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Jeff Simon

What if an actress playing her doesn't have Judy Garland's chops?

Jeff Simon

The illustration of the great Yiddish word "chutzpah" that most people know is this one: A kid kills his mother and father and pleads to the judge for mercy because he's an orphan.

Let's try to offer a new one: A mediocre singing actress makes a biopic where she goes ahead and sings the repertoire of the most intense and idiosyncratic singing powerhouse in Hollywood movie history.

I give you "Judy." And Renee Zellweger playing Judy Garland at the end of her life in that movie. If you have ever admired chutzpah at all -- and I almost always do -- you have to admire Zellweger's nerve in trying to get away with the Garland songbook in her otherwise eerily effective portrayal of Garland's life in "Judy."

Some people are talking about an Oscar for Zellweger for this movie, but I'm not one of them. As much as her chutzpah deserves a prize of its own, it is so clearly a symptom of dramatic overreach that it's one of several things that almost torpedoes the film. Almost.

Judy Davis knew better. When the great Australian actress won a well-deserved Emmy for her portrayal of Garland in TV's "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows", she was like an exposed power line giving sparks when she played Garland, but wisely left the singing to recordings of the real woman, whose melodramatic and breathless vibrato was a law unto itself. Her "sound of heartbreak" had virtually been part of her act since she was first put to work at the age of 3 in Vaudeville's singing "Gumm Sisters."

An actress who plays Garland without rendering unto Judy What Properly Belonged to Judy is only asking for trouble. And Zellweger gets it -- not enough to kill her performance, but enough to cause unneeded added woe to the movie.

Zellweger is otherwise too good for that. I must confess to being a little impressed at how her face contorts into the same sort of pinched myopia you'd see on Garland in her final years.

The trouble with trying to emulate such an inimitable singer is that it's impossible unless you're a professional impressionist. What Sissy Spacek did with Loretta Lynn's songs in "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Joaquin Phoenix did with Johnny Cash's in "I Walk the Line" were much easier for conventional actors to simulate. There was much less trouble to get into.

The movie "Judy" is based on a successful British play and it's about the end of the singer's life in London, when she was an unholy mess of debt, substance abuse and the rotten general residue of a lifetime of showbiz exploitation.

Even among great female singers -- who are renowned for marrying parasites and financial incompetents -- Garland's romantic taste in those of the male persuasion was singularly rotten. With the exception of her first husband, the truly great Hollywood filmmaker Vincente Minnelli ("Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Clock," with Garland, "Some Came Running," "Lust for Life," among many others), the men in Garland's life weren't worth much.

The film foreshortens a lot of the tale and only tells us about two: Sid Luft, who was delighted to spend her money on women and the ponies; and her final husband, about whom the less said.

Zellweger's chutzpah in a tough spot isn't the only admirable thing about "Judy." I admire the film's ending which, after finding a climax at its most pitilessly cliched moment, suddenly gives the film over to Garland's phenomenally loyal audience, whose existence even now so many decades after her death, is something of a phenomenon.

What we tend to forget about homosexuality is that it was illegal in English language countries for much of the 20th century. Any performer as obviously sympathetic to gay audiences as Garland was,  showed the world a face both brave and compassionate. Such heroism almost demands a return in this world and her audiences gave it to her and -- wherever they endure -- still does.

Garland's audience, it seems to me, is more the stuff of legend than the performer herself. It was inspired, then, of the film "Judy" to pay such tribute to that audience.

For the rest of the film you're watching Judy's Showbiz Gothic -- her fight to keep her career alive in her '40's (a lousy life decade, traditionally, for Hollywood actresses back then) and to keep custody of her two kids with Sid Luft, even though she was quite literally homeless.

The English audiences still loved her and so that's where her career had to be -- sans children.

I wish the film had given us a lot more of the Garland sense of humor, which was legendary, along with the rest of her. What everyone who knew her cherished was that she was wickedly funny, with both words of that phrase taken literally. A darker satiric chronicler of M-G-M probably never existed than Judy Garland in private conversation.

Zellweger's overreach got me thinking about actors caught in the perilous snares of overreach.

I find it amazing how hostile audiences can be in the Internet Era. I found the fanboy Twitter denunciation of the all-female version of "Ghostbusters" to be one of the fouler moments in the entire history of the adolescent male gender. It was, by my lights, an interesting idea, just as it was an interesting idea (and financially rewarded as such) to make an all-female version of "Ocean's 11."

You'd have thought with "Ghostbusters" something precious had been besmirched. Maybe it's because the hugely successful film was never a fraction as impressive as its box office, which made its audience's protective reaction that much more desperate.

Any actress playing Garland in a biopic is going to have that quandary -- to sing or not to sing. It comes with the territory.

Imagine, if you can, what comes with the territory every time they come up with a new person to play James Bond. No one will ever equal Sean Connery, but that was never a good reason to put the series to bed. So they still haven't.

There is even now a fringe that offers up the idea the next actor to do so ought to be a woman. The world, they say, is ready for Jane Bond. As creative challenges go, that's a beauty. The fanboys will go nuts.

Personally, I thought the minute someone mentioned Idris Elba -- People Magazine's "sexiest man alive" -- as a successor to Daniel Craig's Bond, I was all in.

Now there's a creative wrinkle after all these years. Elba could do all that Connery-cool stuff in his sleep, I think. He's got the sex appeal and savor faire.

Too bad Zellweger's vocal chops weren't really up to Garland's.

As far as everything else goes, her chutzpah just proved to the world that under pressure she had the right stuff.

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