Judy Garland died before I was born; I’ve always found it fascinating that I would feel such an affinity with someone who didn’t exist in the world when I did.  I don’t know if this is a weird thought but to me, she’s someone I grew up with, she’s there in my earliest memories, I would call her ‘Judy Garden’ as I couldn’t get my tongue round the word ‘Garland’.  I was maybe 4 years old when I first saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and I was captivated, I’d never seen anything like it and I’d never heard anyone sing like THAT.

I’d always assumed that many people generally feel indifferent towards Judy, maybe a little fondness bound up with some childhood memories and those that admired her greatly were in the minority.  It’s the reverse for gay men, at least for gay men over a certain age.  She exists in a collective unconscious where there is a genetic predisposition for us to be drawn to her, I know this is a generalisation as my partner is one person who’s never seen a Judy Garland movie the whole way through, but in the main, the affection for Judy is palpable whenever you mention her name.

Some may say that gay men are drawn to tragic figures: the substance abuse, the multiple marriages to men who would let her down, the early death and the regret at not being able to save her.  But, for me at least, I was too young to know any of that or what it meant, I just saw this young girl singing from her the depths of her soul about a place in her dreams where she yearned to escape to, my love pre-existed the cliché.  I didn’t know what gay was, I guess I knew I was different and that there were times when I didn’t fit in to what was expected that a little boy would like or enjoy doing but I was drawn to worlds of fantasy and the idea of being able to reach somewhere over the rainbow beguiled me.

When I was a little older I saw the extravaganza that was ