as everyone knows, in Chicago, but though she’s been lovely in a few other pictures (The Bachelor, Miss Potter), she doesn’t generally get the parts she deserves. Here she does; the casting is inspired, the work sensational.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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