JUDY (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 80 years since THE WIZARD OF OZ was released and 50 years since Judy Garland died. So why do we still care so much? Of course the obvious reason is that, for many generations, her adventures as Dorothy Gale from Kansas marked the first time many of us kids could put ourselves in the shoes (mine weren’t ruby sparkles) of a lead character in a movie. Her fantastical journey ignited our imaginations and whisked us away to fight witches and flying monkeys, while making wonderful friends in a corn patch and enchanted forest. Oh, and that voice! However, there is another side to this coin. Judy’s story is also an example of the dark and tarnished side of Hollywood … she pulled back more than one curtain.

Renee Zellweger (Oscar winner for COLD MOUNTAIN, 2003) stars as Judy Garland, and her performance will likely put her in line for her fourth Oscar nomination. The film basically covers the last year of Judy’s life, and director Rupert Goold (TRUE STORY, 2015) is working from a script by Tom Edge adapted from Peter Quilter’s stage play, “End of the Rainbow”. There is no Lollipop Guild here. Instead, the harsh realities of Judy’s life are explored. The film opens with Judy and her kids, Joe and Lorna, performing on stage … and then being unceremoniously denied a room at a nearby luxury hotel. See, Judy’s career is in a bad way (admittedly undependable and uninsurable) – as is her health. She is broke, has no home, and offers for roles or performances have dried up. She ends up at her ex-husband Sid Luft’s (Rufus Sewell) home, which after some former-spouse bickering, is where the kids stay.

With no other real prospective gigs, Judy accepts an offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to perform at his Talk of the Town theatre in London. Most of the film covers her time in London, and the challenges for all involved. She’s 46 years old in the winter of 1968, and though her voice no longer carries the sublime purity of those early years, Judy still has incredible stage presence and an ability to connect with the audience. The challenges occur for her assigned assistant Rosalyn Wilder (who served as a consultant on the film, and is played here by rising star Jessie Buckley), as well as Judy herself. She misses her kids, and is battling loneliness and an addiction to pills – causing her to rarely eat or sleep. When her “friend” (and fifth husband) Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) shows up, Judy’s attitude perks up, but her already questionable dependability falters.

Flashbacks to Judy’s teenage years at MGM are used to portray how the studio and industry took control of her body, soul and career. Watching studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) bully young Judy (played by newcomer Darci Shaw) by pretending to be a father figure while keeping her weight in line with a diet of cigarettes, diet pills, and soup, is just painful. These scenes, including those with young Judy’s frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, help us understand why she was in such a state by the time she hit London. Ms. Zellweger embodies the blend of frailty and determination and talent, as well as the insecurities that simultaneously drove Judy and held her back. Of course, few singers have ever possessed the vocal talent of Judy, but Zellweger admirably brings the appropriate strain and pain to the songs she sings for the movie, including “By Myself” and “The Trolley Song”.

Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy Garland first hit the stage at age 2, and never experienced a “normal” childhood or traditional relationship. Despite her immense talent, she was never able to find peace with the pressures of performing. Years of abuse led to an early death, not long after she finished her London run. The film never backs away from the tragic story, but also allows one of the brightest stars of an era to shine through. For those who only know Judy as that homesick girl from Kansas, or maybe also as the rosy-cheeked youngster on the Trolley in the holiday favorite MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli), there is likely a shock factor in seeing the broken icon in middle age. The film also deals with that always-present bond she had with her audience, especially with the gay community – although a certain sequence of the film involving a gay couple (both huge fans) seems quite improbable.

For a film like this to work (it was not sanctioned by Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli), it all rides on the lead performance.  Renee Zellweger beautifully captures both the tragic essence and the stunning talent of the late 1960’s Judy Garland, an iconic and revered entertainment figure. The film allows us to understand the lifelong mistreatment and heartbreak of this woman, as well as the strength and joy she received while performing live. Balancing the “early” Judy with the “later” Judy was a brilliant way of bringing her life full circle. Ms. Zellweger’s performance goes so much deeper than singing on stage … she embodies the insecurity and frailties of a woman who was never afforded the opportunity to live her own life.

