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Review: Renée Zellweger Comforts the Gays as Judy Garland in "Judy"

Also: Two Argentinian studs fight and flirt at Philly's Fringe Fest.

Spoiler alert! Easily the most open-hearted and vulnerable entertainer in modern history, Judy Garland was beset by a series of awful situations that made her performances even deeper, but her life more hopelessly erratic. Judy’s show biz saga hit a snag with MGM head Louis B. Mayer instructing her to stay thin, keep hyperactive (on pills), and basically give up her youth in the service of being America’s sweetheart, a crown that grew more bittersweet to wear through the years.

In Judy—the new movie starring Renée Zellweger as the great star—we see the young Judy (Darci Shaw) holding up filming on the set of The Wizard of Oz because she dared to act on her human impulses and go swimming for a bit, interspersed with the mature Judy (Zellweger) being late and messy for a 1968 London concert because she’s woozily boozy in response to a lifetime of demands on her and dark assumptions about her behavior. She always seemed to be holding things up—and you could easily see why.

Judy never won an Oscar (except for a Special Juvenile one in 1940), so it would be pretty outrageous to give someone playing her the award. But Zellweger (who won Best Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain in 2004) could well be nominated for her game and committed performance in the Rupert Goold-directed adaptation of Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, with a screenplay by Tom Edge. The play has been reworked and improved (though it’s far from a documentary), with Judy and kids Lorna and Joey Luft at a crossroads because hotels are throwing them out for non-payment, as their dad, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and Judy are at odds in a bitter custody battle.

So, Judy takes a trip to swinging London to do a five-week run at the Talk of the Town, hoping to bag some money and then come back to her kids in style. The past—which we keep flashing back to—is still with Judy, as pills and booze get in the way of her being the person, parent, and performer that she obviously wants to be. She’s still gobsmacked by long-ago heartbreaks, like young Mickey Rooney having romantically rejected her, not to mention Mayer reminding her that her dad was a “faggot." (There’s also an implication that Mayer touched her inappropriately. He was all-around creepy, even if he did know how to crank out the classics.)

LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in "Judy."

And yet, Judy dazzles in concert, even after having irritably refused a rehearsal. After all she’d been through, Judy was almost always able to stand up one more time and deliver, all artifice blown to bits as emotion musically poured from her veins, seemingly without effort. And then there is the fuck-up, which prevents her new young husband, an out-of-his-league promoter named Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), from getting her a deal for some other money-making project. Judy’s increasingly unstable reputation gets in the way, and when Deans blurts that it’s her fault, she sends him packing, winding up more alone than ever.

Judy’s isolation is compounded when little Lorna reveals that she and Joey would like to stay with Sid, since too much moving around is wearying to them. (Their older sib, Liza Minnelli, is briefly portrayed by a not quite right Gemma-Leah Devereaux to pretty little effect.)

But Zellweger is good, especially when she drops her array of nervous smiles and shows some grit, whether bristling at a TV interviewer who implies that she’s not Mother of the Year or making a concert heckler wish he’d never opened his trap. Does Zellweger look like Judy? Well, this doesn’t intend to be a wax museum replica, though there are some moments when, through sheer determination and suggestion, the camera catches her at an angle that’s almost spooky.

Her singing vocals are the weak part—while proficient, they don’t approximate the quavering emotionality and power required for songs like “By Myself” and “The Trolley Song”—but the acting is fine, the actress scoring a comeback for playing the attempted comeback of another much maligned star. The spectacle of a melting down legend could easily have been turned into blood sport, but fortunately, the film and the actress imbue the project with empathy, not voyeuristic glee.

Pathe/BBC Films

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Oh, and there’s gay stuff, naturally. If there weren’t, there would be another uprising. (Judy died in 1969, less than a week before the legendary Stonewall Riots.) At one point, a gay couple comes to see Judy perform, and they get to not only meet their idol afterwards but go on the town with her, looking for a place to grab a midnight snack together. Everything’s closed, so they end up at the guys’ flat in a charming sequence, until one of them reveals that the other had been imprisoned for obscenity just for being gay, before the U.K. laws changed. He starts crying about being an outcast—combined with the shock of having Judy Garland over for an omelet—and Judy comforts him. The result may be heavy-handed, but the sentiment is certainly welcome.

