Like nearly everyone who has an informed thought about this, I have consistently had Renee Zellweger in the first position for best actress for her portrayal of a fast-fading Judy Garland in “Judy,” and there are no overt signs that she herself is fading. She was named best actress by the National Board of Review to get the award season off to a good start and has since received nominations for Golden Globe and SAG awards.
But I haven’t for a second thought it was the year’s best female lead performance, or even the best portrayal of a singer using her own voice. I’d give that specific award to Jessie Buckley from “Wild Rose,” in which she plays a Scottish single mom hellbent on singing her way from Glasgow to Nashville. It’s a small film that won’t get any love from Oscar, but it’s a full, lived-in performance in a very good movie and Buckley sings her country-loving heart out.
The near-consensus betting on Zellweger winning the Oscar hinges on her giving her all in a difficult role, insisting on doing her own singing for one thing, and she has the year’s strongest comeback story. But there have been a lot of comebacks that have gone unrewarded, and really, it’s not even something any voter should think about when considering the year’s best performance.
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Here’s the thing that most critics and virtually everyone I know who’s seen it agree, “Judy” is not a very good movie. It wallows in the pathos of a legendary MGM star without giving us much more about Garland’s interior life than her addictions and insecurities.
Even the positive reviews of “Judy” have conceded that its saving grace is her performance, and she does carry the movie on her stooped back — singing, whining, pleading, playing the diva as a desperate echo of her past glory. This Judy thinks she knows who she is, but really only knows who she was, and the movie adopts that point-of-view as well.
There may be a generational split in the Academy about “Judy.” Older members can be forgiven for finding the movie’s focus on her rapid descent too much of a bad thing and for thinking that Zellweger’s singing is at best a fair impression. Actually, the movie is at its most illuminating the flashback sequences dramatizing her abuse in childhood by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and his Trump-like enablers at the studio. If that led to a lifetime of affectations, Zellweger at least nails those.
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As for her being a consensus pick for an Oscar, I remind you of the consensus pick in the same category last year. Glenn Close was supposed to win because she gave a good performance in the well-reviewed “The Wife” but also because conventional wisdom said Oscar owed her one. All the signs – Golden Globe and SAG wins – pointed to a foregone conclusion and. . .
Olivia Colman won for “The Favourite.”
Looking back, I find few instances where a best actress winner came out of a mediocre or panned movie. Elizabeth Taylor won for playing a hooker in the 1960 “Butterfield 8,” apparently with sympathy votes for her having undergone a life-saving tracheotomy during production of “Cleopatra.” Taylor provided her own succinct review of the movie: “It stinks.”
Sandra Bullock also won for a performance in a less than acclaimed movie, the 2009 “The Blind Side,” portraying a southern woman of means who takes in a struggling black teenage athlete and guides him to a football scholarship at her alma mater. Some of the harsher reviews labeled it another in a long line of patronizing white savior movies.
Zellweger is a lock for an Oscar nomination, but there will be others on the ballot that may provide the upset. My money is on “Marriage Story’s” Scarlett Johansson because she is the equal to the brilliant Adam Driver in a movie that will score multiple nominations in the talent part of the competition.
One thing is sure about this season’s best actress Oscar: Colman’s shocked reaction to winning last year won’t be repeated if someone other than Zellweger wins. No one should be shocked.
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