I watched the movie version of Cats recently.
One part of it, more than any other, remains in my memory.
It is the part where Grizabella sings "Memory", and Victoria sings "Beautiful Ghosts" in response. Everything else I care for too little to remember, save that one scene.
It is a scene where Jennifer Hudson's performance is given greater praise than Francesca Hayward's and I think whoever says so does not see what I see. People say Hayward's performance is too hesitant, a clear product of the miniscule amount of time to write and rehearse it, and yet...I think her performance is precisely what the song calls for.
I hesitate to say much for certain about the rest of the movie. I went into it expecting something close to what the popular response implied and was left confused about the wild reactions. I will wait to forget the popular opinion so I can see the movie again with clear eyes. Thus far, I am only certain of a few things about this movie:
1. Francesca Hayward's hesitant performance of "Beautiful Ghosts" helps her develop the rest of the song's quiet, heartbroken pathos, the same way any music creates drama by beginning softly and ending loudly. It is perfectly appropriate for the scene, because Victoria is trying to reach out to an exile, and such an act is never easy. Grizabella's turn away is the usual response to initial outreach. Victoria has every right to be nervous.
2. Hayward's physical actions in this scene, as in the rest of the movie, look highly performative and artificial because they are meant for a different medium than film. Hayward is a professional dancer. She is, in fact, a ballerina. She is, in fact, the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. Her entire acting career is in a medium where the acting is completely physical and meant to be understood by someone watching from a distance. The sort of acting she does on a daily basis resists the sort of subtle expressions and movements that movie acting requires. That is not to say that Hayward has trouble adding nuance to her performance, only that the nuance she knows how to add works best in a different medium than film. Yet her performance in this scene made me assume that she was genuinely on the verge of tears through the latter half of the song. She managed to make her usual manner of acting work in a medium that resists making it work.
3. The fact that this song was recorded on-set means that the scene was probably shot all at once. If the song had been recorded elsewhere and overdubbed, there would have been chances to cut, pause and begin again, but it was recorded on the set. There was no opportunity to pause. There was no chance for someone to throw glycerin at Hayward's face. Her eyes stop looking dry in the middle of a long shot. So there are three possibilities here: either the special effects team, the team that had already been overworked to death, managed to CGI in those tears despite screwing up every other bit of CGI in the entire movie, Hayward's eyes were watering because she was staring directly into bright stage lights, despite the fact that the previous shot showed no lights bright enough to do that, or she was singing straight from the heart. And I saw her sniffle in the middle of that shot. Those are real tears. Hayward was singing from the heart.
4. I have no idea where or how Hayward learned to sing like that because Ballet dancers do not, as a general rule, sing. Wherever she learned to sing it could not have come from her professional life. Jennifer Hudson is a professional singer but Hayward has been a ballet dancer since she was a kid. Perhaps she learned how to sing entirely on her own time. Perhaps she had excellent lessons from the Cast Vocal Coach. Yet vocal coaches cannot create talent, only help someone to build upon it, and I cannot imagine the Cast Vocal Coach could have devoted her undivided attention to Hayward. So most of Hayward's singing experience must have come from elsewhere. She must have had the chance to practice somewhere. Church choir? I don't know.
5. Hayward only had a few hours to rehearse this song before shooting the scene. She had that miniscule amount of time to perfect an appropriate tone for her performance. Either she was told what tone to go for or she chose it herself in that same amount of time.
6. So to summarize: Francesca Hayward, Ballet Dancer par excellence, having decades of ballet acting experience but almost no movie acting experience, singing a new song where Hudson had the benefit of picking up on a well-known one, having only a few hours to rehearse a piece that is in an artistic medium completley outside the wheelhouse of her profession, gives a performance to match and complement Hudson's own. In the same circumstances I could not do any better. I don't know if I could even come close. Hayward should not have been nominated for Worst Actress of 2019. She should have been nominated for Best Actress.
7. The song is a direct response to Grizabella's "Memory". If this scene was the only one out of the entire movie that I had seen, I would assume that the movie was a bittersweet and complicated age-gap romance between Victoria and Grizabella. Victoria is trying to reach Grizabella's heart in this scene, and yet her song is a little self-centered, a plaintive assertion that Victoria has worse circumstances than Grizabella and grander dreams. She is trying to bring Grizabella back to the Jellicle Cats because she cannot give up either one, but if she must choose between them, she will let Grizabella go. She would rather have beautiful ghosts before her eyes than glittering memories behind them. Grizabella's faint and brief smile makes her appear to register Victoria's own heartbreak even as she is not convinced to return. There is much potential characterization to build off this point, and the performances of both actresses take the scene above and beyond what the mere text denotes.
8. If the movie were developed based around this scene, or around the scene where Gus sings about his old days, it would have been a movie for the ages. Instead the characterization here raises a possibility that the rest of the movie drops. Grizabella never thanks Victoria for bringing her back; nobody else does; I don't remember if there is any more characterization between the two but it never comes to anything anyway, not even a goodbye nuzzle.
9. I barely remember the rest of the film because it has nothing to do with the one part of the movie I'm actually interested in seeing. So I have no more to say about the rest of it, other than that I am deeply frustrated that the one part of this story I actually like was invented for the movie, which means I must watch the movie again if I want to see if I am correct about the above point.