“Joker,” “Judy” and Why They Make Me Moody

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In their respective Oscar contenders—Todd Phillips’ “Joker” and Rupert Goold’s “Judy”—Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger endure harrowing moments in phone booths. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Roadside Attractions.

Self-importance is what defines Oscar season rather than any degree of quality. What makes these films any more deserving of awards consideration than what preceded them over the last several months, apart from their adherence to the politics of industry favoritism? Are there really no performers as equally deserving of Best Actor as Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” or no contenders who should earn Best Actress apart from Renée Zellweger in Rupert Goold’s “Judy”? The short answer is, ‘Of course not,’ yet as of early October 2019, they are clearly the frontrunners in their respective categories. Whether non-binary actors will escalate the impending dissolution of such gendered groupings is another conversation entirely, though it does raise the question of how performances will be honored in the future. Perhaps stars will compete against one another for accolades categorized like screenplays, separating the original feats of artistry from those adapting a pre-existing source.

Both “Joker” and “Judy” are star showcases inescapably haunted by the actors who previously inhabited their titular roles laced with tragedy. Yet in the case of Phoenix, his work here is not only astonishing but wholly original. He had the freedom to create Arthur Fleck from the ground up, echoing shades of the PTSD he exhibited so vividly as the war veteran who falls under the wing of a cult in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” Phoenix was four when his own family left the Children of God cult, a move that resulted in him and his siblings struggling to make ends meet as street performers, which happens to be Arthur’s chosen profession. “Joker” is being released a decade after Phoenix’s hilariously squirm-inducing performance art stunt on Late Show with David Letterman, in which he portrayed a fictitious and hopelessly out-of-touch version of himself, and three decades after his unforgettable role in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood,” where he provided one of the earliest glimpses of his greatness. As a budding adolescent buckling under the weight of hormonal guilt and confusion, Phoenix makes a call to his estranged father, whose voice we never hear on the other line. The camera lingers on the boy’s face and we see the repressed anguish that will ultimately lead him to destroy his father’s office in the middle of the night.

In each of these instances, what makes Phoenix’s work so mesmerizing is its sheer unpredictability. We’re not entirely sure what’s causing him such distress, a fact that only amplifies our uncertainty of what he’ll do next. The initial teaser for “The Master” (embedded below), where Phoenix laughs while being interrogated in a scene left out of the final cut, could’ve easily served as an inspiration for the sequences in “Joker” depicting Arthur’s ineffectual therapy sessions. With his burnt out doctor failing to listen and funding cuts resulting in their meetings being axed altogether, thus severing his access to proper medication, society itself is culpable for the monster Arthur becomes. Like Aileen Wuornos, he views himself as a superhero, yet the film crucially does not. When he’s humiliated by his idol, late night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, taking on the Jerry Lewis role in “The King of Comedy”), I felt ashamed at how derisively I’ve guffawed at figures like Tommy Wiseau, who are mocked and exploited because of an illness—whether or not it’s simply, to quote comic Hannah Gadsby, “the mental illness of misogyny”—that should be taken seriously. Nothing about “Joker” is a laughing matter, and after being subjected to the hollow reassurances of Marvel’s endless escapist franchise, that is a refreshing change of pace.

Though Phillips’ picture isn’t a fraction as nuanced as the Scorsese classics it aims to emulate, it has made audiences uncomfortable in all the right ways, prompting more provocative and sobering post-film discussions than any DC blockbuster since Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. That is due almost entirely to Phoenix’s masterful performance, which stands on its own since Arthur, according to the timeline, is not the sociopathic villain previously played by Heath Ledger (who, like Trump, enjoys watching the world burn), but the damaged soul whose gradual extinguishing sets off a chain reaction necessitating the rise of Batman. If only “Judy” were that clever. Had it been about Zellweger finding herself in the same predicament as Garland did back in 1954, when she attempted to relaunch her waning career with a film designed to win her the Best Actress Oscar that she felt she was owed, it may have worked. Alas, we’re supposed to actually buy that Zellweger is Garland, and not once does she ever convince us of that. There’s no question that she’s giving it her all, just as Phoenix is, but the harder she tries, the more she appears to be doing everything in her power to distract us from the fact that she’s fundamentally miscast. Her intentionally haggard appearance is more reminiscent of Michael Jackson than Garland, while her voice still unequivocally belongs to Roxie Hart.

Even during the final months of her life, wherein the majority of “Judy” is set, Garland’s voice had a raw honesty and primal intensity that can never be replicated. Zellweger’s choice to use her own slickly bland voice for the film’s musical sequences, despite the fact she admitted on “Sunday Morning” that she’s never considered herself a vocalist, is a disastrous one, further removing any trace of Garland from the picture. Moviegoers with no previous knowledge of the screen icon are guaranteed to wonder what all the fuss is about (for essential context summarized in under 20 minutes, don’t miss this excellent video by YouTuber Isabel Custodio). I was fortunate enough to have grown up with Robert Allan Ackerman’s three-hour TV movie from 2001, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” which is infinitely superior to “Judy” on every conceivable level. Based on the memoir penned by Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, the film is anchored by a lead performance from Judy Davis that is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in any medium. When she sits on the edge of the stage at NYC’s RKO Palace Theatre and lip syncs impeccably to Garland’s shattering 1951 rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” Davis is channeling the late entertainer with every fiber of her being. It makes Zellweger’s pale imitation look all the shoddier in contrast.

Whereas Ackerman’s film chronicled the full arc of its subject’s career, the accuracy of which was overseen by renowned Garland expert John Fricke, “Judy” is based on a stage show—Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow”—reviled by historians and fans alike for its sensationalized and often fictionalized melodrama. Take, for example, the scene where Luft informs her mother over the phone that she’d rather stay with her dad, Sid, than continue touring. Luft was a teenager when this call took place, and in Ackerman’s picture, she’s played by Alison Pill, who wrenchingly captures the difficulty in prying herself from a parent whom she cares about deeply. In “Judy,” Luft is reduced to an inexpressive child many years younger, as if to ensure that no scene partner will upstage Zellweger’s tearful emoting. Rufus Sewell’s Sid is a cold opportunist lacking the rich dimension of Victor Garber in “Me and My Shadows,” while the young Judy—glimpsed only in flashbacks—looks like any wide-eyed youth off the street. The same could not be said of Emmy-winning newcomer Tammy Blanchard, who appeared as if she stepped right out of “The Wizard of Oz” during the first act of Ackerman’s movie, setting a high bar for Davis. It’s especially aggravating to see Jessie Buckley stuck in the thankless role of Garland’s personal assistant in “Judy,” since her work in “Wild Rose” is far more deserving of Oscar contention. Seeing as “Judy” really should’ve just been called “Renée—For Your Consideration,” I’d like to correct its egregious absence of Garland with the following video. It proves that Renée may not make a great Judy, but Judy sure could’ve made one hell of a Joker…

“Joker” and “Judy” are both currently in theaters and their attendance is practically guaranteed at the 92nd Academy Awards airing Sunday, February 9th, 2020, on ABC.

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