JUDY: Yes, it Begged for an Oscar, and it Won in more ways than anyone could hafve imagined

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So I wound up missing a great film, which sports a knockout performance by Zellweger, and only because she was up for Oscar consideration did I finally rent it, viewed it from the comfort of my own home two weeks before Oscar night (as the movie played, undeterred as it had now for 16 weeks, in select theaters, having peaked somewhere in the Christmas season), and realized that Judy, through the performance of Zellweger, had been resurrected.

However, thank goodness for a prompt DVD release, because it made me eligible to analyze Zellweger’s performance, and see for myself. Rupert Goold’s Judy focuses mainly on two time periods, The first period, the 1938 filming of The Wizard of Oz, a movie that has now cemented Garland as a Performer and has come to define her career, for better or worse. The latter period takes place during the last year of Garland’s life as she navigates a film career in the toilet, a singing career also seriously on the way south, poverty, the loss of her own children to then former husband Sid Luft, and a new opportunity to continue to make a living as a singer in London.

I’m going to have to disagree with most critics who have stated that the disparity of the two sequences blatantly omit the meat at the center and showcase an artist who was reaching an early career peak, countered by the startling reality that only 20 years later that same star would by then be a has-been. The disparity of these two sequences actually reinforce, rather than deny, the drama surrounding Garland, and zoom into the heights from which she fell into a state of almost unrecognizable neglect still propelled by her furious personality, itself propelled even more so by her unstoppable, unparalleled artistry. [Note: I do not worship at the Church of Judy; I don’t her recordings possess, and I only watch A Star is Born once every so often to remind myself of the power of acting when placed side by side with the tragedy of a performer’s own life, and how that can inform and make what would have been a correct performance something to look at in wonder. But I do recognize when a Performer arrives, and sorry, Meryl, you can sing, you have danced, and you can act in a multitude of accents and disappear into roles, but Judy is Performance.]

So, as I said, Judy the movie tackled the artist as a rising young performer and pits her against her almost unrecognizable, older, haggard self, months before her death from barbiturates. It’s a gut-punch of a move, because while she did have more than enough drama throughout the 40s while maintaining her status as a solid box-office draw, it’s in her formative years in MGM when the damage was branded into her as if she were a Holstein. The irony is that this is exactly how the industry and L. B, Mayer saw her, and yes, he did intervene with several of her future meltdowns, but let’s face it; he was the artifice and architect behind the assassination of Frances E. Gumm and the creation he threw against the world, the singing, acting, and dancing tour de force we know as Judy Garland. In a chilling scene following young Judy’s rebellion against the system who wouldn’t allow her to eat a burger, or celebrate her own birthday for fear she would gain weight, Mayer pretty much stabs her in the heart with this: “Your name is Frances Gumm. You’re a fat-ankled, snag-toothed rube from Grand Rapids. Your father was a faggot, and your mother only cares about what I think of you. Now do you remember who you are, Judy?”

Think of this; Garland was barely 16. Had she been even ten, fifteen years older, brought up with a strong sense of self-confidence, Mayer’s humiliating words would have stung, of course, she was only human. A stronger Garland would have either left the business or simply tossed his words over her shoulder and worked her way through it all until she could buy herself out of her contract. Never would she have tortured herself the way she did and in doing that, secured a lifetime of trying to please older men whom she married while addicted to pills to simply function.

One could blame the time Garland came into the world. Hollywood’s Golden Era was a time when actors were a franchise and studio property. Garland got the brunt end of it by having to compete against women like Garbo, Hepburn, Crawford, Bergman, and Garson. These were women whose identities had been effectively erased and who had been molded into the products that they were, corralled into a type. The already fragile Gumm became Garland and remade from scratch, her nose remade, her black hair lightened just a bit, and she emerged belting out huge big-band tunes that made her a hot commodity. We only get. glimpse of the grueling schedule Garland was placed through, but that is practically enough to make us cringe. No wonder her early need to rebel… and no wonder her need to perform made her stay, take the abuse, and carve out the grooves that formed her instability and would kill her career come A Star is Born.

Seeing Garland at the zenith of her life, still commanding a crowd in Swinging London, and under Zellweger’s powerful command, is truly something to behold. You don’t get much in the way of poverty-porn in seeing the neglected quarters where Garland lived in 1969, but you get the sense that this woman has nowhere to go, is approaching 50, considered unemployable by an industry that values youth and glamour (because of course it does, even today), and has to attempt to make something of herself just to secure time with her children. Zellweger might not even remotely have Garland’s unmatchable pipes, but when she sings “By Myself”, you realize Judy has arrived and exploded, pure, raw, masterful. I was sold.

So come Oscar night, I had high hopes for Zellweger, and I was glad that she took home the award. I couldn’t even vaguely see Cynthia Erivo win for the performance she gave in the terrible Harriet, which was included solely to negate the “Oscar so white” stigma. And if we want to go there, 2019 had some powerful performances by non-white actresses that the Academy just decided didn’t exist to the Academy’s standard: Alfre Woodard for Clemency, Lupita N’yongo for Us, and Awkwafina for The Farewell. It is inexplicable to me that they were ignored but Erivo was not, and worse, that Charlize Theron was included for playing a toxic white Barbie doll of no character, and even worse still, that Saoirse Ronan was also under consideration when she brought nothing new to Jo March. But, perhaps it did work for the better. Zellweger took home the award, and in a strange way, telegraphed the horrific snub Garland herself experienced when she lost the Academy Award in 1955 to Grace Kelly who won it for The Country Girl.

Does anyone remember that movie? Me neither. Now, Kelly I recall Kelly as a correct, poised performer that Hitchcock loved and whose superficial strengths he brought out in films like Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, and Rear Window. I recall her not in High Society, and even less in High Noon — the former a musical imagination of The Philadelphia Story, the latter being a Gary Cooper vehicle in which she was outacted by Mexican powerhouse Katy Jurado, never an Oscar darling while once nominated. Kelly’s win for The Country Girl was considered a slap in the face to Garland who was by the time she did A Star is Born considered un-bankable and too problematic. Hollywood of course wouldn’t want to award her the Academy, and why would they? They’d effectively destroyed her, and after A Star is Born, Garland would make no more pictures until 1961’s Judgement at Nuremberg in a key, supporting part. That year also proved to be against Garland as she was up against Rita Moreno for West Side Story. Moreno, the only Latina to ever get a nomination (and win), was the woman of the hour.

So in a twist of irony, Zellweger’s win somehow brings the Academy Award full circle to give Garland, in absentia, the award she was denied even as the very same industry had crushed her. And truth be told, Zellweger shows that she can act the crap out of herself and lose her very identity into that of another. Not once did it feel to me that I was watching an impersonation. She had the mannerisms down to the details of Garland’s flighty, bird-like walk down to a science; her talk, her overall restlessness. Again, no one can and will sing like Garland, but the aforementioned performance shows an artist in decline, still bravely trying. It is shattering. To compare the two is just impossible, and to me, if an actress can channel the essence of a person, even when the movie itself does not hit all the right notes, that is all I need. Now, all Zellweger needs to do is maintain that newly found momentum and not sit back and hope the buzz continues, because it’s already over.

Terminator: Dark Fate is What Happens When a Franchise Doesn’t Know How To End

Hollywood has a franchise problem and it’s bordering on addiction. It seems that you can’t see a movie stand alone on its own merits without the money-making machine that is the film industry essentially see a reason to expand on the storyline and essentially make a killing at the box office. It’s been taken to such an extreme that even side characters have received their own movies and entire universes have been constructed around a premise.

The last Terminator movie that I found myself seeing (because it was not my choice but I was outnumbered) was Rise of the Machines and it was pretty dull. How many times can a villainous robot come back from what is sure fire destruction to yet again give relentless chase to the same tired characters who continue to flee is anyone’s guess. However, the story, who in its first incarnation made for a sharp concept, continues to be retold and retold, bring Arnold back to utter a variation of his famous line, snore, eye-roll, and people still go and eat this up.

It’s not that I don’t like the concept. When James Cameron did his follow up he managed to out-do himself in bringing a haunted Linda Hamilton and a more sympathetic Arnold to clash, them become reluctant members of the same team as a truly frightening Robert Patrick paves a path of sheer destruction that made Arnold’s seem quaint by comparison. The thing is, the story seemed poised to end there. Whoever decided to take the next step would have to bring something fresh into the mix.

And that’s the problem. That hasn’t happened. Not in Rise of the Machines nor in the latest iteration, which somehow manages to go the path of the Halloween reboot and pretend that the previous episodes didn’t exist. In Dark Fate, John Connor still does but in a way that seems just clumsy retconning. Of course, the movie has to tell some kind of story and it now focuses its attention on another young person. Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is a cute young thing who doesn’t have a clue the forces that have been set against her. Like the first movie, a liquid terminator called a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, who plays his part with echoes of Robert Patrick) has been sent to come after Daniella. On the heels of the Rev-9 is an augmented human appropriately named Grace who’s quite the mofo and Mackenzie Davis, clearly an actress on the rise in the style of Charlize Theron, plays the fuck out of this character.

You can basically guess the story from here except that it throws in not one but two unnecessary additions into the very basic plot. The first arrives early as a haggard Linda Hamilton who, like Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween, has become a one-woman terminator hunter and has no time to waste because of course, she’s been in the plot enough to know. The second, which is actually quite touching, is Arnold’s entry into the story which comes in late. I’m guessing that the stunt casting was made to point at the start and give the story some kind of resonance but Hamilton plays her part so shrill, and Arnold’s presence has been dulled down so much that it sputters even before it can take off.

So, in the end, we’re left with a story that is as rote as it is perfunctory. It’s pretty sad considering that the original concept which played with time held so much promise but as I stated earlier, this is what happens when a franchise has lost its meaning and solely exists to fill in seats at a multiplex for its debut week.

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on all streaming platforms. See it if at all for completion purposes. Otherwise, what’s the point?


Trash Never Looked Better: HUSTLERS

I’ll be the first to confess. I didn’t even bother to throw Lorene Scafaria’s movie a bone solely because of a) subject matter, which seemed (upon promos) as tawdry to me as Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, and b) Jennifer Lopez.

Did I really need to see a movie about strippers? No. The sole topic reeked of the sordid and debased and not really my cup of tea.

And then Jennifer Lopez… How long has it been since Lopez, a credible but frankly, underused performer, gave what anyone could call a ‘standout performance’? Do I have to actually go back two decades ago when she starred against George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight to see a movie that made her register as an actress with dramatic potential and a presence to spare? Has she been making train wreck after train wreck, often recycled formulas of either the stalked woman (The Boy Next Door, Enough), the detective/cop on a case (Angel Eyes, Money Train, and The Cell) or rom-coms (practically everything else) for this long? How can anyone sustain a career with a filmography like this? It’s probably why she’s been more successful as a fashion mogul, even more so than a pop singer. Even that has had its peaks and valleys, with more valleys than actual peaks and her turn in Hustlers wasn’t going to make me come out to see it in theatres.

However, and JLo aside, after seeing so many gangster movies dating back to the 30s in which men do terrible things in order to make a living — often at the cost of their own soul — I realized I was being rather hypocritical, especially in a time when women have to bend over backwards (and in this movie, literally) to score performances that are daring. At the same time I found myself recalling Sweet Charity, which revolved around a prostitute and had its own show stopping number “Big Spender”, which is all Hustlers is about. So there’s a good amount of raunch in Hustlers, a full frontal by Lizzo (questionably necessary but, as I later learned, done with a healthy dose of comic relief), an appearance by Cardi B (unnecessary), and more curves than a hairpin road. I figured, what the hell, once it was out on streaming platforms I’d give it a go, not expect much more than perhaps a version of Widows as directed and visualized by a woman, with some elements of The Kitchen thrown in for good measure. And if I had to see Jennifer Lopez play, um… Jennifer Lopez in yet another bland variation where she does what she calls acting (without ever emoting to save her life), I’d suck it in. She was flanked by a solid cast and a solid director.

Hustlers, based on the 2015 Jessica Pressler article “The Hustlers at Scores”, concerns and focuses on the interivew that Elizabeth, a jornalist based on Pressler (played by Julia Stiles in a mostly thankless part) is conducting on ex-stripper Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny, played by Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians) on her association with Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a stripper she befriended and worked with at Moves, the gentleman’s club thinly based on Scores, located on 28th and 11th Avenue in New York City. As Dorothy/Destiny’s story unfolds we get to see Destiny’s progression into the striping business, which is to say the least, unsuccessful. Once she meets Ramona, who incidentally, makes an impressive, memorable entrance as directed by Scafaria, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, mentors her into learning the ropes, and a partnership based on mutual success is born.

However, the stock market crash of 2008 sends the stripper business into a nosedive as clients, high-paying suits who manage enormous sums of money and will pay in droves for a night of debauchery, fizzle out. Destiny finds herself next to jobless, with no skills to land her a n even basic pay job. She then returns to stripping, but times (and tastes in strippers) have rapidly changed, leacing the women to concoct a scam involving drugs in order to steal away the money from their prospective clients.

I can see why on surface, people — men mainly — would be turned off during or after watching the movie. Even today, watching anything in which women not only take control but basically make fools out of men (whether they deserved it or not and the film does give you both sides of the coin), it comes across as “crossing the line” and can make anyone cringe. Which again, why should it? Has no one seen Deadly Women on Investigation Discovery? Women can be just as horrible as men and then some.

Scafaria, by sticking to her guns and showing the darker, seedier side of feminine behavior, gives her actresses a load of material to work with even when that material is less than savory. And of all of her mostly female cast, Lopez is the one who comes across the strongest, presenting a fully formed sociopath who still maintains a sliver of humanity underneath her tarnished goods. Hers is quite the performance and one that reveals the actress she could be if she put herself to it. She is followed by Wu who allowed herself to play a character who gets sucked into the dark side and splits herself into the mom she is and this other person she will have to face later on when things go wrong. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, and now I can’t wait to see what Scafaria tackles next.