AT THE MOVIES

Two Bio-Pics of Icons: a Famous Entertainer and a Famous Scoundrel (Plus a Visit from an Old Friend)

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Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in the new biopic “Judy.” Photo Credit: David Hindley; courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Judy
Judy Garland was known for her grandiose life, from movie prodigy to musical luminary to fading talent dead at 47. The new film “Judy” focuses on her last months, a last flame burning out. The film, directed by Brit Brian Goold, was written by Tom Edge, based on a successful play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter (the film, now in theaters, is rated PG-13 and runs 118 mins.)

After her career crashes in Hollywood, Judy (Renée Zellweger) accepts an offer of a five-week run at London’s The Talk of the Town nightclub in late 1968. It’s been 30 years since “The Wizard of Oz,” and while her voice has weakened, her performer’s zeal has not. London club owner Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) and Judy’s patient minder Rosalyn Wilder (Jesse Buckley) try to nurture her, but she is challenged navigating the new show, missing her beloved children by second husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), contending with both adoring fans and drug addiction, and dealing with her new beau, Mickey Deans (Finn Whitrock). Though tested, she is still able to muster some of her greatest hits one last time.

The overriding question about “Judy” is: Can Zellweger pull it off? A versatile and popular Hollywood fixture from the mid-1990’s to 2010, when her career hit a bad patch, she took years off to right herself. So can the mature Renée carry the full weight of a movie about one of the singular performers in show business?

Turns out she can, coming off commendably as the iconic, wounded star at the end of her career, and inducing a strong dose of sympathy and compassion. Zellweger is appropriately small–5’3” (while Garland was barely five feet) and achieves the slightness and pallor of the singer near her end. Plus, she sings her own numbers, and, while purists may quibble, I found her late renditions of Garland standards convincing and touching—she was even able to evoke the poignant catch in the singer’s delivery as well as to belt out a brassy finale. In fact, I found that, as a witness to Garland’s 30-year career, Zellweger’s speaking voice as Judy was just as believable as her crooning.

Make-up, hairdressing, and wardrobe all helped transform Renée into Judy, especially her late-in-life spiky black hair and spangly outfits. These technicians must have done serious research to achieve “the look.” As for her off-stage sequences, she credibly portrays a famously capricious woman, turning from nasty junkie through ferocious mother hen to generous sweetheart free with tossing off her “Darlings.” The latter incarnation is shown particularly well in a terrific sequence where she (feeling lonely) invites herself to the apartment of two older gay male super fans, of which she had legions. They can’t believe their good luck at hosting their idol who turns out to be comforting them instead of the other way around.

Where’s My Roy Cohn?
While many Americans now feel compelled to follow the exploits of a New York City hustler with a take-no-prisoners style, a never-apologize attitude, and a tenuous connection to the truth, they can shift from current political turmoil to discover (or re-discover) the adventures of a comparable figure from last century: Roy M. Cohn, the “killer lawyer” who personified the legal con-man for decades, is the subject of the documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” which outlines his life and labor in grim, yet fascinating detail (In theaters, the film runs 97 mins. and is rated “PG-13”).

Produced and directed by journalist Matt Ryrnauer, the film is mostly chronological, beginning with Cohn’s origins as a single, pampered child of well-off but loveless Jewish parents who left him denying his own heritage and believing only in himself. It also chronicles a lifetime of Cohn’s malfeasance: conniving with a judge to send Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair; being chief aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt; abetting J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy’s crusade to hound homosexuals out of government; finagling the law to favor American mafiosos; helping the family Trump on housing discrimination charges, and misappropriating his own clients’ funds.

All this while living the Manhattan high life of wealth, celebrity, and scandal with friends from slinky socialites through Donald Trump to Catholic cardinals. Through it all, Cohn not only was a Jew-hater but a gay-basher, never admitting his homosexuality (and his fatal AIDS diagnosis) even until his death in 1986.

Luckily for Ryrnauer, he has tons of film footage on the media-obsessed Cohn, and all aspects of his career are covered in photos and clips (kudos to the film’s editors). Some of the most telling stem from the landmark Army-McCarthy hearings which were a live TV phenomenon in 1957, and much else is revealed by a parade of interviews and television appearances of an indefatigable Cohn, always the caustic, confident defender of himself.

The documentary also features pertinent talking heads to outline the nature of the man. Among them are New Yorker magazine media chronicler Ken Auletta, Republican fixer Roger Stone, Cohn’s longtime lover, Wallace Adams, and his younger cousin, Marcus Cohn, who states: “He loved power and got used to using power early in his career.”

A dark, nasty skein of ruthlessness has always run through American life, and Roy Cohn stoked that tradition to a fare-thee-well.

Downton Abbey
Anyone captured by “Downton Abbey” on PBS does not need a dramatis personae to sort out the characters of the aristocratic Crawley family and its sundry servants that appear in the eponymous film. It updates the series, aired over six seasons, to 1927, with a plot mechanism guaranteed to reconcile every performer in the show. A letter from the King and Queen arrives at the manse, announcing a visit to Downton Abbey, triggering a flurry of house activity and character arcs (The film is rated “PG” and runs 122 minutes).

Besides the regular panoply of characters, there are some new figures who enliven the mix, such as a shady major (Steven Campbell Moore) and a bristly cousin of Robert (Imelda Staunton) making threats about the family inheritance. What the movie does, in writer Julian Fellowes smooth prose and director Michael Engler’s fastidious cutting, is wrap up all the myriad plot skeins in a series of elegant bows fit to grace the bodices of the ladies at supper.

The show averaged 10 million viewers an episode over the years, a highwater mark for public television, and most of those viewers will come to see and relish this film. I’m not sure filmgoers who never followed the program will get much of the drift, though they may be intrigued enough to assay the original series itself. You might just feel better going to see this picture in your best evening gown or white tie…

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.