Before the 2019 awards season dissipates entirely from memory I want to get my thoughts down about one of the movies I watched. As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I like following the Oscars is to get myself to watch a few things that I wouldn’t otherwise, for a little of the ol’ BoH (Broadening of Horizons). I always bring up the example of when I had no interest in THE MISERABLES but I watched it because it was the only best picture nominee I hadn’t seen and it turned out I loved it.
This year all the best picture nominees were things I’d seen or was already planning to see. But there was one movie that I correctly guessed would be a winner that I really did not think would be my cup of tea – JUDY.
Things I had against it: Not generally a fan of biopics. Not particularly curious about the life of Judy Garland. Never really impressed by Renee Zelweger. I absolutely would not have watched this for any other reason than “Eh, she’s gonna get best actress, might as well find out if I should be mad about that or not.”
So I’m happy to report that although I didn’t love the movie it was better and more interesting than I expected. First and most important thing: it’s not a BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY style school report type biography. It’s focused on a few months toward the end of Garland’s life when she was broke and washed up and accepted an offer to have a residency at a theater in London. It’s based on the West End and Broadway play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, which may account for its limited locations and emphasis on her singing, but I wonder if this may also be influenced by the ED WOOD sort of approach – the realization that zeroing in on a microcosmic portion of a famous person’s life is better for storytelling and gives a better opportunity to get into their character than if you’re painting their entire lifespan in broad strokes.
If this is ED WOOD, though, she’s not Ed – she’s Bela Lugosi. Quilter, adapter Tom Edge (THE LAST DRAGONSLAYER) and director Rupert Goold (TRUE STORY starring Jonah Hill) recognize that Garland is a much more interesting character when all the damage has already been done. After an unfortunate prologue (more on that later), Zelweger’s Garland is introduced returning from a trip with her daughter (Bella Ramsey, Game of Thrones) and son (Lewin Lloyd, THE AERONAUTS), riding in a limo like bigshots to the hotel where they stay… before the staff awkwardly explains that all their shit got moved out while they were gone because they never paid. The kids try to make peace and avoid humiliation while Judy plays it like it’s the hotel’s fault.
She has to show up a the mansion of her ex-husband Sidney (I didn’t recognize Rufus Sewell, GODS OF EGYPT) so her kids will have a place to stay at night. Embarrassing. There’s something captivating about a character who clearly knows her life has gone to shit but tries to hold her head high and comes off more sympathetic than delusional.
Then she goes to a party where she’s old and out of place, and decides not to leave to go dancing with Liza (Gemma-Leah Devereux) and friends. She stays and makes conversation with hunky younger flatterer Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, not the character from The Flintstones but the guy that’s in LA LA LAND and IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and stuff). They stay up late when others are passed out and he gets her to play piano. I thought “oh shit, is Judy gonna get laid?” because I don’t know anything about Judy Garland (Mickey Deans was her fifth and final husband).
When she arrives in London there’s some well-orchestrated discomfort. A woman named Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, WILD ROSE, Fargo Season 4) shows her around and remains calm as it starts to seem like a slow-moving catastrophe. Judy meets the bandleader, Burt Rhodes (Royce Perreson, The Witcher) but does not want to rehearse with him even after reminded that the show is tonight. She’s popping pills and there’s something wrong with her voice and she has horrible stage fright and then she comes out there and after a little awkwardness she makes them laugh and then she sings and they’re in the palm of her hand. Disaster averted.
For that night. Not the next night. Judy is not reliable or consistent.
They try to make it work. I like the scene where she tries to get out of the premiere, claiming to be sick, and Rosalyn pretends not to be disagreeing with her while getting her ready for the stage. A woman is checking her out as if she’s a nurse but then it becomes clear that she’s a makeup artist. Michael Gambon (ALI G INDAHOUSE) has a part as the theater manager, which mostly involves standing in the audience, looking disapproving (or sometimes approving).
One section of the movie that seems like it could’ve been a whole play on its own is when she’s stopped at the stage door by two fans (Andy Nyman [SEVERANCE, THE TOURNAMENT, THE COMMUTER] and Daniel Cerqueira [SAVING PRIVATE RYAN]) – two male fans of Judy Garland, you know what I mean? – and is very friendly to them, then accepts their offer to buy her a drink, except all the bars turn out to be closed, and then she accepts their offer to come back to their apartment, where one of them tries to make her an omelette and then hates himself when it turns out bad. It’s this surreal moment of superfans trying to entertain their idol in their dinky apartment, with all this tension because they’re embarrassed but there’s an unspoken thing about what she means to them as gay men.
And this is when she really shines – being funny and humble, making them laugh and eventually feel comfortable enough to play piano while she sings a song to them! In their apartment late at night! They seem to empower each other – Judy needs their admiration and they need her non-judgmental support. They need each others’ acceptance. (Garland was in fact liberal for her time – I’m not sure if this contributed to her icon status in the gay community or just worked out well.)
Unfortunately those characters, Dan and Stan, are involved in a real groaner of an ending where (***SPOILER FOR JUDY*** ***JUDY SPOILERS*** ***RED ALERT – SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE JUDY ABOUT JUDY GARLAND – PROCEED WITH CAUTION***) she breaks down while (finally) singing “Over the Rainbow,” and the crowd gets mad, but then the boys stand up and sing and the crowd slowly joins in for an inspirational sing-along. I mean I can’t guarantee it didn’t really happen or that it wouldn’t be possible to make this scene really believable and heartwarming, but they sure didn’t sell me on it.
In general I think the movie fails at the careful calibration of crowd reaction. There are other scenes where she shows up intoxicated and causing a scene, and it could be really powerfully uncomfortable, except they have the audience instantly start booing and yelling at her. Never mind that they’re presumably fans of Judy Garland who came out and spent big money because they like her – it takes about one second of crazy behavior for all of them to abandon any ounce of sympathy and turn into the pitchfork-wielding townfolk.
Now let’s talk about that opening I didn’t like. Fourteen-year-old Judy (Darci Shaw) is on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ, getting a lecture from Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery, LORENZO’S OIL, DRAGONHEART: BATTLE FOR THE HEARTFIRE), who speaks entirely in On The Nose. A big long monologue cramming in all the themes and all the historical research and being a total asshole but not in a way that seems authentic. While watching it for some reason I thought the Coen Brothers could’ve made that scene work, giving him a funny blowhard with archaic language who has no clue how silly he comes across. But this version is supposed to be serious.
There are a few other flashbacks sprinkled throughout, fortunately not that many, and to be fair they do accomplish some things. It’s kind of clever how they blur the lines between life and movies, for example having a pretty long conversation between her and Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) at a diner before pulling back to reveal that they’re on a set. This unusual childhood, the tremendous pressure put on her, and the ways men mistreat her, all seem to contribute to her adult state as a sad addict whose kids are mad that she’s not around even though she’s not around so she can make money to be with her kids. And most people just get angry at her when she messes up instead of offering her any kind of help or compassion. It makes me think of Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and others who were built up as little girls and then torn down when they got a little older and weren’t handling it well. Just the other day I saw some political writer on Twitter trying to make a point about the hypocrisy of heterosexuals who say that marriage equality is bad for the institution of marriage, using Rush Limbaugh and Britney Spears as examples. I mean I don’t give a shit about Britney Spears but he’s dragging out 15-year-old mistakes in the personal life of a musician he presumably doesn’t listen to who was like 22 at the time, and I didn’t see anybody call him on it. Judy is not alone. This shit continues.
There’s a problem with those scenes, though. I don’t want to blame the young actress, who does a perfectly respectable job, but I could never think of her as Judy Garland because they didn’t even get her to talk like her. You really think the audience here is people who have never even seen WIZARD OF OZ?
But Zellweger is indeed good in one of those totally-going-for-it roles some actors love, having to be made up to look older than she is (because Judy did), talk in an old-timey cadence, sing, etc. In red carpet interviews and stuff she talked about how important Judy Garland is, how much everyone still loves her and how happy she is that there’s a big conversation about her. Yeah, of course there is where you are, because you fuckin played her in a movie! But I didn’t think the movie was trying to make an argument for her importance. I think it was just arguing that she was an interesting person who maybe got a raw deal and deserved to be cut a little more slack.