In the last few years we’ve seen three films which build stories around the later careers of Hollywood stars visiting the UK and now we have a fourth. Judy‘s narrative deals with Judy Garland’s last singing engagement at The Talk of the Town in London in December 1968, a few months before her death aged 47. The film follows Stan & Ollie (UK 2018) and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK 2017) (the last days of Gloria Grahame). My Week With Marilyn (UK-US 2011) is perhaps slightly different, set in 1957 when Marilyn Monroe’s career still had four more years to run, but there are still some common elements. None of these films are biopics as such, focusing on distinct periods towards the end of a star’s career. Judy seems the oddest of the quartet, possibly because it is adapted from a West End play by Peter Quilter and also because it is even more focused on the star performer at its centre. I think it suffers because there is no one who is able to stand up against Renée Zellweger as Judy, whereas in the other three films there is either a second character (i.e. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) or a key figure with whom the character has a ‘special’ relationship throughout the film. As Nick said as we came out of the cinema, “it wouldn’t be anything without Zellweger” (or words to that effect). This isn’t a criticism of Zellweger or the supporting cast, but rather a function of the script and the narrative structure. In practice that ‘second character role is split between an under-used Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn, the woman who is charged with making sure Judy is in a fit state to get on stage – and that she gets there – and Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans, Judy’s fifth husband. The script moves the wedding forward to make it happen during Judy’s run at The Talk of the Town. It actually took place a few weeks after Judy had been ‘stood down’ by Bernard Delfont. (See this ‘Flashback’ blog story.)
In 1968 Judy Garland was at a low ebb. She had no money (never able to deal with her own financial affairs, the millions she earned were mismanaged by various agents) and she was fighting for custody of her children with her third husband Sid Luft. She was also homeless. London had offered Garland salvation on previous occasions when she sold out the London Palladium both on her own in 1951 and for a 1964 recording with her daughter Liza Minnelli. Bernard Delfont’s ‘supper club’ venue offered good money and a potentially receptive audience. Judy follows the events of this ultimately tragic series of shows, although several details are changed. It also includes flashbacks to Judy’s early career at MGM in the late 1930s, suggesting that the trauma of her early stardom haunted her to the end. The film says virtually nothing about the intervening 30 years. How could it? There is too much to fit in to create a biopic. In any case, there are several Garland bios already (both documentary and fictionalised) on YouTube recordings of US TV material.
Renée Zellweger certainly gives the part everything she’s got. She doesn’t necessarily look or sound like Judy but she presents the star’s emotions and her psychological state very impressively. The film looks as if there wasn’t much spare cash in the budget. The Hackney Empire stands in for The Talk of the Town. In some ways it’s a good substitute but in other ways not (The Talk of the Town was completely converted to ‘dining’ as a supper club, but the Empire still has a circle of theatre seats and one sequence uses these seats). I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be in New York or LA in some American scenes and apart from some ‘tourist shots’ it didn’t feel like London for most parts of the narrative. Some surprising things about the events depicted turn out to be ‘true’ – Lonnie Donegan with his guitar was indeed a stand-in act for Judy when she didn’t show. Some of the changes don’t make much sense so Judy’s children with Sid Luft are left back in the US because they need to be in school. Lorna was 16 and her brother Joey 13 but the film represents them as much younger children, emphasising the pain felt by Judy forced to leave them with Sid. I think this particular change is meant to link to the flashback scenes when 16 year-old Judy is suffering what we would now call abuse from MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer during the production of The Wizard of Oz. The young Judy is played by Darci Shaw who I now realise is a young actor who first appeared in the TV drama series The Bay. I didn’t recognise her at all. She was 16 or 17 during the shoot but looked younger in the Oz period scenes.
Judy does represent Garland’s status as an icon for gay culture with the inclusion of a gay couple who are big fans of Judy. I thought this worked well. The other aspects of the legend – Judy’s reliance various forms of uppers, downers and sleeping pills plus alcohol is also covered and related back to her teen stardom, as is her problem with her self-image, especially her weight. Zelwegger appears half-starved in order to be convincing as Judy. Ironically Garland’s 1951 Palladium triumph was when she was considered overweight – it’s staggering to think that she was only 29 in 1951 and making a ‘comeback’.
I was engaged throughout by the film and I did get a little emotional at the end. It is hard not to respond to the tragedy of someone so talented with one of the great singing voices of the 20th century reduced to the state Judy Garland was in during the last few months of her life – and to know that the abuse meted out to her as a teenager was the cause. My main interest in the film is really in who the audience is and what they made of it. The small but enthusiastic audience in our tea-time screening on a Wednesday were mostly older and mostly women. I expect that this has often been one of the audience groups during its run. Should we expect gay men and younger women to be attracted to screenings? A quick glance at the box office returns suggests that the the film has attracted audiences of all kinds. It opened at No2 with The Joker opening at No1. Was this clever on behalf of distributor 20th Century Fox? Judy made over £2 million from a saturation release of 633 screens with a high screen average of £3,297. That fell 46% in Week 2, but Judy still held No 4 in the chart. Figures like these suggest a fairly standard trajectory but the mid-week figures reveal something else. After 10 days the film has made £4.7 million, but unusually £1.5 million came from the Monday-Thurs screenings suggesting that the audience does skew older. This was confirmed when the daily figures last Monday showed Judy back at No2 in the chart. Judy looks like joining that group of films buoyed by the over 50 audience. Unfortunately it is up against Downton Abbey that is still raking it in nearly £1 million on its 5th weekend. Still, Judy looks like being one of the biggest ‘UK only’ hits of the year.
I am intrigued to know what younger audiences made of Judy. I researched Judy Garland’s career just before the film came out and I learned a lot by reading across several sources. Without that research I might not have understood everything that happened in Judy, even though it was something that happened only a few hundred yards from where I was studying as a university student in 1968. My memories of the events are hazy at best.
I haven’t said anything about Judy in terms of its ‘look’. Director Rupert Goold and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland both have backgrounds in television as well as some key film titles. As I’ve indicated, I think the budget has possibly constrained any kind of expressionist devices being employed with the emphasis on Renée Zellweger (with a fetching Elvis-like outfit for the ‘Trolley Song’ number) rather than the theatrical backgrounds or the choreography of the performance. The costume design is probably the standout aspect of the film. I understand that Judy’s clothes were not ‘imitations’ as such but new creations using similar approaches. They worked well but I felt for Jessie Buckley with her underwritten part, no opportunity to use her great singing voice and one hideous suit I remember (though she looks good in the dress above). Music for a film like this is problematic I think. Gabriel Yared is an experienced film composer but because I haven’t heard Garland’s performances in the 1960s, I don’t know how the arrangements stand up. By the end I suspect Judy Garland could still express the emotion but not necessarily hit the notes as she wanted to.