“They hound people in this world,” Renée Zellweger says in the new biopic “Judy.” Really, it’s her character, Judy Garland, who says it, but it might as well be Zellweger herself. Who can better relate to such a sentiment than someone who retreated from the public eye for four years, only to return to vicious commentary about her appearance? Zellweger’s struggles may not have involved Garland’s addictions and custody battle, but the 50-year-old actor nonetheless brings a meta connection to the renaissance she’s currently enjoying on behalf of “Judy.”
In the rousing showbiz lark “Chicago,” which came on the heels of her star-making turns in “Jerry Maguire” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Zellweger played a striver seduced by the glitz of fame. In “Judy,” she plays a bigwig hiding from it. As thoroughly as she morphs into Garland, that famous Zellweger panache doesn’t go anywhere. The acting tics that made her a powerhouse of the 2000s ― distended lips, shy smile, breathy vehemence, fidgety arms ― are essential here. Those years when Hollywood reduced her to the dowdy wife (“Cinderella Man”) or the self-absorbed cliché (“New in Town”), only to later question why she could have wanted to escape herself cosmetically, become the fulcrum for Zellweger’s rebound.
Watching “Judy,” which chronicles its subject’s final year, specifically her five-week residency at a London nightclub in 1969, is like watching Zellweger walk a tightrope. Can she pull off the complex physicality and robust contralto? Garland’s fans used to wonder the same thing. When Zellweger soars, so does your heart. The movie is most alive during her musical numbers. Judy takes the stage to perform “Over the Rainbow,” and it’s a once-in-a-lullaby trance — an artist who is, finally, where she’s meant to be, just as Zellweger is meant to be onscreen. That’s a triumphant arc, as if the movie exists to remind us what brought Zellweger to our attention in the first place. The story of a Hollywood dignitary subsumed by an industry that applies heightened scrutiny to women finds added resonance.
Zellweger is one of several stars appearing in Oscar-season vehicles that directly or indirectly comment on their storied careers — roles that flourish because it’s this person inhabiting that character. There’s Eddie Murphy portraying a profane comedian in “Dolemite Is My Name,” Adam Sandler testing the limits of a protagonist’s unlikeability in “Uncut Gems” and Shia LaBeouf reckoning with his aggro notoriety in “Honey Boy.”
All four actors, whose movies screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, have hit something of an impasse in recent years, either vanishing entirely or hitting the same notes time and again. Now, a timeless movie-star trial follows: How do their respective legacies inform this chapter, and what will it take to get audiences to see them in a different light?
Murphy, like Zellweger, discovered Hollywood lost any sense of what to do with him. Once ranked among comedy’s most reliable leading men, he scaled back on live-action work after his “Dreamgirls” boon gave way to “Norbit” (2007), “Meet Dave” (2008) and “Imagine That” (2009). Critics savaged all three films, and the box-office revenue was equally rough. Murphy’s fast-talking theatrics — so winning in edgy ’80s and ’90s hallmarks like “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Coming to America” and “Bowfinger” — had become one-joke gambits. If “The Nutty Professor” flaunted his range, it also turned into a curse. Afterward, most writers handed him increasingly childish buffoonery (“The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Daddy Day Care”).
His late-2000s decline called Murphy’s longevity (and decision-making) into question right as Hollywood was shifting from a star-driven marketplace to a franchise-driven one. “I don’t whore myself out as easily as I used to,” Murphy told Rolling Stone in 2011, a sentiment he re-emphasized to Ellen DeGeneres two years later: “I don’t wanna do anything else that sucks ever again.”
With “Dolemite Is My Name,” Murphy lives up to his promise. (Let’s just forget 2016’s maudlin “Mr. Church,” a magical-Negro blight if ever there was one.) Not only does “Dolemite” not suck; it also identifies with Murphy’s struggle to find ace material as he ages, much in the way that “Judy” softly comments on Zellweger’s history. In bawdy stand-up comic Rudy Ray Moore, whose under-the-radar career soared after he poured all his might and money into the 1975 blaxploitation romp “Dolemite,” Murphy finds a kindred spirit. Like him, Moore’s presence was that of a coarse jokester with a vulnerable core, equal parts demanding and defenseless.
Rudy is so accustomed to rejection — and so defiant in the face of it — that, when his passion project wins over audiences at its Los Angeles premiere, the beam on his face acts as catharsis. At the premiere in Toronto, “Dolemite Is My Name” director Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) called the film Murphy’s own passion project. Surely it was gratifying for the actor, who was there in the room, to hear the crowd’s raucous laughter and to know that he, too, is worthy of another shot.
