Thursday, November 28, 2019

Moore and Moore Tears

’Tis the season to be bright and merry and joyful—or to fake it till you make it. That’s how many feel about the hustle and bustle and forced frivolity of this particular time of year. For the gimlet-eyed film lover who may be feeling just a wee bit of anti-holiday sentiment, I recommend the following antidote to those inane Lifetime holiday romances and even the stalwart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Here's a holiday movie that was excoriated by critics and flopped at the box office, likely due to its relentlessly downbeat subject matter. Have you ever seen the one about the last wish of a dying girl with just a very short time to live (see movie title for exact prognosis)? This is Six Weeks (1982).

Surprisingly, it’s far from a total disaster. Directed with sensitivity by Tony Bill (My Bodyguard), the handsome actor who squired Goldie Hawn to that wild party in Shampoo and won an Oscar for coproducing The Sting, this film has grown on me over the years. Its heart is in the right place, and time has been kind to it.

True, Six Weeks is a curiosity in many ways. A film starring Moore and Moore—no relation, of course, but the pre-film publicity made much of it. Mary and Dudley. Two comic geniuses playing against type in a tragic melodrama—released on December 16, 1982, just in time for a good Christmas cry.

Mary Tyler Moore as Charlotte Dreyfus

Mary Tyler Moore is cosmetics tycoon and doting mother Charlotte Dreyfus, who is determined to give her ailing daughter a life of purpose and meaning, no matter what it costs. 

Channeling the brittle, edgy and high-strung vibe she had recently perfected in Ordinary People (earning her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nod), Mary is a little bit scary here. The high humor of her salad days in the sitcom universe has all but evaporated, and we are left with a chic, glamorous but very serious and unhappy woman. But we understand why.

MTM’s onscreen persona changed dramatically as she matured—there are three distinct phases: Sweet and emotional Kennedy era wife Laura Petrie gave way to smilingly determined career girl Mary Richards, then moved on to tense and very complicated women such as Beth in Ordinary People and real-life criminal matriarch Sante Kimes in Like Mother, Like Son. But who was the real Mary? Probably all of the above, but we’ll never know.

British comedian and musician Dudley Moore was well known to UK TV audiences for his frequent partnership with satirist Peter Cook, but gained international fame flying solo in the U.S. comedy classics Foul Play and Blake Edwards’s 10. 

Dudley Moore as Patrick Dalton

Here, as Patrick Dalton, a naturalized U.S. citizen running for Congress, we see flashes of the Dudley Moore charm and humor that made him a box office favorite in all those zany 1980s comedies. But his exuberance too, of course, is sobered by the sadness of the film’s grave situation, as he befriends the adoring young girl who joins his campaign and then discovers her tragic secret.

Tyler Moore and Moore make an awkward Mutt and Jeff couple and were criticized as having zero chemistry. Indeed, tall Mary towers over diminutive Dudley and there is little va va voom in their coupling, but this is not meant to be a hot and heavy romance. It’s a love story of three soulmates who have a very short time together, a brief moment of joy before the tragedy that pulls them apart.

Katherine Healy, a real-life Olympic skating champion (who ironically pretends awkwardness on the ice in a scene at Rockefeller Center) and fledgling ballerina, plays the role of young Nicole Dreyfus. To date, this was her first and last film role, which is unfortunate, because she is effective here. 

Katherine Healy as Nicole Dreyfus

Though she, the film and her costars were savaged by the critics at the time, Healy is completely believable as the self-possessed and mature-beyond-her-years thirteen year old who has a lot of living to do before leukemia and the fates spirit her away. Today, Healy continues to teach dance, as she has done for many years.

Veteran supporting actress Shannon Wilcox has one of her best roles as Moore’s long suffering wife, who is obviously used to playing second fiddle to her politician husband’s demanding life and frequent business trip absences (and briefly mentioned previous extramarital affair). 

Granted, the film is somewhat maudlin and overly sentimental, but what tearjerker isn’t? It’s also filled with implausibilities that make it difficult to suspend disbelief—in what universe does even a poor little rich girl get the chance to dance in a New York City ballet and preside over the mock wedding of her mother to her new idol and hero?

"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss...the child."

Admittedly, MTM’s angry, sobbing meltdown as she reveals that her daughter is dying of leukemia, and the harrowing scene in the subway where the girl collapses (after her triumphant performance in The Nutcracker) do go over the top. (But why are those my favorite parts?)

The scene where mother and daughter dance together is lovely and memorable.Though no prima ballerina herself, Mary performs with grace and skill, using the dance as the opportunity to shower unrepressed affection upon her daughter during this shared moment of joy. MTM fans will recall that she started her showbiz career as Happy Hotpoint, the dancing elf of appliance commercials, as well as her musical moments with TV hubby DIck Van Dyke and tap dancing in the elevator with Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Healy and Moore

Coincidentally, some of the tragic elements of the story—debilitating illnesses and the loss of a child—resonate with the personal lives of the principals. Mary had just recently suffered the loss of her only son, Richie, in a 1980 handgun accident. She was a lifelong insulin-dependent diabetic who also braved a decades-long bout with alcoholism. But she endured and continued to work on and off until her death at the age of 80 in 2017.

More than a decade after Dudley Moore made Six Weeks, he would be plagued by a series of serious health issues, including heart disease and Parkinson’s, sidelining him from show business until director Barbra Streisand took a chance and offered him a small supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Sadly, Streisand reluctantly fired him when it became clear he was not up to the task, and he was replaced by Austin Pendleton. He died in 2002. 

Two great stars—who could ask for anything Moore?

The earnest performances make this movie watchable, and are accompanied by a moving original piano score (composed by Dudley Moore himself) designed for eliciting tears. So if you are in the mood for good cry (and a few rolls of the eye)—as many of us are during the holidays!—you may actually enjoy Six Weeks as much as I do.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Another Comeback for Judy—and Renée

In reviewing Judy Garland’s 1967 Palace concert engagement, Vincent Canby called her a “sequin-sprinkled female Lazarus,” referring to the mercurial superstar’s uncanny ability to resurrect her career and revive her legend again and again. Judy Garland is back; another triumph for the comeback queen, the tabloid headlines would scream throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

Fifty years after the star’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills, the Judy Garland mythos lives on. The new biopic Judy (2019) introduces the iconic entertainer to a whole new generation of moviegoers. And in the title role, another talented star, Renée Zellweger, reinvents herself. 

She has dazzled us before, but it’s been quite a while. Who can forget her sparkling turn as Roxy Hart in Chicago, her unconditionally loving support of Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, or sporting that absolutely perfect British accent as Bridget Jones? She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a feisty southern Civil War spitfire in Cold Mountain. 

But by around 2010 Zellweger’s career had fallen on hard times, and her attempts to age gracefully (almost impossible under Hollywood’s merciless glare) with some cosmetic procedures and Botox were met with well-publicized ridicule and scorn. She fell off the A-List and seemed destined to fade away, no longer a bright new star but a cinema footnote. (Even her recent foray into Netflix as the deliciously glamorous and ruthless soap opera villainess of What/If? failed to gain her much good buzz.)

Miss Zellweger in What/If? (2019)

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland? Quite a stretch, I thought, when I first read that the she was going to essay the part.  But I was wrong. She had me at hello.

Zellweger’s remarkable performance is something to see, as the actress crafts an astonishingly detailed characterization of a lonely, troubled lady who’s down on her luck and at the end of that fabled rainbow, forced to sing for her supper and to support her family despite a serious addiction to prescription drugs.

Desperately ill, still possessing a definite but no longer reliable talent (a tracheotomy has damaged her vocal chords), Zellweger’s Judy struggles to succeed in summoning the old magic for her London audiences at the Talk of the Town supper club in December 1968. 

Zellweger is simply sensational in the role, acting and singing up a storm in a tour de force that allows an operatic range of triumph and tragedy as Judy’s rollercoaster ride of a life reaches its final downward spiral.

An uncanny transformation

In the 2001 miniseries Me and My Shadows, Judy Davis (who won an Emmy Award) had lip-synched to Garland’s own voice, expertly mimicking the singer’s trademark gesticulations, but Zellweger takes the homage to the next level. Yes, she does her own singing, but that’s just the beginning. Like a skilled Method actor, the actress inhabits and embodies each song, organically finding the emotional truth of each gesture and musical phrase with an intensity that evokes the Garland magic without imitating it, finding and tuning in to the frequency of Garland like a spiritual channeler. The musical performances are nothing less than supernatural, and match the intensity of the dramatic scenes.

Thanks to Judy, I truly believe Renée Zellweger will have to make some room on her mantelpiece next to that Cold Mountain Oscar. She certainly deserves it.

As Garland’s fifth husband, the ambitious Mickey Deans, Finn Wittrock lends strong support and displays great chemistry with his costar as he tries to hustle a business deal for the fading superstar. Rufus Sewell is perfect as ex-husband Sid Luft, achieving dramatic sparks in a couple of heated exchanges with Zellweger.

Painstaking detail is paid to Garland’s makeup and costumes, including the glittering Travilla pantsuit she appropriated from the set after being fired from Valley of the Dolls as well as the Ray Aghayan gowns (cocreated by his business and life partner Bob Mackie) from The Judy Garland Show. In Judy’s clothes, Zellweger is even inspired to subtly reference Garland’s famously sloped-shoulder stance, a result of scoliosis—hence Louis B. Mayer’s cruel nickname for her—“My little hunchback.”

With Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans

The film itself is not perfect, nor is it historically accurate. Supposedly based on Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow, the screenplay veers pretty far from its source material to begin with, and then plays a bit fast and loose with the facts for dramatic effect. Only Garland scholars like me will quibble at the artistic license taken here. Examples: Joey and Lorna are far younger in the film at this point; they were actually both teenagers by 1968. Mickey Deans and Judy never split; he took care of her for the rest of her life—she died a few short months after the Talk of the Town engagement, in June 1969. (Deans wrote a memoir, Weep No More My Lady, chronicling their relationship and Judy’s final year.)

The relationships with her young London assistant and musical director are composite characters (well played by Jessie Buckley and Royce Pierreson) of many who had to endure Garland’s out-of-control drug addiction and fits of temperament—most vividly recounted in the 2015 memoir Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me by Stevie Phillips. 

The male couple who welcome a lonely Judy into their home for dinner is another fanciful creation, perhaps based on the fact that Judy and Mickey Deans were indeed befriended by a gay couple who lived next door to them in their tiny mews cottage outside London. (After the Talk of the Town engagement, Deans and Garland made England their home base as they continued a mini tour of concerts in Europe to keep the wolf from the door.)

Garland was not fired from her Talk of the Town job by manager Bernard Delfont (played flawlessly by Michael Gambon)—though she did come close. But the truth of the Talk of the Town performances and key events are well dramatized here, including Judy’s often slurring performances, one of which did indeed result in the an appalling incident of having food thrown at her, the old vaudevillian cliché come true. 

The dreamy flashback sequences of MGM, tyrranical Louis B. Mayer, stage mother Ethel (whom Judy always called the “real life Wicked Witch of the West”) and the filming of Wizard of Oz are not meant to be literal but seen through the veil of memory, and their themes ring true—Judy as commodity, the self-esteem crushing studio servitude to MGM—but couldn’t the producers have found a more exciting actress to play the young Judy? (By contrast, Tammy Blanchard had been stunning as the young Frances Gumm in the Judy Davis miniseries, winning the Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award.)

A faithful reproduction of a Judy Garland Show gown by Ray Aghayan

All criticism aside, the apex of the film is Zellweger, and she carries it with powerful aplomb and raw courage, owning a role that most performers would shy away from attempting—a woman believed by many to be the greatest entertainer who ever lived. Thanks to Renée, Judy lives on in yet another triumphant comeback tale, and both actresses’ stars are once again on the rise.

“Comeback? What comeback?” Judy once remarked wryly. “I’ve never been away!” And Renée can say the same thing as critics now proclaim, “Renée is back, in a big way!”