I Kept Calm and Carried On With “Downton Abbey” … “Judy” the movie … also — Dennis Quaid, Dean Winters, and Ice -T.

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Just what the doctor ordered.

“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” Marcus Aurelius.

SEVERAL days ago I escaped from anxiety, or discarded it, at least temporarily. (The older I get, the more I delve into the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  I certainly don’t have the even temperament of the famous Stoic Roman emperor, but I have come to admire his sense and sensibility.)

And how did I shake the blues away?  Why, I went off to see the “Downton Abbey” movie.  I was in fact already becalmed just thinking about it.

Few things are certain in life, but I was sure that the feature length sequel to Julian Fellowes’ six-season PBS series would be exquisite to look at, reasonably witty (thanks mostly to Maggie Smith, natch), that there would be little dramas, happy endings and a well-cushioned emotional comfort. I was not disappointed.

It is exactly what I expected. And certainly what I needed. The King and Queen come ‘a calling to Downton Abbey and from this momentous event, all the drama, such as it is, blooms.  It is blessedly uncomplicated.  

Director Michael Engler wasn’t looking to expand Julian Fellowes characters or concept. It’s a supersized version of a particularly entertaining “DA” episode.  The only storyline that has a new-ish element is that of Thomas Barrow, the gay butler (Robert James-Collier) who was rather a villain a good deal of the time during the series, and whose preference was rarely a plot point.  In the film, his situation—which was dangerous and depressing in those days—is more clearly delineated.

Other than that, the film is delectably bland, servicing my need, at least, not to be disturbed emotionally.  I’ve had enough of that recently. I cried all though Ken Burns’ “Country Music” and then, for some reason, binged the last two seasons of “Call the Midwife.”  If I want to have a complete breakdown, I just watch the end of “The Yearling.”   And then there’s…the news.  

So, while I was completely satisfied with this placid romp, it wouldn’t hurt creator Fellowes going a bit deeper if he and the cast want to do it one more time.  

Fast forward a decade or so, as World War II looms—let’s get in a few tragic deaths, make Lady Mary (or even better, Edith!) resistance fighters as Fascism and the Nazis take power.  Mary—the divine Michelle Dockery—has already shown herself competent in matters of international intrigue, via the dead Turkish diplomat business. Patriotic skullduggery would be a snap.

Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet all but announces her intending demise in the current film, and initially Maggie didn’t want to be a part of the sequel.  But Violet remains sprightly to the finish and there no reason she wouldn’t still be around in 1938 or ’39 to spit out withering denunciations of Hitler, Wallis Simpson or those ghastly hats the Queen became so fond of.  

And if this really was the last cherry on top of the “Downton Abbey” sundae, it was delicious and it kept me calm, so I can carry on.

A SOMEWHAT less calming movie experience was “Judy” starring Renee Zellweger.  Although, truthfully, it wasn’t as upsetting as the material promised. (Garland’s last, fraught months in London, stopping just short of her death at age 47.)  

Perhaps because I am of an age, and already so familiar with this material, this era: Garland’s chaotic life, the quality of her voice—shredded but still recognizably distinctive—the possibility that yes, she might “come back” again.  

These “last days” kind of films tend to be grisly wallows in the worst we’ve heard about Garland, Monroe, Elvis, Joplin, Jim Morrison, Harlow, on and on. There seems to be few things more pleasurable than watching or reading about the clay feet of our idols used to make pyramids of sensation. 

And for sure “Judy” directed by Rupert Goold has all the bells and whistles of Garland’s final struggles—broke, addicted, another absurd marriage, the voice she could always control.  We, who remember, remember.  

There’s little point in trying to explain Garland, at any point in her life.  She was victim and victimizer, as people in her rarefied position often are.  The film is mawkish and predictable, though very pretty to look at.  And so it falls to Renee Zellweger to present an essence—not an impersonation—of Judy as the star fights for her life.  Zellweger did her homework and captures little bits of Garland unique body language and vocal tics—the tilt of the head, the roll of an eye.  By 1969, the razor sharp Judy (go to You Tube and see her at her best with Jack Paar in 1963) is fuzzy, the fabled wit often smothered by years of abuse.  She is an open wound, begging for love and protection.  Her life is an erratic high wire act and she is sometimes stunned and furious by her circumstances.

Zellweger’s performance is all heart.  Although the script—and Judy’s life at that time—requires the actress to go to the confused darkness of Garland, one feels she’d have rather not.  I don’t think Renee is bucking for an Oscar here, I know her a little bit and she is not cynical in that way.  She is a woman in a business that can be brutal, still, for women.  She has had her own personal and professional failures, she knows how the press and public devour you with “love” as you rise and spit you out callously when you stumble. (Or change, or fail to meet some unreasonable expectation.) 

She’s playing Judy Garland, but she’s every star who starts out one way, ends up another and wonders what the hell exactly happened during the journey.  Judy’s story was unique because she was Judy.  But the nuts and bolts of coping with fame and talent and other people’s expectations are not so unique.

There are flashbacks meant to inform—I suppose—the uninformed in Judy lore, where some of her issues were born: the terrible mother, the terrible movie mogul, the terrible control by her studio.   Cry me a river.  Everybody is exploited.  Nobody has a happy childhood.  

(Years ago I ran into Ann Miller at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Judy.  Ann, as always, was divine, and she spoke in a complimentary way about Garland, but then she said, “Honey, don’t quote me, ok?  Judy was the greatest.  But she was also the biggest pain in the ass.  Nothing was ever her fault, everybody was against her, nobody loved her.  She had the greatest sense of humor but when she didn’t you just wanted to head for the hills. Honey, believe me, we ALL worked our asses off.  NONE of us were appreciated and nobody knew you when you were down and out. That’s show biz.”)

As is the fashion now, Renee Zellweger uses her own voice, belting out “By Myself” or half-whispering “Over the Rainbow.”  I’m not offended. Renee doesn’t sound like Garland, but she doesn’t look like Garland either.  Again—essence vs. impersonation.

Even at the end, Judy managed some strikingly good performances, not anywhere near her peak, but within the range of her damaged voice, deeply effective. (Find her on Johnny Carson in December of ’68, delivering “After the Holidays” and “It’s All for You.” )  

Like “Downton Abbey,” “Judy” didn’t surprise me.  It couldn’t possibly.  But it did give me another glimpse into the humanity that inhabits Renee Zellweger as an actress and as a human being. (I understand why none of Garland’s children are eager to see the film, but I have a feeling Judy might have understood, at least in terms of where Renee went to, in her performance.)

She doesn’t have to “be” Judy Garland.  She is Renee Zellweger, and that’s absolutely lovely.

I AM so amused by Dennis Quaid’s TV commercials for Esurance.  He’s still hot, and funny.

I AM even more amused by the Allstate TV spots with Dean Winters as the physical embodiment of Mayhem.  The only thing I know about Winters was his ongoing role in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as Brian Cassidy.  That poorly written role didn’t afford him much opportunity for levity.  As Mayhem he’s adorable.

And speaking of “SVU,” I watched for reasons I can’t explain, the finale of the 20th season, On Demand.  (I have not yet seen, nor do I even know if season 21 has debuted.) 

I am astonished at what has happened to this show.  I see now that the “special victim” must at all times be…Mariska Hargitay’s Captain Olivia Benson. Obviously, the show must still be bringing in respectable ratings so bless everybody—and Mariska does a lot of good deeds in a naughty world, spinning off from her heightened “SVU” awareness—but the soap opera elements have gone to such an extreme that the series is totally unrecognizable from its gritty and entertaining roots. 

I do however tip my hat to Ice-T as Sergeant Tutuola, who has been with the series almost as long as Hargitay.   His character and his portrayal have remained remarkably steady and appealing—a blessing in the sea of messy emotionalism that “SVU” often finds itself now.

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