If you like your biopics of legendary celebrities reducing them to formulaic caricatures, here’s one not to miss. Think of Alec Baldwin’s skillful skewer of our president which gets a laugh in a five minute skit on SNL and then imagine it stretched out to a feature length film with familiar side characters who are mostly evil in ways that are now shopworn tropes. Louis B Mayer, head of MGM, here a huge man towering over a petite Judy Garland, lives up to his reputation as a tyrant who forces the teen-aged girl to diet and keep working till all hours of the night His assistant, a nameless version of Annie’s Miss Hannigan, is brutal in snatching away hamburgers from our hungry heroine and adding to the cruel atmosphere of “the studio.” If reality were added to the film, we would meet Judy’s most formidable enemy - her mother - who began feeding her pills at the age of 10 and who saw all three of her daughters as viable meal tickets for her own unsuccessful marriage and life. Louis B offered the multi-talented young Frances Gumm a new name and an opportunity to find a big life her own - something that Shirley Temple most famously achieved despite a childhood spent in similar circumstances.
Renee Zellweger, an actress who displayed great subtlety in her performance in Jerry Maguire, here chooses to go for pursing her lips and concentrating on the exterior resemblances to the famous singer, including successfully mimicking her singing voice. But the poses take over and leave us with very little compassion for the interior life of a woman addicted to alcohol. drugs and men in ways that guarantee disaster. The theme of Judy’s role as mother, frustrated by financial problems and custody battles with the children’s father, can’t preserve our sympathy as we watch her continuing her spiral of self-destructive behavior despite its overwhelming consequences. What we’re left with is a superficial look at a very talented woman who unfortunately didn’t get sufficient help with serious psychological problems, trading that for the love and devotion of audiences throughout the world.
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