How Biopic ‘Judy’ Silences Garland – And Why That Matters For Survivors

Released in the same week as the second anniversary of the Weinstein revelations, Judy Garland biopic Judy was, I hoped, going to change the narrative. Two years after Alyssa Milano set off Tarana Burke’s MeToo campaign like a feminist firework exploding across the internet, surely the film would let Garland tell her own story. After hearing the repeated calls of ‘listen to women!’ the filmmakers would respond with nuance and empathy and care. But that would assume that men had heard women or looked beyond the headlines to see survivors as anything more than victims. With an all-male director and writing team (Rupert Goold, Tom Edge, Peter Quilter), all that Judy really does—aside from showcase the immeasurable talents of Renée Zellweger—is replicate the stereotypes and endless tragedies of women that led us to #MeToo in the first place.

On the glittering surface of things, Judy is critical of the abusers that caused the dieting, drug problems, and alcoholism that contributed to her death aged just forty-seven in 1969. Throughout the film, sympathetic flashbacks to the Wizard of Oz and other studio sets reveal how she was bullied and sexually harassed by MGM boss Louis B Mayer. Her minder denied her food and forced her to take amphetamines and sleeping pills. By sixteen she was an insomniac sleeping for a mere five hours a night to cope with the demands of her shooting schedule. Her birthday party was a fantasy constructed for publicity shots and made of nothing more than props and hot air. A date with co-star Mickey Rooney was similarly set-up for the fan magazines. But this is her choice, the price she must pay for fame, Mayer tells her (according to MGM memos he would regularly call the teen star ‘a monster’ when she was caught eating chocolate on set). There are girls out there who are prettier, whose noses have a thinner bridge, who are taller, slimmer, he says. They have no voice, no Oz… so what does she want? To be just like them, just housewives, mothers? Or a star?

In the context of #MeToo, Mayer’s predatory appearance in Judy elides the gaps between the 1938 Wizard of Oz flashbacks and the 1969 setting of the film and bears more than a passing resemblance to Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Mayer’s overt demonstrations of power, including barbed insults and an unwanted hand placed on Judy’s breast, are on a continuum with the stories of assault that women from Tippi Hedren to Lupita Nyong’o have been telling about the film industry for decades. But despite Judy acknowledging patriarchal accountability, and the movie’s attempt to draw parallels between the present and the past, it fails spectacularly to understand Judy Garland. I left the theatre feeling more dejected than a witch caught with no umbrella in the rain.

It is 1969, and Zellwegger’s Garland is an erratic middle-aged diva who makes her kids do dance routines on stage with her for $150 a pop to pay for a hotel suite that she can’t afford. Washed up and with no sign of drying out, Judy necks pills (‘Please don’t go to sleep now,’ begs her daughter in a cab as they float around LA looking for accommodation), flirts with younger men, and cannot care for her children. When she arrives in London for a series of sell-out shows that will separate her from her kids but restore her bank balance, she stumbles from show to show, worn down by the demands of backers, press engagements, the audience, a new husband. Zellwegger’s performance is astonishingly good. She flits like a storm-tossed bird in a hurricane between hotel and dressing rooms; she is flung on stage in conditions that she is too slight to survive; she carries the invisible weight of a nest dismantled in the winds. A mass of contradictions, she smirks and sneers and refuses to rehearse. She is eager to please and terrified of her own voice. Even when at rest, Zellwegger fizzes with anxious energy – sliding, staggering, nervously gesturing on the edges of chairs and beds and the filmic frame.

Of course, when she is behind the microphone, squarely centred on stage and ready for her close up, Judy can (sometimes) take control. Referencing iconic scenes from Meet Me in St Louis and A Star is Born, Judy’s voice is finally capable of integrity when she returns to a world of bygone fantasy.

 Garland performs in one of her iconic roles: as Esther Blodgett in the 1954 Sidney Luft-produced A Star is Born.

And therein lies the trick that Judy pulls on Garland and other survivors. Because despite the film’s clumsy attempts to blame Mayer and other men for Judy’s problems, she is always positioned as an unreliable narrator who must resort to the imaginary. She even calls herself ‘unreliable’ to Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), the ex-husband who in actuality was an abuser and gambler and yet onscreen is positioned as the better parent to have custody of their children. In contrast to his routine and responsibility, Judy is dressed and made up and dragged on and off stages in a pilled-up drunken haze with no idea what is happening to her. Sometimes she performs; sometimes she falls flat on her face. She goes on a TV talk show to declare that she is a good mother even though she has neglected her children. She claims she wasn’t allowed to date Mickey Rooney as a teen, yet in flashback she refuses a date with him so that she can hang around backstage and listen to the crowd applaud her. Judy’s Judy is an over-ambitious, fame-hungry, uncertain narrator. The result is that now as then, women with unstable mental health are untrustworthy witnesses to their own testimonies of abuse. Their truths are askew in a straight-white-male world of rebuttals and excuses and ‘I thought you said you wearing the red shoes when he touched you’. How are audiences meant to trust her?

The film also implies that if Mayer gave Garland a choice, she made the wrong one. Stardom didn’t suit her; maybe domesticity was better than the seven-year option. What a way to victim blame. ‘I don’t think she can help it’ says manager Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) when Judy returns to the stage for one last number after being sacked from her own headline show. This was the point in the film that I started crying, I think, rather than five minutes later when Judy’s rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ became one of the most cynically saccharine cues to weep that I’ve encountered in a cinema. You don’t think she can help it. Hardly the most nuanced take on a woman’s need to remain in an abusive relationship with fame, especially when the film has spent two hours telling us that she had nowhere else to go.

That Garland in actuality was abused and lived a merry-go-round life of chemically induced crises is not news. Fan and trade magazines during her lifetime hid the truth in plain sight. In 1940, Garland’s growing fame was a contributing factor in studio royalty negotiations, and she was treated like a statistic on a trading card. Photoplay claimed: ‘the careful grooming of Judy Garland into major stardom is the factor that now gives Louis B Mayer more money, and hence more power’ (italics my own). In a 1953 article damning Hollywood actresses for being ‘difficult,’ Hedda Hopper admitted ‘I knew [Judy] was being overworked and had a diet problem. Shedding pounds before starting a picture left her nerves jangling.’ She later rounded on Garland, though. ‘But still she wanted to do big pictures.’ If victim blaming Judy were a shots game, we’d all be passed out on the floor.

Hedda Hopper’s Photoplay article questioned the ‘misbehaviour’ of female stars like Garland and Rita Hayworth, suggesting that their responses to a patriarchal, unfair system were evidence of them being ‘difficult’.

Indeed, while Garland’s unfinished and unpublished beginnings of a memoir recorded sexual harassment and bullying on multiple film sets, Judy’s narrative is never Garland’s own. Instead, it tells the same tired story of the gossip columnists who took advantage of her story just as Mayer exploited her talents before them. In a 1962 article for TV Radio Mirror, Lynn Jackson described how:

She buckled under the strain of her movie commitments and often failed to appear on the set. When she did appear, there were frequent tantrums. As a last resort, the studio cancelled her contract, leaving Judy in a hopeless mess. An attempt at suicide was more in the long string of failure […] Judy was absolutely terrified of making another movie […] she didn’t think she was pretty enough for the relentless camera eye […] She tortured her body with diet pills and tranquillisers.

Thus, Judy is the same story told in 2019 as 1962 as 1953. It fails to offer any genuine critique of victim-blaming and never addresses its own role in perpetuating misogyny. How wonderful it would have been instead to learn something new about Judy. Would that have been so hard to imagine? Is there still, in 2019, no other way to conceive of Garland than a broken prop discarded by the studio system? Was she really nothing more than a tragedy hiding behind a voice? Come on. There are a lot of survivors out here, and between our mental health breakdowns and therapy sessions and flashbacks and unhealthy coping strategies and (legitimate) dependencies on medication… we’re people, too. In this respect Judy fails Judy—and us all—because it never asks what made her human. What was Judy Garland’s favourite film? Did she like to read books? What made her angry? Where did she take her kids on holiday? Did she give money to charity? Did she have a favourite sport? Was she a terrible cook? How sad that the film never bothers to find out.

Perhaps to a patriarchal world enamoured with tortured women the answers to such mundane questions aren’t worth knowing. Hence from the ruby-slipper font of Judy’s titles to the Wizard of Oz song that closes the film (and which Judy can’t even finish singing), Garland is never allowed to escape the confines of her victimhood. It’s the faux-empathy of a new kind of post-MeToo objectification, one in which men see women—we’re looking, honest!—as damaged goods, but nothing more (see also: Natalie Portman’s Celeste in Vox Lux). Compare Garland with another similarly tragic biopic figure and try to imagine Bohemian Rhapsody ending with Freddie Mercury unable to complete a performance of his own songs. Well, quite.

At a moment when known and even convicted abusers in the film industry continue to do healthy box office and wrack up award wins, this movie is not the greatest crime against women. But if #MeToo meant anything to Judy’s filmmakers (who with generosity I will describe as well-meaning, rather than cynical), why, oh why, can’t we transcend the stale trope of the tragic survivor? For once I don’t want to rely on the rainbow fantasy of cinematic escapism. We all know that mechanism has long been broken, and to indulge in the fantasy of the celluloid ‘somewhere’ that magics us to a better place is in reality to be complicit in, enraged by, or saddened at abuse, even as we try to escape from it. Instead, women’s stories in the here and now should have humanity and complexity – no survivor wants to be remembered as a tragedy after they’re gone, including Judy (‘she hated being called a tragic figure’ said her daughter Lorna Luft). Women like Garland are so much more the men who consumed them. In a truly just world, Judy should have had the last word.

by Rebecca Harrison

Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film critic, broadcaster and academic. She contributes to outlets including Sight & Sound, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, and the BBC. She is currently writing about The Empire Strikes Back for the BFI Film Classics series. 

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