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Tag Archives: Renée Zellweger

As Judy Garland, Rene Zellweger delivers an all-singing tour de force and reminds us of the power of stars who can also sing their way through musicals

In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, having your singing voice dubbed was seen as a bit of a cheat: it could be done, in some cases, but chances are youd be marked down a bit for it. In 1965, George Cukors sumptuous version of the Broadway smash My Fair Lady won eight Oscars, including best actor for Rex Harrison, who manfully did his own speak-singing as Henry Higgins; eyebrows were raised, however, when his co-star Audrey Hepburn wasnt even nominated for best actress.

The snub was seen as something of a punishment. Hepburn had been cast in the role in place of its less famous Broadway originator, Julie Andrews; despite extensive vocal training on her part, however, she wasnt considered a strong enough singer by studio bosses to tackle the lilting likes of I Could Have Danced All Night. Dubbed by the soprano and regular Hollywood ghost-singer Marni Nixon, Hepburns otherwise winsome performance was thus deemed a lesser achievement by her peers; in a perfectly ironic twist, best actress that year went to Andrews note-perfect film debut in Mary Poppins instead. Perhaps Hepburn, outwardly gracious as ever, called Natalie Wood to vent: three years before, Nixons dubbing had also seemingly cost her an Oscar nomination when West Side Story otherwise ran the table.

Half a century later, the form and fashion of the Hollywood musical has changed considerably, and so has the industrys attitude toward actors who choose to hide behind others vocals: in an age where truly gifted song-and-dance performers are mostly confined to the stage, doing your own singing on screen is seen as an impressive but optional extra talent. Dubbing didnt cost Rami Malek an Oscar earlier this year, for example: neither the public nor his industry admirers were bothered by the fact that he toothsomely lip-synced in the blockbuster Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

The fact that his fellow nominee Bradley Cooper did all his own gravelly singing as a fictional rock star in A Star is Born gave him no leg-up in the race, it turned out. Cooper merely looked on as Malek joined the ranks of actors to win armloads of awards for formidably transforming themselves into major musical figures while skimping on the singing part, including Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. As the popular music biopic has largely replaced the straight-up musical in Hollywoods genre affections, physical acting and emoting counts for more than holding a tune, and why should it not?

Yet taking the harder route of eschewing dubbing and, in particular, interpreting another artists immortal vocals can yield rewards too. This year, Taron Egerton offered his own tuneful stab at the Elton John songbook in Rocketman; his performance feels more organic and invested than Maleks swaggering, surface-level Mercury for it. Sissy Spacek and Reese Witherspoon won Oscars for nailing the country-and-western timbre of Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash, respectively; Spaceks crooning in Coal Miners Daughter, in particular, was so authentic it even netted her a country Grammy nomination. Meanwhile, as a soul music sensation making her film debut in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, you would hardly have expected Diana Ross to go the dubbed route, even if her high, silky voice sounded not a bit like Holidays; the gritty spirit of her fine performance was felt, however, and she too was Oscar-nominated.

Its into this dedicated but less slavishly impersonation-based tradition that Rene Zellwegers much-acclaimed performance in Judy falls. Though Zellweger has proven her capable chops in the musicals Chicago and My Own Love Song, she was never going to be a vocal ringer for the utterly singular, from-the-gut stylings of Judy Garland. Yet her decision to do her own singing pays off handsomely, not least because the film, set in the bumpy final year of Garlands life, captures the showwoman at her most vocally damaged and erratic. Having Zellweger lip-sync to pristine Garland recordings would have been entirely inaccurate; digging up archive footage of Garland at her worst for Zellweger to mime to, on the other hand, would have been simply ghoulish.

As it is, Zellwegers tour de force proves how even as it comes at the expense of pure, eerie verisimilitude having an actor literally find the voice of the person theyre playing can contribute invaluably to the very arc of a performance. She matches Garlands tattered, liquor-soaked vocal stumbles early on, playing well beneath either womans ability; by the time she reaches crisper, clearer notes, for a climactically redemptive onstage rendition of Over the Rainbow, the anxiety and labour that is audible in her voice feels so hard-earned, it hardly matters that shes not reaching Garlands highest peaks. The triumph belongs to the actor and character alike; with respect to the most lauded of lip-syncers, thats not a victory they know.

  • Judy is out in the US on 27 September and in the UK on 2 October

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In the absurd yet absurdly compulsive drama What/If, the Oscar winner makes an unlikely comeback as a devious, scenery-chewing billionaire

Its tricky to explain Renee Zellwegers new Netflix show What/If to somebody who hasnt seen it, because its an exercise in diametrically opposed contradictions. Its a sexy thriller, even though its about as sexy as slow-transit constipation. Its unique selling point is that it follows the consequences of actions, even though that also describes every single story ever told by anyone in the entire history of humankind. Its a television series, even though its title is punctuated like a sub-tier early noughties boyband.

And most importantly, I cant stop watching it, even though I hate it.

What I can say with confidence is that What/If is trash. The pilot episode was directed by the man who directed Sharon Stones 1993 boobathon Sliver, who appears to have been preserved in amber ever since the moment that film wrapped. The characters, the dialogue, the sets and costumes and music are all firmly in mid-90s, low-budget erotic thriller territory, and theres barely a concession to modernity to be found anywhere. Its confusing, too; the second scene takes place a year after the first scene, but the third scene takes place three days before the second scene. Whats more, almost all of the episodes establishing shots take place during a thunderstorm for some genuinely unfathomable reason.

One of the lead characters runs a struggling molecular sequencing company, despite being so aggressively stupid that its a wonder she ever figured out cutlery. The profession is an afterthought clearly, nobody from the writer down cares a jot about the nuts and bolts of molecular sequencing but it adds a vaguely futuristic sheen to the series, giving it shades of a Hallmark Channel Black Mirror reboot.

Taken on the surface, What/If looks like a grand error; like another Cloverfield Paradox sold off to Netflix in a fire sale because its studio couldnt believe what a clunker it was. But thats the weird thing about What/If. I think and I might be wrong, because this is pure conjecture that its trashiness might actually be sort of deliberate.

The best case for this argument lies with Zellwegers character, a sexually voracious billionaire puppetmaster taken to wandering around her sprawling apartment late at night pontificating about the nature of destiny versus free will into a 2010-model dictaphone. Read that sentence back. That has to be deliberate, right? No sensible person, with the possible exception of EL James, would ever create a character this preposterous on purpose, surely. And I havent even mentioned her primary hobby yet. Its doing archery in her kitchen. Of course it is.

And Zellweger relishes every second of it. Its a huge, camp, scenery-licking wink of a performance that channels every broad rich bitch trope you care to imagine. Shes the sort of person who writes AT ANY COST in block capitals on a piece of paper before we smash-cut to a day when her new book At Any Cost has become an epoch-defining bestseller. Shes the sort of person who keeps her keys in an enormous plexiglass cube in the middle of the room. Shes the sort of person who, when her butler sniffs that one of kitchen arrows has hit the target left of centre, smirks: Three words no one has ever used to describe me.

What/If might be the best worst show, but then again it also might be the worst worst show. Photograph: Erik Voake/Netflix

In What/If, Zellwegers character meets a barman and invites him home. He declines, and so she escalates her offer. For one night with him, she offers to pay his wife (the molecular sequencer) $80m to rescue her ailing molecular sequencing business. Its a plot, as the sequencer states in a rare moment of self-awareness, thats been ripped out of a bad 90s movie. But it doesnt end there, because it starts to look as if Zellweger chose the barman deliberately in order to ignite a bizarre Rube Goldberg sequence of events.

Which is silly, right? The whole plot is so gaudy that it has to be tongue in cheek. But the thing is, Zellweger is the exception here. The rest of the characters, and all the subplots, are tedious and witless and played absolutely straight. Had What/If been The Renee Zellweger Show, it would have been fantastic. As it stands, shes the only thing saving the series from terminal mediocrity.

So, yes, What/If is tricky to explain. It isnt the best show youll ever see. It isnt even the worst best show. It might be the best worst show, but then again it also might be the worst worst show. Honestly, Im stumped.

  • What/If is available on Netflix from 24 May

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