Interestingly enough, one of Murphy’s comedy peers is playing around with his legacy in adjacent ways. Adam Sandler, another funnyman who parlayed “Saturday Night Live” renown into blockbuster clout, pulls off something that only a beloved movie star can: He makes you love him in spite of the loathsome character he portrays.
Sandler has long tested audiences’ patience for infantile dimwits, from “Billy Madison” and “The Waterboy” to “Big Daddy” and “Little Nicky.” But in the 2000s, he found opportunities to broaden that palette. “Punch-Drunk Love” capitalized on his uncouth persona for a deceptively graceful romantic comedy, while “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People” showed he could telegraph grief without sacrificing charm. When Sandler revisited his old ways, he seemed listless, as if he’d tasted lobster but was stuck eating boiled eggs again. And yet the Netflix production deal he signed in 2014, which yielded four antic-laden comedies in which he looked particularly bored (see also: this year’s “Murder Mystery,” which wasn’t part of that arrangement), generated massive viewership.
Sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who toyed with Robert Pattinson’s matinee-idol image in 2017’s “Good Time,” know how capitalize on Sandler’s skills in “Uncut Gems.” Presenting the movie at a screening in Toronto, the Safdie brothers said they wrote the role of Howard Ratner, a skeezy New York diamond dealer, specifically for Sandler. He turned it down, then wisely changed his mind. In Sandler’s hands, Howard’s intense unlikability is almost an afterthought. (The movie begins with his colonoscopy, which is poetic because he’s such an asshole.) Howard lies to his clients, cheats on his wife, disregards his kids. He’s childish, but not in the clownish manner that Sandler usually exhibits.
All id, Sandler wears a smug smile on his face. He’s more gleeful and engaged than we’ve seen in years (“The Meyerowitz Stories” being an arguable exception). His eyes are wider, his forehead more expressive. Employing their signature kinetic style, the Safdie brothers cede the screen to Sandler’s every move, the camera drifting around him as though he is directing the action. If Murphy’s grin in “Dolemite Is My Name” is happy-go-lucky, Sandler’s in “Uncut Gems” is testy-go-lucky. (Coincidentally, the Safdies are reportedly set to direct a remake of Murphy’s breakout movie, “48 Hrs.”)
Were a lesser-known actor to play Howard, “Gems” might not work. It’s hard to spend two hours in the company of someone that incorrigible without established affection for the person inhabiting him. But here, because Sandler seems so enlivened by the material, it’s a treat to watch him feel his way through Howard’s recklessness — a movie star doing what only a movie star can do.
The same goes for Shia LaBeouf. His role in “Honey Boy” is direct autobiography, pulling from his volatile life as a child star with an abusive father who once turned a gun on him. As LaBeouf aged, offscreen blunders (street fights, arrests) and oddities (hitchhiking, that paper bag) overshadowed his acting, even though he was often just as feral onscreen (“Nymphomaniac,” “American Honey,” “Borg vs. McEnroe”). It seemed like he was melting down in real time, stricken by PTSD, substance abuse and unrelenting hostility. So he turned his pain into art, writing the script for “Honey Boy” during rehab.
But instead of playing himself, LaBeouf does something more daring: He plays his dad. How’s that for a therapy session? (“A Quiet Place” breakout Noah Jupe portrays LaBeouf’s “Even Stevens”-era analog, and Lucas Hedges portrays him as an angry young adult in a treatment center.)
It’s a raw and gritty but somehow forgiving performance that presents his father — and, in turn, himself — as both wounded and egotistical. LaBeouf’s receding hairline is matched by a grizzled Southern accent that couldn’t be further removed from his days as a “Transformers” stooge. He spends most of the movie on the verge of a breakdown, blurring the lines between character and self-flagellation. The results don’t necessarily absolve LaBeouf’s misdeeds, but they do reframe his image. There’s more to him than the privileged brat we saw in headlines.
That’s what accomplished movies can achieve for stars whose reputations have been digested by a fickle public. LaBeouf, Sandler, Murphy and Zellweger are enacting what is proverbially called “career rehab.” By acknowledging, directly or indirectly, what has befallen them in recent years, they ensure a path forward. And by demonstrating a self-awareness that sometimes evades the rich and influential, they lob a middle finger at the forces that reduced them to ciphers. “Judy,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Uncut Gems” and “Honey Boy” are testaments to films tailor-made for their leads, a rarity in a superhero-saturated landscape. They hound people in this world, but those people get the fiercest comebacks.