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Judy & Dolemite Is My Name: And the Oscar For Best Comeback Project Goes To…

Judy and Dolemite Is My Name are two comeback projects with Oscar aspirations. The on-screen story often mirrors the IRL story with the lead performers, and you walk away from both knowing the performance was better than the movie. That hasn’t stopped the Oscars before, and it sure seems like Renee Zellweger and Eddie Murphy want their gold, dammit.

There’s a difference between being in the running for an Oscar nomination and actively running for one. The former implies your work should speak for itself, let the chips fall where they may, etc.; the latter means treating the Oscars like a political race and the only way to win is to shake as many hands as possible and directly talk to voters – kiss hands, shake babies, and all that. It’s a game – one played partially in front of the public and partially behind closed doors at Academy screenings attended by voters and potential nominees – and if you want to win you better know how to play it.

Renee Zellweger and Eddie Murphy are playing the game this year. With Judy, Zellweger has her first new movie in three years – just her second overall since 2010 – and she’s going the classic Oscar route. This means sitting down for various celebrity profiles spinning this into an age-old Oscar story: the comeback project. In this case, the story conflates the performer with the part.

Zellweger Shoots Her Shot

In recreating Garland’s ill-fated, end-of-life London concerts, Zellweger is coming back in a movie which is about a famous woman trying and ultimately failing to make her own comeback. Beyond that, Zellweger was exiled by men who wanted to control her face. (Remember Owen Glieberman’s infamous headline: “If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?) Garland was used by men like Louis B. Meyer who filled her with such angst and chemical dependency that even in the mid-age, mother of three period of her life she still couldn’t fathom something as simple as eating a piece of cake. What ever would such food do to her figure?

In Judy, Zellweger gives all of this a knowing grace, allowing the audience to watch a woman who’s been through some shit play the hell out of a woman who went through some shit of her own. Although the make-up and prosthetics people clearly worked overtime to make Zellweger look just like Garland, Judy is more than just a painstaking impersonation of an icon; it’s one woman’s attempt to exorcise her own demons through the history of another woman who truly deserved better from life. Plus, if we all already forgot this since Chicago, Zellweger can actually sing!

Or at least that’s the narrative the Oscar campaign wants voters to latch on to. Ignore the actual ho-hum reviews for the movie. Suppress any criticism you might have for the way Judy decides at the end to throw a “but Garland’s true love was the stage and performing and she’d wouldn’t have traded that for the world” card at us out of nowhere. No, to award Renee is to celebrate her comeback AND karmically atone for what this rotten industry tried to do to her and already did to Judy Garland.

Murphy Entertains

Murphy also did the splashy New York Times profile thing reminding us how great he is, but he’s not stopping there. Unlike Zellweger, Murphy has never won an Oscar before. (She already has one for Cold Mountain.) The year he was nominated – and lost – for Dreamgirls, he stormed out of the ceremony after his category was announced, a true Oscar faux pas. Older voters don’t so easily forget such things. Telling NYT “I was kind of an asshole” atones a little, even though in context he was actually referring to his abrasive personality during his old stand-up days.

What would really help, however, is if Dolemite is My Name was some unmistakable cinematic tour de force. It’s not. A profile of blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore and the making of his first movie Dolemite, Dolemite Is My Name broadly adheres to screenwriting pair Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s love for the fringe figures of American pop culture – Ed Wood, Auto Focus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon. But for an Alexander/Karaszewski joint, Dolemite is more surface-level fun than usual, which is exactly why it’s so entertaining but also why it doesn’t completely feel like a slamdunk Oscar contender. As Uproxx argued:

Is Rudy Ray Moore an artist, a clever capitalist, or just a hustler? Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t spend too much time pondering those kinds of questions, which wouldn’t really fit in a comfort food romp like this. And if there’s a difference between a theatrical release and a Netflix one, I would argue VOD favors movies like Dolemite Is My Name: movies that don’t feel like homework.

The phrase “entertainingly shallow” comes to mind, with a heavy emphasis on “entertain.” To watch Dolemite is My Name is to truly remember how good it feels to see Eddie Murphy do his thing. Unlike Zellweger, he’s not doing the Oscar bait performance which overwhelms with historical fidelity; he’s doing the Oscar bait performance that barrels over you with the sheer force of its own will. There’s a reason Dolemite instantly became an internet meme machine: it is a non-stop barrage of quotable lines and hysterical over-the-top moments, with Murphy usually at the center of everything.

(Wesley Snipes, it should be noted, also steals some laughs as Rudy Ray Moore’s rather annoyed director.)

Still, Dolemite doesn’t seem to have quite enough critical acclaim to push Murphy over the Oscar finish line on performance alone. Add on top of that that Dolemite is a Netflix Original…yeah, hard work needed.

It’s no coincidence, then, that come December 21st when Murphy hosts Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1984 both the Golden Globes and Oscars will be nearing vital voting deadlines. (The Globes nominees will have already been announced by then but voting on winners closes December 30th; Oscar nominations voting opens January 2nd.)

Of course, that doesn’t have to be viewed so cynically. Dolemite and its iffy Oscar campaign? That’s just one part of Murphy’s comeback. He also has Coming to America 2 on the way next year as well as a stand-up tour, his first in seemingly forever. As he told the Times, “I’m kind of looking at this period as a bookend. I hadn’t been back to SNL, let’s fix that. Let’s do stand-up again. That way, when I finally just sit on the couch, then it’s good.”

But you know what would make sitting back on the couch extra satisfying? If there’s a shiny new Oscar to look up at on the mantle. Putting a Golden Globe and SAG award next to it would be nice, but he already has one of each for Dreamgirls. If not for the unfortunately timed release of Norbit, he’d probably have an Oscar for Dreamgirls as well, but, alas, he was denied the brass ring, snubbed in favor of Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. You could argue the Academy gave the award to Arkin as a career achievement, and now that’s the same play Dolemite is running.

Awards Season Intrigue

That particular campaign got an unexpected boost last weekend when Murphy attended the Academy’s non-televised Governor’s Awards, an event designed to hand out lifetime achievement awards to industry vets who can bask in the glory instead of getting rushed off the stage during an actual Oscar ceremony. As Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg pointed out, “There is no awards season event that is cooler or ticket that is hotter than the star-studded black-tie affair. It has become a pivotal stop for talent currently in awards contention.”

Most of the potential 2020 nominees – Hanks, Johansson, Tarantino, DiCaprio, Awkwafina – were there. There was no traditional host, but Jamie Foxx, himself a potential nominee for Just Mercy, opened the ceremony with several minutes of ad-libbed jokes. Then, according to Feinberg, the Ray star coaxed Murphy to the stage and praise his Dolemite Is My Name performance before taking a picture for Instagram.

It reminds me of a moment from this year’s Emmy’s ceremony. The entire cast of Veep was invited to take the stage for one final bow. It seemed redundant at the time because by the end of the night surely they’d all be on the stage anyway accepting the Best Comedy award. There’s no way the Emmys would snub the show’s final season. Still, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the gang got their standing ovation. It was the only one they got all night. The comedy awards mostly went to Fleabag. Veep was completely snubbed.

Time will tell if Murphy suffers a familiar fate. The praise he received at the Governor’s Awards might be the closest he gets to an Oscar. Feinberg’s current Oscar predictions list Murphy as the first one out in the Best Actor category:

Zellweger, meanwhile, is still considered not only a lock for a Best Actress nomination but also the woman to beat in the category. It doesn’t seem as if she attended the Governor’s Awards. She didn’t have to. Ever since Judy’s Telluride Film Festival premiere, her Oscar coronation ceremony has seemed like a mere formality.

However, as Glen Close could tell you after surprisingly losing last year to Olivia Colman you never know for sure until you hear your name read out loud, and thanks to the La La Land/Moonlight fiasco we know that sometimes not even verbal confirmation is enough.

The challenges facing Zellweger and Murphy are similar but different. Her movie is too easily written off as traditional biopic Oscar bait that is a better performance than it is a film; his movie has the opposite problem, namely that even though it’s a story about Hollywood it still doesn’t feel enough like Oscar bait. It’s just an incredibly charming movie about a bunch of outsiders putting on a show, and we know how the Oscars feel about comedies.

Understandably, more people will probably end up seeing Dolemite Is My Name than Judy, but is there a world in which both Murphy and Zellweger survive this brutal awards season race and possibly even each walk away with the gold? Sure, but I don’t think it’s the world we’re living in. It’s fun watching them try, though.

What’s your favorite Dolemite Is My Name line? Do you think Judy actually has more going for it than just its solid central performance? Beyond Eddie and Renee, who do you think will or should be in running for Best Actor and Best Actress this year? Let me know in the comments.

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