Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Powerful Women at TIFF: Harriet Tubman and Judy Garland

Editor's Note: For the third consecutive year, Dawn and The Husband will be spending chunks of the next fortnight attending the Toronto International Film Festival, known to the locals as TIFF. While they can now proudly call themselves seasoned veterans at this madness, they have still selected a modest, albeit an increased number of films, (7) because they are old and lining up for hours is tough on the joints; have no interest in midnight madness viewings; and that number is honestly far more films than anybody really needs to view in less than ten days. TIFF still serves as a tremendous distraction from the world's ills, the impending High Holidays, and asshole would-be dictators whose names rhyme with Dump and Thug. (If you are British, you can reasonably now add the asshole who rhymes with Doris to this list.) The next several posts will focus exclusively on TIFF and will offer very quick bullet point reviews for the movies seen. 

Two films for the price of one post today.

Women in Film has been a mantra around TIFF for the past couple of years. The organization has been actively pursuing and showing movies made by women filmmakers both at the festival itself and throughout the year at the TIFF Lightbox theatre. I have followed the program with some interest only to be massively disappointed when reviewers, press people, and award bestowers have, with acute regularity, ignored the dynamic work women in the industry have been creating. It isn't as though we planned to centre our TIFF going this year around dynamic women directors and artists but it certainly has turned out that way. The first four films that we screened were all directed by women and the two on which I will concentrate today feature incredibly powerful performances by the leading women. In fact, I suspect that both Harriet and Judy will long be remembered more for the work of Cynthia Erivo and Renee Zellweger rather than the artistry of the films themselves.

Harriet is an important film and one that I frankly cannot believe hasn't been made until now. When introducing the movie last evening for its world premiere, TIFF director Cameron Bailey stated that there have been more than thirty movies made about General George Custer and yet, this is the first major screen treatment about Harriet Tubman. It is a shonda that it has taken Hollywood so long to get around to recognizing the heroic, dauntless, and flat-out ballsiness of a true American hero. In the capable hands of director Kasi Lemmons, Harriet Tubman is returned to her rightful place of honour in the film history books. Cynthia Erivo (Widows, The Colour Purple: Broadway) is simply sublime in her star-turn as the runaway slave turned rescuer turned the leader of a rebellion. She embodies Harriet's tenacity, resourcefulness, faith, and toughness and imbues it all with tremendous grace. Director Lemmons makes a conscious choice to not show all the brutality that Harriet suffered during her slave years on the screen, but rather she has put together a film that is well-crafted and showcases the enormous talents of Ms. Erivo. (She even gets to show off her magnificent singing voice.) That said, the movie does fall flat at times and the transitions are often awkward. The supporting cast is fine, with a really nice turn by Janelle Monae as a business owner/friend, but it is the power of Cynthia Erivo that drives Harriet. There have been other movies about the American slave trade that have probably been more muscular and more difficult to digest in our modern context, (Twelve Years a Slave comes to mind) but that shouldn't negate what Lemmons and Erivo have attempted to do here. It is important that the people who worked to end the scrouge of slavery, like Harriet Tubman, are given their proper place in the annals of history.

I will admit to having mixed feelings about Judy. Let's just get the obvious facts out of the way right off the top. Renee Zellweger is simply spectacular as the late in life and totally fucked up icon. She inhabits her skin and it is, at times, really creepy. She is raw and weathered and vulnerable and a real mess. She is everything that Judy Garland was in those tragic six months before her death. Ms. Zellweger even manages to display some Judy-esque vocals that, while nowhere near the real thing, are passable for a drugged-out version of the brilliance. There is no question that Renee Zellweger will be at the top of everybody's awards' lists this winter.


I am still trying to figure out why this movie needed to be made. As a huge Judy Garland fan, I was not in any way surprised by anything I saw on the screen. Judy Garland was a tragic woman with the voice of the century. She was used and abused by every single person with whom she ever came in contact with the exception of her children. She was set on a path of personal destruction by an overbearing mother and a closeted and unhappy father. She was misused and treated badly by the Hollywood studio system and when she could no longer function properly due to years of alcohol and drug use, she was cast aside by friends and family until she was broke and homeless. All of this is well documented and well understood. So...why did we have to see the final breakdown on film?

I was uncomfortable watching this film in a way that I was uncomfortable watching Mommy Dearest. I just don't understand why this side of her tragedy was necessary to display. Judy Garland was the greatest live performer of all time. Watching the unravelling made me feel like a voyeur. Zellweger shows the integrity in Judy's determination to perform and why she was so appealing and she successfully captures the volatility that was her personality but the movie is uneven and difficult.

So far, this year at TIFF has been the year of the woman for us.

Dawn and The Husband's give two happy Yups to Harriet and two marginal Yups to Judy. Both positive reviews based on the powerful performances of their lead women.

**A quick follow-up to my post about How to Build a Girl. I saw the incomparable Beanie Feldstein last season on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! when she played Minnie Fay. I completely forgot about it while writing that post. She was great then and great now. She will next be featured with her old friend Ben Platt in the theatrical version of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.

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