NOTE: There was a 2001 TV mini-series entitled “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”, based on daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir, in which Judy Davis (lip-synching to Ms. Garland’s songs) delivered an impressive and Emmy winning performance.

watch the trailer:

MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (1944) revisited

January 1, 2014

meet me Greetings again from the darkness. There are, even amongst otherwise intelligent movie lovers, those who proudly proclaim “I don’t like musicals“. It’s a somewhat understandable stance since so many of this genre are simply a group of songs linked together by a thin story with uninteresting characters. However, when done well, the musical can be a most enjoyable, emotional and entertaining ride. One of the best and most beloved is director Vincente Minnelli‘s Meet Me in St. Louis.

If you were making a musical in 1944, your dream cast would certainly include Judy Garland. She was 22 years old at the time, just a few years removed from her iconic role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Ms. Garland was desperately trying to break free of her “Oz” and “Andy Hardy” teenage ingénue image and transition to adult roles. In fact, she pushed back hard at MGM against being cast in this film. Because of this, she initially struggled with the character of Esther until finally grasping the tone that director Minnelli was after. The result is clearly one of her best performances, and maybe her most beautiful look ever on screen (probably due in part to the director’s attraction to her).

The story is broken into four sections … the four seasons leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair to be held in St. Louis. The Smith family lives in a charming upper middle class Victorian home that serves as the centerpiece for most scenes … especially the intricate, winding mahogany staircase, and the elaborate gaslight fixtures throughout. Mr. and Mrs Smith are played by Leon Ames and Mary Astor (known best for The Maltese Falcon). They are joined in the house by a son Lon (Henry H Daniels, Jr), four daughters (Rose – Lucille Bremer, Esther – Judy Garland, Agnes – Joan Carroll, Tootie – Margaret O’Brien), a spry grandfather (Harry Davenport), and wise-cracking housekeeper (Marjorie Main). The family dynamics are such that multiple sub-stories are constantly being juggled.

There are numerous pieces and tidbits associated with this film, so let’s discuss just a few. While audiences today may find 7 year old Margaret O’Brien’s performance as the youngest daughter Tootie to be a bit over the top, she won an Oscar that year as the Best Juvenile Actor (no longer awarded). Two sequences in particular stand out: the quite dark and harsh Halloween portion which accurately displays the dangerous activities of that era (making today’s trick or treat seem quite tame), and the song and dance routine performed in the parlor while wearing a nightgown. A few years later, Ms. O’Brien would star in the classic Little Women (1949). This is also the film where director Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland first met. They were married the following year and of course had a daughter, Liza Minnelli. All three were Oscar winners: Judy in 1940 for Best Juvenile Actor, Vincente for directing Gigi (1958), and Liza for Best Actress in Cabaret (1972).

meet me2 Sally Benson’s series of short stories published in the “New Yorker” magazine inspired the film. The stories were based on Ms. Benson’s childhood in St. Louis and she consulted on the script and set. In the movie, the Smith house is located at 1935 Kensington. For filming, the house was built on the MGM backlot on what became known as St. Louis Street. The street was used for many films, and the same house was used for the original Cheaper By the Dozen (1950). Sadly, the street and houses fell into disrepair and was later destroyed and sold off by MGM (it’s now condos and office buildings).

Of course, this is a musical so the songs deserve mention. Many were original compositions for the film, including “The Trolley Song” (nominated for a Best Song Oscar, and one of the few songs ever to utilize the word clang multiple times) and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, the latter showcasing Ms. Garland in peak singing voice. The film was a huge box office success and was nominated for four Oscars (no wins). The set design and costumes are extraordinary, and the story is quite affecting as it focuses on family and what makes a home so special. This is a wonderfully sentimental taste of Americana at the turn of the century.  And a bit of advice to all the gentlemen out there … should the object of your desire ever suggest the two of you dim the lights and watch this one together, immediately say YES with a smile!  It’s one of the best examples of how effective a musical can be in telling a story and connecting an audience to the characters … and it’s still pretty effective at connecting viewers to each other as well!

**NOTE:  TV buffs will notice a small, but important role for June Lockhart, who became a TV mainstay for 50 plus years.  She was best known for “Lassie” and “Lost in Space“, and still works today at age 88.

**NOTE: The beautiful curved brass bed in Judy Garland’s bedroom was also used in Gaslight, another classic film from 1944.

Rather than include the trailer for this film, below you will find the scene where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  Her voice is gorgeous and it may be her best ever vocal performance from a movie: