Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

By Anwen Crawford
The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Judy. © Pathé Productions

You already know that a film about Judy Garland is going to end with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. No finer popular song has ever been written about the human desire for perfect serenity, which might also be called a longing for utopia, and Garland granted that subject its necessary sorrow, while making it, in time, inseparable from the sorrow of her own life. The only question is: how will the film get there?

On second thought, I have another question. Why make a biopic about Judy Garland at all? There isn’t exactly a shortage of information about her, or of access to her films and recordings. Her voice is matchless and her onscreen presence, with its marriage of gusto and tenderness, gaucherie and poise, is inimitable. Making a movie about Garland only makes sense if she isn’t really the subject, which, in the case of Judy, she isn’t. Director Rupert Goold and star Renée Zellweger have made a film the main of purpose of which is to flatter its creators, and its audience, for their retrospective recognition of the abuses that kept 20th century showbiz spinning – and in doing so, they’ve used Garland all over again as a vehicle to fulfil their own ends.

Set mostly in 1969, the last year of Garland’s life, Judy revisits the star’s premature decline, which was a consequence of a lifetime’s addiction to the drugs she was first fed as a child performer. Given that this decline was prolonged and public in the first place, there seems little point in doing it over, unless the point is – which it is – to tut at how bad things used to be. Poor Judy!

But this is also a film in thrall to Classic Hollywood’s image-making power – it begins, almost inevitably, with a flashback to the set of The Wizard of Oz – and, in its reverence for Hollywood’s bygone hegemony, it can’t acknowledge that the industry’s dominance and abuses went together. This was the dream factory, after all, and its actors were contracted employees on the production line, churning out industrial entertainments for an industrial age, and disciplined accordingly. Such discipline was obligatory to the kind of cinema and fame that Classic Hollywood manufactured, and if today’s movie stars, Zellweger among them, seem comparatively lacking in charisma, it might be because they’re not as callously squeezed in pursuit of factory-fresh perfection. The one begets the other. But these are the kind of dark puzzles that Judy doesn’t bother to probe, and anyway, the last few years have shown that Hollywood is still a morass of abusive practices – perhaps now more covert – which makes the smug atmosphere of this film less than persuasive.

Based on Peter Quilter’s musical End of the Rainbow, Judy takes as its focal point a run of shows that Garland performed in London’s West End, at The Talk of the Town nightclub, roughly six months before her death, aged 47. By this time, her reputation as an erratic pill-head and alcoholic well and truly preceded her, but she toured because she had to – she was broke from years of mismanagement, and, to the film studios, she’d become more of a liability than an asset.

Zellweger, as Garland, does a lot of squinting, a lot of grimacing and blinking. She’s trying very hard, and if she weren’t burdened by the millstone of having to pretend to be Judy Garland (not to mention the dud script), the brittleness she occasionally reaches – beyond the tics meant to convey it – might have served her well, in a different and more unassuming film about the fortunes of a fictional entertainer. But Judy has “Oscar bait” practically watermarked onto every frame, and, given that contemporary Hollywood loves nothing more than a famous actor portraying another famous performer (see: Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, and on and on), I’m confident Zellweger will soon be treading the awards circuit for a role that reveals little more than her effort to inhabit it. Do I sound cynical? Well, Hollywood is a cynical place, and part of this film’s weakness is that is cynicism flows the wrong way: towards the manipulation of its audience, rather than back upon the industry. We’re meant to cry at the end, and I duly did, but for Judy, not for this film that replays her trials as if a simulacrum of them will redeem everything that was done to her, including what she did to herself. Oh yeah, Zellweger sings, too. Does she sound like Judy Garland? What do you think? Nobody fucking sounds like Judy Garland.

And then there are the flashbacks, through which Richard Cordery as MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer prowls like a lion out of nightmares. “I make movies, Judy,” he booms, “but it’s your job to give people dreams.” Yes, the dialogue really is that obvious. Young Judy (played with wide-eyed earnestness by Darci Shaw) is harried by Bad Boss, Bad Mother and Bad Press, stuffed with diet pills and sleeping pills, told she is fat and ugly – things that were all objectively bad and damaging, though these flashbacks function only as morality plays: all lesson, no nuance. (Besides, there were blatant and more sordid abuses that the film doesn’t go near, like the two abortions Garland was ordered by MGM to have, as a young woman.) Back in 1969, the grown-up Zellweger-Garland throws dishes and gets hitched and falls over on stage. Poor Judy!

Very late, after hectares of humiliation dressed up as sentimental reverence, the film tips its hand. It’s another flashback, and, judging by the costumes, we’re meant to be backstage circa 1939 with Garland and Mickey Rooney, either after the Academy Awards ceremony at which Rooney presented Garland with a Juvenile Oscar, or perhaps during their promotional tour together for the Busby Berkeley musical Babes in Arms, in which they both starred that year – the same year as The Wizard of Oz. Rooney tries to persuade Garland to retire for the evening and join her friends at dinner, but she, buoyed by the lasting applause that filters through the stage curtains, elects to do an encore. Everything else, by implication, follows from her choosing public adoration over the camaraderie of her friends; as her London stage assistant comments, “she can’t help it”. In other words, this is the same old cautionary tale of a woman whose appetite for love exceeds what custom decrees she should settle for, and with the same conclusion: her hunger is its own inevitable punishment.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Judy. © Pathé Productions

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