Judy (2019)

The new Judy Garland biopic is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a safe, pleasant-enough novelty built entirely around highlighting its lead, titular performance. And since Renée Zellweger won all the awards she was gunning for with the role—including an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Actress in the same weekend—I suppose it’s inarguably a success. If the performance is the movie, that means Judy is too weirdly uneven to praise with any enthusiasm. In her worst moments Zellweger awkwardly apes Garland’s broadest mannerisms while wearing the same obnoxious false teeth that won Rami Malek an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. At her best, she stumbles into a stupor while recreating Garland’s late-career stage performances that somehow entirely transcends the caricature of the rest of the film to approximate some kind of spiritual possession where she legitimately is Judy, however briefly. In either case, it’s effectively pointless to critique the finer points of Zellweger’s movie-defining performance at this stage, as it’s already carried off the Oscar statue in its Dorothy-replica picnic basket. All there is left to do is single out the stray points of interest that distinguish this picture from other Safe, Award-Winning biopics – of which there are only a precious few:

  • Judy’s sole distinguishing choice on a creative level is its device of setting all its flashbacks to Garland’s youth on a studio lot sets, emphasizing the disorienting artifice of her non-childhood. Instead of following a birth-to-death biopic structure, the film saves time by starting with a pilled-out, extravagant but nearly homeless Garland during a final string of London concert dates preceding her death. It periodically cuts back to the abuses of the Studio System that landed her in such a delirious state, painting her Old Hollywood teen years as a surreal, Oz-like nightmare of pure artifice. She genuinely cannot tell which foods, romances, or inner thoughts are The Real Thing and which are stage props, thank to studio ghouls who control her every movement. This all-encompassing gaslighting operation really colors how we see the ridiculous stupor she stumbles through in later in life. An entire movie set in that kind of reality-obscuring saccharine nightmare might have actually been interesting as an art object, or at least more so than the actor’s showcase we got instead.
  • It’s uncomfortable to dwell on this observation for too long, but Judy is partially fascinating in its parallels to the current professional haze of its star. At only 50 years old, Zellweger has already been effectively discarded by her industry for being too “old” & loopy to be worthy of Lead Actress status. Until this awards campaign, the most use the Hollywood star-making machine had for her in recent years was as tabloid fodder to shame her for undergoing Noticeable cosmetic surgery. Zellweger emerged from this mistreatment understandably wobbly, which is best illustrated in her loosey-goosey Oscars acceptant speech that praised Martin Scorsese, Venus & Serena Williams, firefighters, and Harriet Tubman all in the same breath. Judy Garland was only 47 years old when she died. As much as we like to think the entertainment industry has evolved for the better since that tragedy, the parallels between Zellweger’s portrayal of that fallen star and her own offscreen behavior are . . . alarming.
  • This movie had to acknowledge Judy Garland’s significance in the LGBTQ community in some way (it is on a first-name basis with the star, after all), so it was enthralling to see how it’d go about satisfying that requirement. It hurriedly decides to store al its gay eggs in one homosexual couple’s basket, making time for Garland to befriend a same-sex British couple who wait outside her concerts for autographs. This gamble works fairly well when she spends an intimate evening with the ecstatic lads in their cozy apartment, but less so when their arc is quickly resolved as a stinger of comic relief. In either case, choosing one couple as a stand-in for All Gays Everywhere makes for an interesting tension that’s worth some careful scrutiny.
  • Jessie Buckley’s in this! She’s even second billed in the end credits, despite taking on a thankless role as Judy’s befuddled assistant. It’s nowhere near her finest work, but unlike Beast & Wild Rose, it’s a movie people will actually see.

Outside these few points of interest and the idiosyncrasies of Zellweger’s weirdly uneven performance, Judy is the exact movie you’d expect it to be based on its poster & premise. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of safe-bet indulgence, really, but it does feel like the movie has already outlived its purpose now that it has its Best Lead Actress Oscar secured on Zellweger’s trophy shelf. The best it can hope for at this point is a few basic cable broadcasts & Redbox rentals before it’s forgotten forever. In that context, it’s pretty alright.

-Brandon Ledet

The Pirate (1948)

Being introduced to Gene Kelly’s artistry through late-career titles like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort, I had come to associate him with nostalgic meta commentary on Hollywood past, assuming that he had become an artifact of the era only in the years after his prime. I’ve since learned a couple things about Gene Kelly’s career by returning to the older titles that made him a star. The hit musical Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, taught me that nostalgia for Hollywood’s past had always been an essential aspect of the actor/dancer’s career. As his strengths as a performer have a kind of vaudevillian undercurrent to them, he tends to play performers in his movie roles, giving both an excuse for him to sing & dance directly to the audience and for meta commentary about Hollywood’s past. I feel like I learned an even more important lesson from 1948’s The Pirate, however: not all Gene Kelly movies are good. The Pirate once again features Kelly playing an actor, allowing him to perform directly to the camera and Put On A Show. It even has an open air of nostalgia for the swashbuckling past of stars like Errol Flynn, positioning the film as yet another Gene Kelly Old Hollywood Throwback. What I discovered is that those virtues are not nearly enough on their own to save a sinking ship. The Pirate is garbage so wet & so rotten that not even Gene Kelly’s singing, dancing nostalgia schtick could save it.

I can at least admit that The Pirate‘s failure is anyone but Gene Kelly’s fault. The entire production seemed doomed from the start, going through ten separate creative team re-writes in its journey from romance adventure to movie musical. Kelly himself was freshly returned from the horrors of serving in World War II, but wasn’t even close to the most disruptive or dysfunctional personality on set. Director Vincent Minelli (Liza’s father, naturally) feuded loudly on set with his then-wife Judy Garland, whose erratic total-meltdown behavior extended the shoot from weeks to months in an ever-ballooning expense. The Pirate‘s financial failure has often been blamed on the public not being ready to see Garland transition from her girlish Wizard of Oz roles to the more adult material she’s asked to command here. What’s a lot more likely is that her on-stage nervous breakdown (which eventually led to a suicide attempt & sanitarium hospice) made the film difficult for audiences to stomach as an expression of joy. Garland’s presence in The Pirate mostly amounts to a frantic, pilled-out mess, a tragic culmination of years of personal & professional abuse. Her onscreen rapport with Kelly is more violent yelling than it is passionate yearning and the end result is physically upsetting to behold. That’s not even to mention the casual, pervasive sexism & racism that corrupt the film’s casting & narrative, two scourges that have only made an already unlovable film less appealing over time.

Judy Garland stars as Manuela Alve, a wealthy young Carribbean woman, which had to be one of Hollywood’s all-time worst miscastings. Ignoring the (times-indicative) racism of that whitewashing, Manuela isn’t an inherently awful character. Raised inland on her Carribbean island home, she’s never seen open water & fantasizes about the adventure offered by tales of pirates, which is a tale common to other notable pirate properties like Peter PanCurse of the Black Pearl. In particular, she lusts after the infamous pirate Mac the Black DeMarco. This is a source of great frustration to both of her would-be beaus: a smooth-talking actor played by Gene Kelly and a monstrous plantation owner who disgusts her despite, unbeknownst to everyone, actually being Mac the Black in disguise. The discomfort in this scenario is in watching Kelly’s thespian woo Garland’s confused damsel heart away from her pirate-in-disguise betrothed. He hypnotizes her in a pivotal scene, gathering information to sway her heart & eventually convincing her that he himself is Mac the Black. He also pesters her endlessly, infantilizing her with chiding like, “Stepping into the sight of other men is too much of a provocation,” sealing the predatory rapist vibes of his character. To Manuela’s credit, she’s allowed to buck against the actor’s early infantilization, snapping back, “Don’t call me ‘pure soul.’ It irritates me,” asserting that there are “depths of emotion” to “romantic longings” under her “prim exterior.” She is eventually wooed into a relationship built on a lie, however, which works out fine for Gene Kelly’s actor/predator . . . until he has to prove to the authorities that he is, in fact, a singing, dancing, vaudevillian clown and not a cutthroat thief.

There is exactly one scene worth watching in The Pirate. When Manuela first imagines her thespian beau to be a famous pirate, the movie dives into her BDSM fantasy where he wields a giant sword & sings to a big band production while she’s a helpless bunny who has to watch from the sidelines. The song in this scene is not better than any other tune Cole Porter churned out on autopilot for the production, but it’s still worth watching for Manuela’s intensely sexualized vision of a pirate: Gene Kelly in short-shorts. Watching the typically sanitized token of nostalgia show off his muscular gams in a horned up pirate number is a three minute pleasure almost blissful enough to make the wet pile of garbage festering around it worthwhile. Almost. Gene Kelly’s charisma & sexy man-legs are powerful opiates, but not powerful enough to ease the discomfort of The Pirate‘s many apparent flaws: racist casting, sexist dialogue, a near-death Judy Garland, and a god awful set of Cole Porter songs with inanely repetitious lyrics like “Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown” & “Niña, niña, niña” (which he dared rhyme with “schizophreeñia”). Even as a staunch defender of the little-loved Xanadu & a spineless sucker for Technicolor, I couldn’t allow Gene Kelly’s charms overpower The Pirate‘s cultural toxicity & the genuine harm it did to one of his visibly shaken costars. Like many pirate ships in an age old storybooks, this one’s irrevocably cursed.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet