In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, having your singing voice dubbed was seen as a bit of a cheat: it could be done, in some cases, but chances are you’d be marked down a bit for it. In 1965, George Cukor’s sumptuous version of the Broadway smash My Fair Lady won eight Oscars, including best actor for Rex Harrison, who manfully did his own speak-singing as Henry Higgins; eyebrows were raised, however, when his co-star Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for best actress.
The snub was seen as something of a punishment. Hepburn had been cast in the role in place of its less famous Broadway originator, Julie Andrews; despite extensive vocal training on her part, however, she wasn’t considered a strong enough singer by studio bosses to tackle the lilting likes of I Could Have Danced All Night. Dubbed by the soprano and regular Hollywood ghost-singer Marni Nixon, Hepburn’s otherwise winsome performance was thus deemed a lesser achievement by her peers; in a perfectly ironic twist, best actress that year went to Andrews’ note-perfect film debut in Mary Poppins instead. Perhaps Hepburn, outwardly gracious as ever, called Natalie Wood to vent: three years before, Nixon’s dubbing had also seemingly cost her an Oscar nomination when West Side Story otherwise ran the table.
Half a century later, the form and fashion of the Hollywood musical has changed considerably, and so has the industry’s attitude toward actors who choose to hide behind others’ vocals: in an age where truly gifted song-and-dance performers are mostly confined to the stage, doing your own singing on screen is seen as an impressive but optional extra talent. Dubbing didn’t cost Rami Malek an Oscar earlier this year, for example: neither the public nor his industry admirers were bothered by the fact that he toothsomely lip-synced in the blockbuster Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
The fact that his fellow nominee Bradley Cooper did all his own gravelly singing as a fictional rock star in A Star is Born gave him no leg-up in the race, it turned out. Cooper merely looked on as Malek joined the ranks of actors to win armloads of awards for formidably transforming themselves into major musical figures while skimping on the singing part, including Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. As the popular music biopic has largely replaced the straight-up musical in Hollywood’s genre affections, physical acting and emoting counts for more than holding a tune, and why should it not?
Yet taking the harder route of eschewing dubbing – and, in particular, interpreting another artist’s immortal vocals – can yield rewards too. This year, Taron Egerton offered his own tuneful stab at the Elton John songbook in Rocketman; his performance feels more organic and invested than Malek’s swaggering, surface-level Mercury for it. Sissy Spacek and Reese Witherspoon won Oscars for nailing the country-and-western timbre of Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash, respectively; Spacek’s crooning in Coal Miner’s Daughter, in particular, was so authentic it even netted her a country Grammy nomination. Meanwhile, as a soul music sensation making her film debut in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, you would hardly have expected Diana Ross to go the dubbed route, even if her high, silky voice sounded not a bit like Holiday’s; the gritty spirit of her fine performance was felt, however, and she too was Oscar-nominated.
It’s into this dedicated but less slavishly impersonation-based tradition that Renée Zellweger’s much-acclaimed performance in Judy falls. Though Zellweger has proven her capable chops in the musicals Chicago and My Own Love Song, she was never going to be a vocal ringer for the utterly singular, from-the-gut stylings of Judy Garland. Yet her decision to do her own singing pays off handsomely, not least because the film, set in the bumpy final year of Garland’s life, captures the showwoman at her most vocally damaged and erratic. Having Zellweger lip-sync to pristine Garland recordings would have been entirely inaccurate; digging up archive footage of Garland at her worst for Zellweger to mime to, on the other hand, would have been simply ghoulish.
As it is, Zellweger’s tour de force proves how – even as it comes at the expense of pure, eerie verisimilitude – having an actor literally find the voice of the person they’re playing can contribute invaluably to the very arc of a performance. She matches Garland’s tattered, liquor-soaked vocal stumbles early on, playing well beneath either woman’s ability; by the time she reaches crisper, clearer notes, for a climactically redemptive onstage rendition of Over the Rainbow, the anxiety and labour that is audible in her voice feels so hard-earned, it hardly matters that she’s not reaching Garland’s highest peaks. The triumph belongs to the actor and character alike; with respect to the most lauded of lip-syncers, that’s not a victory they know.
Judy is out in the US on 27 September and in the UK on 4 October