We have had two recent high-profile biopics of male singers/musicians – last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody and this year’s Rocketman which follow in the footsteps of biopics of Brian Wilson, James Brown, Miles Davis, NWA, The Doors, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Ian Curtis, Ian Drury, Morrissey, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Cole Porter, Mozart, David Helfgott and Liberace. This compares with just three high-profile biopics that I can think of which cover women singers – Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (for which Marion Cotillard won the Oscar), Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It (for which Angela Bassett definitely should have won the Oscar) and Selena Quintanilla-Perez in Selena (which you could also argue should’ve gained at least a nomination for J-Lo). Less well-known, but highly recommended is Hilary and Jackie (starring Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths) about the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. While there has been a controversial small-scale biopic of Nina Simone, consider all the fantastic women singers and musicians that we could have films about – Patti Smith (who has beautifully-written a phenomenal memoir), Chrissie Hynde, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox, Billie Holiday, Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Stevie Nicks, Courtney Love, Aretha Franklin – the list could go on and on. Instead, we have had a recent trend of fictitious women in the music world – A Star is Born, Vox Lux, Her Smell ,Wild Rose and Teen Spirit.
Biopics are a much-favoured genre by the Academy – since 2000, nine men have won Lead Actor Oscars for playing famous men, this compares with five women – for playing The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Virginia Woolf and the aforementioned Edith Piaf. There was also Reese Witherspoon for playing June Carter Cash, but you could argue that she is not as widely-known as Johnny Cash. Since 2000, four women have also won Lead Actress for playing real-life people who were virtually unheard of, before there was a biopic about them (in Erin Brockovich, The Blind Side, Monster and Boys Don’t Cry). As for women movie stars, even the biggest names – such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn have not had successful biopics made about them (the closest was My Week with Marilyn, which did gain an Oscar-nomination for Michelle Williams).
So this is the context into which Judy has emerged and goes some way towards explaining why Renee Zellweger has been latched onto SO early as a “lock” for an Oscar win. Judy Garland traverses the worlds of both movie stars and singers AND she unfortunately had a tragic early death, meaning she is perfect fodder for a biopic. As with some other successful biopics, such as Nowhere Boy (2009) and Backbeat (1994), both of which focus on very specific times in the early lives of John Lennon and The Beatles, Judy covers a short period towards the end of Garland’s life. Director Rupert Goold comes from the world of British theatre, which works well given that much of the action is centred around the nightclub stageshow in London which Judy is hoping will solve her financial woes. After several husbands, Garland has two younger children (as well as the adult Liza Minnelli) who she is trying to support by making appearances at shabby venues on the road, frequently dragging the children on stage with her. Her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) wants the children to have a stable home and schooling and he threatens Judy with a possible custody battle. It is within this turmoil that she takes the lifeline of the offer of a steady run at a club in London, owned by Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) and where she will be assisted by Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley). Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who she briefly met at a party at Liza’s house, follows her to London and they have an affair which results in an extremely short-lived marriage. There are frequent flashbacks to Judy’s youth (around The Wizard of Oz years), showing her mistreatment at the hands of the studios, particularly by Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery).
I have to say that biopic performances are not my favourite, as they rely heavily on outward accoutrements (in this case; the short black wig, a prosthetic nose-tip, false teeth, brown contact lenses) and mimicry – particularly of the voice, in this case. There is no doubting how hard Zellweger worked – she did vocal training for 6 months and it must have been a complex job to nail Garland’s singing voice at this specific point in her career. I guess it is a question of personal taste – to favour performances that take months of rehearsal and research or to prefer ones that rely more on natural talent, raw instincts and fresh spontaneity (eg. Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, Timothee Chalamet in CMBYN OR Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline). Zellweger is also going through something of a reneessance (sorry) in her career (another narrative which appeals to Oscar voters) after two nominations in Lead (Bridget Jones’ Diary, 2002 and Chicago, 2003) followed by a win in Supporting (Cold Mountain, 2004). There are many glimpses of Zellweger in this film where the physical resemblance to Garland is uncanny and the singing is also an excellent approximation of one of the best and most famous singing voices in the world. Zellweger is surely to also be rewarded for her bravery in tackling such a feat.
The supporting roles are more frustrating – Gambon is completely wasted in an almost total non-role and although Buckley has more to do, it is so hard to watch someone that talented (who we’ve seen stretch her acting muscles in Beast and Wild Rose) be shrunk to fit into such a straight and serious small part. Finn Wittrock has had multiple small roles in many prestige projects recently (ACS: Versace, The Big Short, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, If Beale Street Could Talk) and he is impressive here as the opportunistic Deans. There is an attempt to pay lip-service to Garland’s huge gay following with two characters who are regular audience-members at Judy’s show (one of whom is played by the multi-talented Andy Nyman). There is a slightly uncomfortable scene where Judy goes back to their flat for a night of bad cooking and a weepy sing-song around the piano…which perhaps is not what was called for. The worst aspects by far are the flashbacks to the studio days and it is here that the clunky and cringey screenwriting (by Tom Edge) is really noticeable. The vast majority of us are familiar with Garland’s mistreatment by the studios – how she was given pills (mainly benzedrine) to ‘manage’ her weight, which had the knock-on effect of giving her insomnia, so she was given sleeping pills to counteract these effects and then the cycle would begin again. Literally the opening scene of the entire film features the monstrously large Louis B Mayer looming over the angelic Judy – while they’re standing on the yellow brick road – threatening and cajoling her. Subtle, it ain’t. The closing scene of the film is possibly even worse, I won’t spoil it, but I’m sure you can guess which song it features and let’s just say it is not handled with finesse. The finale is a massively ham-fisted attempt to not leave a dry eye in the house, but instead of me choking back tears, it was feelings of nausea.
It is slightly regretful that Zellweger is considered a lock for Best Actress (people were saying this two months before the film was released and at least six months before the ceremony itself) because my hope would be that the performance would come from a better-written and more interesting film than this. This is not to fault Zellweger per se – she does a wonderful job in what is a standard biopic role – but there is nothing about this film that is particularly memorable or special (other than the opening and closing scenes – for ALL the wrong reasons). Judy is better directed than it is written, it has a good supporting turn from Wittrock, Gambon and Buckley are unfortunately largely wasted, but this is ultimately The Renee Show. I think I would rather watch the scenery-chewing high camp of Zellweger’s femme fatale in the Netflix show What/If – which at least knows it’s ridiculous – than ever watch this again. A shame.
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Written by: Tom Edge
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock