Renee and “Judy”: Even Glitter in a Shadow Still Shines

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Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland (BBC Films/Roadside Attractions)

In the midst of the many battle lines that divide today’s world, you might not have caught that in certain circles, the new film “Judy” is the source for some very fierce pop culture skirmishes.

There’s Camp-Judy’s-Kids, purist fans who align with Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli in condemning the film outright (without seeing it) in order to “protect her legacy.” The defense from this group, which includes Michael Feinstein and other celebrities you probably imagined spend their evenings singing around a piano, says that the movie is making things up, that they are tired of Judy being portrayed as a self-destructive addict, and that she had a delicious sense of humor which is never portrayed accurately as a counter-balance to depictions of her woes.

There’s Camp-Pro-Renee-Comeback, which focuses less on Judy and more on Renee Zellweger returning to the screen in a splashy, dramatic and highly challenging way. This group would maintain that it never gave up on Zellweger, felt compassion when she was publicly bullied for perceptions related to her appearance, and have been waiting for her to have a substantial dramatic lead role for a while. They think the considerable critical acclaim for Zellweger’s performance brings a type of karmic balance to the Zellweger-bashing of a few years back (see also: Anne Hathaway.)

There’s Camp-O.G. (Original Garland) who are willing to grant that Zellweger may take on Judy Garland brilliantly but it’s objectionable that the effort and money was spent for a new Judy biopic, only to leave out that which is inimitable in their scorebooks: Judy Garland’s actual voice, which they presumably wanted Zellweger to lip-synch. This group shouts “karaoke!” at anything less.

There’s definitely the Give Her a Chance Camp, that remembers that Judy Davis also looked like a longshot to embody Garland, but she did so with neurasthenic brilliance, and wants to see what Zellweger can do. This group is pairing up with the Advance Word Says Give Zellweger the Oscar March.

While these various groups post their stances and dig into their positions, there’s also all kinds of non-fighting communities that are showing up to see the film and make its box office and awards-season prospects glow: musical theater geeks, the whole cult universe of Wizard of Oz, including transfer fans of “Wicked”, lovers of musical tragedies, the Turner Classics and Criterion crowds and then Gay Men, whose gathering of the tribes alone includes Show Queens, Brunch Bears, Leathermen Who Love Liza and more.

Finding a place to stake your ground amidst these competing Garland devotees is not easy, and I think it begins by at least considering the courage (or foolishness?) of any actor who would dare step into Judy’s size five black heels and march onto a soundstage. At this point, the character of “Judy Garland”, played by drag queens forever in renderings both affectionate and savage, has risen to pantheon levels. To seriously portray Judy is to climb up Mt. Olympus, or to parse Shakespearean comparisons, the classic Hollywood version of taking on Hamlet, knowing it will test your actor’s mettle and serve you up for audience debate. In a word, “gutsy.”

But bravery only gets you so far. To say that Renee Zellweger is transcendent in “Judy” is not just movie-quote hyperbole. Through considerable skill and sheer force of will Zellweger rises above the anticipatory fan squabbles and expectations and in notable ways, the limitations of standard biopics and the familiarity of Garland’s life arc as well. It’s not just the actress’ portrayal of Judy Garland that fascinates; it’s riveting to watch Zellweger both inhabit Garland and stand apart from her, refusing to fully lose herself or “disappear” in the way people sometimes associate with “Great Acting.” She’s less reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s approach to “become” the character chameleonically, and has more in common with screen legends like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who took their personas with them into every role, though for a near post-modern purpose in “Judy.” It’s as though she’s saying that the best way to counter the Hollywood system that caused an extraordinarily gifted woman to subsume herself into the part created for her is to show an actress today who can retain herself even when immersing herself into another woman’s legendary persona.

In “Judy”, the film version of the play “End of the Rainbow” about the last year of Judy Garland’s life and her series of disturbingly uneven concerts in London, we see Zellweger choosing more often to suggest Judy Garland rather than replicate her. She follows the acting instruction that it’s better to give an impression of a real-life person rather than an imitation. While some may be disappointed and disparage Zellweger’s ability for this, It’s not a lack of “technique” or skill in evidence here but rather a decision to walk on a tightrope. To one side, Zellweger finds just enough of Garland’s vocal dips and swerves to evoke her unmistakably, yet still find details to surprise us. To the other the actress creatively focuses on Garland’s flinty strength and the battle to lead her life rather than be led by her drug habit (which the movie makes clear she has inherited after years of abuse at the hands of Louis B. Mayer and his enforcers.)

