By Alan Hurst
When it was announced a while back that the play End of the Rainbow – which detailed a few months towards the end of Judy Garland’s life – was going to be adapted for the big screen and that Renee Zellweger would be playing Garland, I was among the many skeptics who thought the material was too thin for a two hour movie, and that Zellweger was bizarre casting. I was happily proved wrong. We finally got to see Judy last week – the movie is good, and Zellweger is spectacular. Although we still have a few months to go, Zellweger’s work here may just be the performance of the year.
Musical film biographies – whether they tell the full story or just a specific period of time in a performer’s life – are tough to pull off, particularly if the subject has reached iconic status and there are reams of film, video and recordings available at the click of a mouse, reminding us how great they were. In the last couple of years we’ve seen Rami Malek pull it off with his work as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Taron Egerton doing even better with his take on Elton John in Rocketman (2019). And as good as those two performances are, Zellweger’s eerie incarnation of Judy Garland is on a whole other plane.
In looking back over the last 70 or so years of movies, there are some truly notable achievements by actresses – many not known for their musical abilities – bringing the lives of some major performers to the big screen. They succeeded in giving us a cinematic look into the lives of these indelible stars – in some cases almost overtaking our memory of the person they’re portraying.
Here are 10 of those performances:
Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart (1952)
Jane Froman was a singer in the early part of the last century who enjoyed success on stage, radio and television. In 1943 she was on a USO plane that crashed during landing in a river near Lisbon. Of the 39 people on board, Forman was one of the 15 who survived but she was severely injured, enduring multiple fractures of both arms and major injuries to both legs. The film details Froman’s ascent to stardom, the accident, her recovery, and return to performing. The first part of the movie is standard movie bio 101 – unknown singer but driven who eventually rises to prominence. The crash and its aftermath really drive the drama here, and even if the tear jerking is manipulative, it works. With a Song in My Heart is a big, colorful 20th Century Fox musical and at the centre of it is Susan Hayward in one of her best performances. Hayward was never a subtle actress, but her dramatic abilities were top notch and she had a commanding screen presence. Here, under Walter Lang’s strong and assured directorial hand, she gives a layered and moving performance as Froman, expertly lip-synching to Froman’s actual vocals. Hayward received an Oscar nomination for her work here, as did the wonderful Thelma Ritter as her nurse. Also look for Robert Wagner in an early role as a wounded soldier. This was one of the biggest hits of 1952.
Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
I’ve written in praise about Doris Day’s work in Love Me or Leave Me before and here I go again. There aren’t too many today who know who Ruth Etting was, let alone what made her an appealing performer. This is one instance where a performance by an actress overshadows the memory of the actual person she’s portraying. Etting was an American singer (and sometime actress) who rose to fame in the 1920’s. She had dozens of hit recordings, was successful in clubs and on radio. Love Me or Leave Me was the film that firmly established Day as a capable dramatic actress. She’d had semi-successful forays into drama with Young Man with a Horn (1950) and Storm Warning (1951), but this was her breakthrough. She owns the role of the ambitious and slyly manipulative Etting who uses others to get to the top. With the help of a terrific (if somewhat fictionalized) screenplay, she gives the character some believable hard edges under the sweet façade, creating a complex portrait of the real-life performer. This role helped Day prove she was as good an actress as she was a singer – and her singing here is spectacular. Her vocals are among the best of her career. In addition, she’s perfectly partnered with James Cagney – and they both deserved Oscar consideration for their work here (Cagney was nominated, but Day was overlooked).
Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
After her triumph in 1952 in With a Song in My Heart, Susan Hayward was back garnering major critical acclaim in another film biography, this time focusing on singer Lillian Roth. Things were a little different this time – instead of the glossy, technicolor perfection of the previous film, the black and white I’ll Cry Tomorrow is much more stark and gritty in its telling of Roth’s struggle with a pushy stage mother (Jo Van Fleet), the death of a fiancé, her descent into alcoholism, and a series of bad marriages. Based on Roth’s autobiography, this was pretty strong stuff and Hayward threw everything she had into the performance. She makes Roth both likeable and maddening, but you’re rooting for her all the way through. And this time we actually get to hear Hayward sing, her throaty vocals being a nice match for Roth’s vocals and helping her nab a fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film continued Hayward’s run as one of the top stars of the 1950’s, and helped accelerate Roth’s comeback as a popular singer and performer.
Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968)
Funny Girl was a terrific screen adaptation of the successful Broadway musical that made Barbra Streisand a star. It’s the story of singer/comedienne Fanny Brice’s rise to stardom during the early part of the last century, where she found major fame as a headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. The success of the film (as well as any stage production) rests on the audience believing what the character of Fanny believes – that she is supremely talented and was born to be a performer. That’s put to the test in Fanny’s first number, “I’m the Greatest Star”. If she doesn’t convince us, then everything that comes after doesn’t work. Of course, Streisand hits it out of the park – it’s a spectacular solo performance: she’s funny, desperate, and animated, all supported with a Broadway belt like no other. You know this character will be a star – it’s just a matter of time. Director William Wyler knew this film would only succeed on the talent of Streisand, so she’s front and centre from the first frame. In 1968 Streisand the movie star was like a breath of fresh air. She was stylish, independent, and broke the mold of what a traditional star should look like. And this worked perfectly in Funny Girl. She gave the character a self deprecatingly comical spin that makes her dialogue almost feel improvised. You get the feeling that Fanny was never comfortable in her own skin, and that gave her the drive she needed to succeed – much like the real-life Streisand. Both women were not considered traditionally attractive, but they were both elegant yet accessible and, when not being the clown, quite striking. I think it’s safe to say that this role (and possibly 1973’s The Way We Were) was the best fit of Streisand’s career. She won a deserved Best Actress Oscar that year, in a tie with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter.
Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
The casting of Diana Ross in the supremely challenging role of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues was a big deal in 1972. The popular singer’s only previous acting experience was in some comedy sketches on TV variety programs and as a nun in an episode of the Tarzan TV series in the 1960’s. Billie Holiday was a much bigger hill to climb for Ross’ first motion picture, but there was no need to worry. Ross delivered in spades as the troubled jazz singer. Lady Sings the Blues is not a great film, but it is a wonderful showcase for Ross. Nothing like the real-life Holiday, Ross transformed herself and brought Holiday to life in all her beautifully tragic glory. The screenplay and direction leave no cliché untouched, but somehow Ross is able to make gold out of it. Playing Holiday from a young teenager through initial success, drug addiction, abuse and mental breakdown, Ross is perfect. The commitment and believability she brings to the scenes of Holiday’s downfall are particularly astounding. She also does very nicely with the vocals. She really doesn’t sound like Holiday, but her approach to the jazz tinged score definitely evokes Holiday. Ross received a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Like some of the others on this list, the casting of Spacek as Loretta Lynn – the queen of country music – seemed to be a bit of head scratcher for me. She didn’t really look like Lynn, she didn’t seem to have Lynn’s feisty spirit, and would she be able to handle the pure country vocals, or would they dub her with Lynn’s actual recordings? But director Michael Apted and Lynn (who had casting approval) knew what they were doing. This is one of the most perfect matches of actress and role in screen history. Spacek is shockingly good as the iconic country performer, playing her from a 13-year old living in the hills of Butcher Holler, Kentucky to a young married mother to reluctant performer to the biggest female country star in the business. She is believable, funny and heartbreaking every step of the way. And she even looks like Lynn. If you’ve seen Lynn on talk shows or on stage, you know how straightforward and guileless she is and that’s what Spacek effortlessly captures, along with the character’s initial naivete about all aspects of adult life. The other wonder about Spacek’s performance is her flawless recreation of Lynn the singer. Her vocals are her own, but also a superb representation of Lynn’s. Spacek succeeded so well with the role that in addition to her Oscar for Best Actress that year, she also received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance for the film’s soundtrack. Not bad! This film made me aware of Loretta Lynn’s music for the first time and turned me into a fan for life.
Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams (1985)
Another character making an indelible but brief impression in Coal Miner’s Daughter was Patsy Cline, a mentor and friend to Loretta Lynn brought to life with a terrific performance by Beverly D’Angelo. D’Angelo’s vocals and performance are a major highlight of the film. When it came time to give Cline’s story its own big screen treatment, they didn’t go with D’Angelo (or Meryl Streep who was offered the part) but smartly settled on Jessica Lange. Lange wasn’t a singer and she wasn’t going to try to emulate Cline’s sultry, soulful and exquisite vocals, but she was definitely an extraordinary actress and perfectly suited to bring the lusty, spirited Cline to life. Cline was a tough, no-nonsense woman who could give as good as she got, particularly with her volatile husband (played by Ed Harris). That strength comes through in Lange’s performance and it’s the backbone of the film. Sweet Dreams charts in predictable fashion Cline’s rise to stardom, her domestic challenges, and her recovery from a horrific car accident before losing her life in a plane crash in 1963. But Lange is fascinating as she takes the character through that journey. And she also does a great job of lip-synching to Cline’s vocals. Lange’s work netted her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
There is a theme of tragedy in a lot of the films on this list, which makes sense because no one’s life is able to avoid it. And in many of these films the tragedy takes the form of physical abuse, none more so than in this graphic and riveting telling of Tina Turner’s rise to fame, ultimately becoming one of the female legends of rock and roll. Born Anna Mae Bullock, Turner discovered her love of singing at an early age and she had an incredibly powerful and distinctive voice. Her desire to pursue a career as a singer lead her to St. Louis where she met musician Ike Turner. Ike dazzled Anna Mae (who he rechristens Tina) and the two paired up professionally and romantically, enjoying considerable success as the duo Ike and Tina Turner. But the physical abuse from Ike starts early and it increases as Tina becomes the real star. Ike’s jealousy and drug use take their toll, with Turner having to literally flee for her life. A number of actresses were considered to play Tina, but Angela Bassett got the part shortly before the film went into production. She completely nails the character – her voice, her mannerisms, her walk – and does a terrific job lip-synching to Turner’s vocals. Bassett expertly conveys the character’s initial naivete and her growing strength and drive to take control of her life. She’s nicely matched by Laurence Fishbourne as Ike. Both performers received Oscar nominations for their work.
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)
Edith Piaf was a singer and actress, perhaps the most beloved entertainer in France during her time. Her heartfelt and emotional way with a ballad made her internationally famous. But she also had an incredibly difficult life – born into poverty, abandoned by her mother, raised by her grandmother in a brothel, blind for four years because of meningitis, enduring the death of her two-year old daughter, and then suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. That just skims the surface – she did not have an easy time of it. She died at 47 and her death was mourned by thousands. As tragic (and brilliant) as her life was, it provided writer Isabelle Sobelman and director/cowriter Olivier Dhan with an abundance of material for an engrossing film. And it also provided Marion Cotillard with the role of a lifetime. With Piaf – dubbed the little sparrow as her fame grew – it was about the voice, the emotion, and the eyes. While Cottillard didn’t use her own vocals, she was mesmerizing as she powerfully performed to the newly recorded vocals by other artists. The dubbing here made complete sense because of Piaf’s distinctive and powerful way with a song. But Cotillard is an expressive, beautiful actress with a great range and she used that to bring Piaf powerfully to life. La Vie en Rose is quite difficult to watch at times because of the scenes depicting Piaf’s tragic upbringing, but Cotillard’s performance doesn’t allow you to look away. There is no question she fully deserved her Oscar that year for Best Actress – the first time it was awarded to an actress in a French language film.
Renee Zellweger in Judy (2019)
This is the performance that inspired this article. I will readily admit that I didn’t get it when Zellweger was cast as Judy Garland. Zellweger did well in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with quirky but interesting work in Jerry McGuire (1996), One True Thing (1998), Bridge Jones’ Diary (2001), Chicago (2002), and Cold Mountain (2003). But then she slowly faded away from everyone’s radar before taking a six-year break. She’s been involved in a few projects since that break, but nothing that really registered with audiences or critics. Until Judy. The film is a straightforward look at Garland’s last year, with some awkward flashbacks to give us context around her dependency on drugs. It’s ultimately a very sad look at the legend’s final grasp to be relevant, make some money and get some normalcy in her life, which always eluded her. Garland wasn’t at her peak by 1968-69. Her voice was no longer dependable, the lifelong addiction to uppers and downers had taken its toll, and her alcohol intake was destructive. She wasn’t sleeping well, and there were ongoing custody battles over her two younger children. You can see from watching her on talk shows at the time how nervous, tense and jittery she is (but also incredibly witty). This is the Garland that Zellweger gives us. She’s almost haunting in her evocation of Judy – the looks, the mannerisms, the vulnerability, the neediness. But she’s also still Zellweger – it isn’t an impersonation, but an actress bringing a very well-known character to life. The actress and director bravely decided to go with Zellweger’s vocals rather that rely on recordings and it was a smart move. Zellweger can sing (Chicago proved that) but not with the power of Garland in her prime. If this film had focused on Garland in the early sixties, the approach would not have worked. Because this is about Judy in her later years, Zellweger is able to use her voice to give us the sense that it has seen better days, but she’s still able to give us a taste of the Garland magic. You can see the actress working hard, because by this point the performer had to work hard to do what had come so easily years before.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.