Category: Biopic

Judy (UK 2019)

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland

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.)

Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder

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 with Lorna and Joey, her children with Sid Luft, clearly much younger than their ‘real’ ages

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’.

The real Judy Garland photographed around the time the Talk of the Town engagement began

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.

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.

I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.

Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him –  the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.

I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.

I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.

Colette (UK-Hungary-US 2018)

Bouyed by the success of her first novel, Gabrielle (Keira Knightley) and ‘Willy’ (Dominic West) stroll in the countryside outside Paris

Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.

Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.

The young Gabrielle with braids – her story is told through changes in her hair and costumes as much as the dialogue

Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.

Gabrielle has her palm read by Willy’s friend Gaston (Jake Graf)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.

Gabrielle towards the end of the narrative when she is touring as a performer and creating an identity not connected to Willy. (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.

Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.