Zellweger’s brilliance in this area can be seen just in the many ways she walks in and out of a scene, leading with her face and chest, as though Garland was trying to rush down the aisle of a hurtling train, or as if long-armed dark forces are towing her. There are several performances of full songs once Garland/Zellweger finally gets onto the nightclub stage, and the actress’ unpredictable use of the icon’s famously staccato, theatrical gestures, microphone-cord whipping and body positioning while singing is thrilling. It also has to be noted that Zellweger is not singing Garland at the height of her powers; she is tasked with capturing Garland when her voice was growing tattered and erratic, adding another impressive layer to this performance. If you want to deny yourself an opportunity to see one great actress pay honest tribute to another because of purist arguments, you’ve made a choice out of some sense of loyalty or claim to sophistication, but I’m glad I don’t have to follow you there.

Because the truth is that Zellweger’s summoning of Garland should not inspire derision from devoted fans but rather appreciation for the amount of compassion and understanding she brings to the role. In many ways, the film is both a contemporary feminist interpretation of the oft-reported Garland story and a love letter to her. Flashbacks to Garland’s years as a child actor at MGM show the incredible lack of agency and control she had over her life and instincts, and the brewing anger that grew inside her in response. The indisputably cruel level of psychological and physical harm Garland was subjected to over and over within the studio system has complete relevance to #metoo and to the latest generation of popular stars who martyr themselves at the altar of success.

Some have said these sequences of how the MGM studio system enslaved its stars are highly familiar, even a cliche to longtime Garland and Hollywood fans. There’s a difference between reading history and seeing it portrayed. To the public she was the lucky girl who got to date Mickey Rooney and dance with Gene Kelly; in reality, her life was a hell she contractually couldn’t escape. To use current parlance, Frances Gumm was repeatedly traumatized and while her brain was forming, her neural pathways were shredded into upper and downer narcotic delivery systems. Any of us could be tortured by jet-lag in a trip from LA to London, but for someone who took pills to do what her brain synapses should have done, it must have been torture. Yet despite this grotesque physical affliction, Garland could still yearn, love, dream and most wondrously of all, inventively dramatize a song or deliver a lacerating dramatic performance (consider her work in “Judgement at Nuremberg”, “A Star is Born” and “A Child is Waiting.”) No wonder the gay community found in her an avatar and a totem for hope.

Not that Zellweger, director Rupert Goold and writer Tom Edge give us a Judy who is only a victim, or at least, who doesn’t try to keep forging her own destiny. Here again we see Zellweger’s range and ability to hint at all sides of Garland. She’s inventive in the way she shows affection to her children and nobly anguished at being indefinitely separated from them. She’s determined to reunite her family, but bewildered at how her life of fame has led her not to an Oz-like gleaming castle but to a limited range of dead-ends.

And yet, Judy moves through the world with a passive-aggressive air of superiority to those in “the business” who must attend to her; it makes sense that for someone who has been a “star” nearly her entire life, she has created a force field of defensiveness that comes right up to the edge of rudeness but hangs back when she assesses she may need the person at hand. Zellweger is particularly nuanced in drawing the curtain back on the Midwestern form of diva smugness Garland used to survive the constant parade of assistants and fans who threaded through her privacy and life. And it’s not just Garland; it’s quite possible to consider Zellweger and the filmmakers are making a comment on how insidiously corrupting entitlement can be.

You may wonder if Renee Zellweger is drawn to exposing this aspect of fame because she’s lived through its vicissitudes herself. And in fact, if you’ve followed her career at all, Zellweger has experienced some pretty steep ups and downs, and you wouldn’t be the only audience member who watches “Judy” for Garland’s story but also ends up contemplating Renee. Where the story concerns Judy Garland’s grievous reluctance to leave her children in order to stage a comeback in London with some hope of finding financial stability, it may pop in your head that it feels like Renee Zellweger, after some absence from the screen, is in “comeback” territory as well. Instead of distracting, this brief sense that the actors are in dialogue with each other adds an element of frisson.

And yet in some ways, despite the online abuse Zellweger has faced in the past, she’s here to triumph and even show she, like Garland’s talent, can’t be vanquished. Without too much in the way of spoilers, it’s enough to say that during one remarkable moment of singing, Zellweger seems to break the fourth wall: “You thought I wasn’t evoking Judy? Well, here’s my natural voice.” In these few seconds, which are daring and perhaps debatable, Goold frames the actress in a close-up lit to show a split between “Judy Garland” and “Renee Zellweger.” Is it a bit of a tribute to both, or a moment to let fans know how much devotion the filmmakers have put into their efforts. It may even be a continuation of the theme that today there’s greater hope that strong women can survive and thrive.

You only get a few seconds to contemplate this in the dark, because the film offers an ending the play didn’t, and it’s a moving way to offer a testament to the power of fandom and community and a way to carve an ending that can leave us with a comforting moment of light when we all know the darkness that lies ahead. The climax, and an earlier scene when Garland visits the apartment of two male fans, is also a tribute to Garland’s well-known legion of LGBTQ fans, who have embraced the wistfulness of Oz and the catharsis, even exorcism, Judy Garland could offer in performance.

“Judy” may be occasionally revelatory, but it’s not a full artistic triumph. After the barrelhouse opening scenes, a sinking feeling may set in as you realize that the film is going to squarely land in the addiction movie genre. This is not going to be an MGM musical or a soaring fantasia somehow taking advantage of Zellweger’s abilities; “Judy” will show a beloved star nodding out. The movie soars in fits and starts, but not fully as a whole, and it can’t quite figure out how to be as inventive as it wants to be.

Somewhere buried shallowly in the criticism of those who object to even the concept of Renee Zellweger portraying Judy Garland is the particular burden that lingers on many actors who have become celebrated for romantic comedy roles, and Zellweger will always be Bridget Jones to some, or reduced to a stale “You had me at hello” “Jerry Maguire” joke. But consider her entire career. In one of her earliest and best films, “The Whole Wide World”, she is heart piercing as a teacher who loses a great love to unusual circumstances. In “Cinderella Man” she is full of tenderness and strength. In the inexplicably underrated “Down with Love”, she handles satiric pop pastiche with considerable skill and aplomb; I’ll stop to watch her breathless but hyper-verbal performance (and by the way, tribute to another legend — Doris Day) any time I channel surf upon it. Zellweger’s a wonder in “Down with Love”, but it’s just the kind of film that let’s filmgoers feel superior, and the film was unfairly dismissed. Even when she was cast as “Bridget Jones”, it was a shock because few thought this “Texas girl” could pull off this beloved but decidedly British best-selling character; after the film was released, people had a hard time imagining anyone else in the part.

Now a heroic attempt at portraying, even re-imagining Judy Garland has brought Zellweger once again to public scrutiny, and once again, she not only triumphs, she transcends. She’s sensational, galvanizing, electrifying in “Judy” and if the film doesn’t ultimately live up to her, it’s not her fault. The movie needs more of the daring and pizazz it shows when Judy is finally pushed out on stage by her empathetic assistant (Jessie Buckley, making the most of her part) and the camera swoops operatically. The role that has provoked the most skepticism about Renee Zellweger’s abilities will likely be one of her most memorable career achievements and don’t be surprised if in another parallel, it results in an Oscar contest not unlike the infamous one between Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” and Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl.”

Judy Garland was a truly once-in-a-generation type of talent. Children could imagine her as a surrogate guide to a land of dreams beyond rainbows, and gay people could relate to how that rainbow sometimes cast a shadow with faded hues. But even then, there are sparkles, bits of glitter, that will not be repressed, that still search for any bit of light to reflect. And that’s what Renee Zellweger, in a performance of astonishing generosity, humility and love, is offering us in not only in darkened theaters but at a time when the world has far too many looming black clouds. Why would you miss it?

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