Later on, when Judy breaks down in the middle of singing “Over the Rainbow” in concert, it’s the two gays who stand up and save her ass by turning it into a singalong. If you’re not belting along with “And the dreams that you dare to dream…” at this point, then you need to turn in your human card.

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Philadelphia Freedom

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Philadelphia city town hall, Pennsylvania, PA, USA.

I just went over the rainbow to Philadelphia for both their Fringe Festival and the Opera Festival, where I got to experience politically tinged entertainment as well as heady, gay-friendly escapism.

Arturo Varela, who does public relations for Visit Philadelphia, sent Paper’s Mickey Boardman and I for three days of brotherly love that involved the kind of breathlessly all encompassing schedule that I live for. We soaked in the culture (the Barnes Foundation, the African American Museum), the colonial history (Betsy Ross’s house, where it was nice to see someone impersonating Betsy instead of Diana for a change), the bars (Woody’s was awfully straight on Thursday, I’m just sayin’), and more restaurants than you could shake a spatula at.

In the gayborhood, Varela took us to Double Knot, on the site of an old gay porn theater, which is now a multilevel Pan-Asian experience with great food, ambience, and highly coordinated service. TLA’s dollface Erik Schut brought us to Fork, a fancy feast in Old City, though Mickey and I also spent a lot of time at Reading Terminal Market, which is sort of a more accessible answer to Chelsea Market, as well as at Little Baby’s, where the “balsamic banana” ice cream on a sugar cone is to die for—and only three dollars! (As the town gets slicker, you can taste the gentrification, but just like in Manhattan, there are still finds, bargains, and discoveries).

John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2012/03/17: Betsy Ross House, maker of the first American Flag. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Betsy Ross House.

And the Fringe Festival was a find in itself, our virgin show being Un Poyo Rojo, in which two studly Argentinian dancers (Luciano Rosso and Nicolas Poggi) wore matching grey muscle tees and black workout pants and stood side-by-side in stillness, then erupted into synchronized movements, whether jerky or graceful, with awe inspiring precision. As directed by Hermes Gaido, their interaction was mocking, competitive, acrobatic, and balletic, and done to no music at all, just their tireless array of mouth sounds.

But then the tone switched as a background set of lockers emerged, with a portable radio on top, and as the different stations blared, Rosso lip synced while cigarettes amusingly popped out of his mouth and other orifices. Then it was back to the battling and flirting, the guys winding up in each others' grills, their mouths on top of each other, as Rosso kept talking, making noises, and singing snippets. Their primal language, which had been so hilarious, became lyrical, as they’d inexorably bonded. Muy bello.

For an encore, Rosso—who has a popular YouTube channel—lip synced "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, pricelessly capturing each Girl's attitude with a manic expertise that made me wonder if he could throw on a wig and go on Drag Race.

That was followed by a festival after-party called Late Night Snacks at a pop-up boite in an alleyway, yet another discovery. The stars were the hirsute troupe the Bearded Ladies, with creative director John Jarboe wearing a dress that said "Spark Joy" and singing a Camelot ballad in between riffing cerebrally about being a bottom who’s at the bottom. A fraulein with an accordion chirped, "Like a virgin, shtupped for the very first time" and then bearded drag queen Eric Jaffe belted "Let Me Entertain You," then urged us to do the wave with invisible drag queens (like Crystal Ball and Pearl Necklace) that he'd announced onstage. The net effect was very Williamsburg and very winning.

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And then we went to the lush Academy of Music for the Opera Festival production of The Love of Three Oranges, which composer Sergei Prokofiev said "was written in French on an Italian subject by a Russian composer for an American theater." Here, it was done in English in a beautifully sung, smoothly mounted romp involving a forlorn prince who becomes cursed with a love of three oranges en route to some commedia dell’arte tomfoolery, romance with a princess (who emerges out of one of the grown oranges), and other wacky whimsy.

During intermission, I fell in love with three mini cannoli in the VIP area. Ciao, Philadelphia! You make my Liberty Bell chime.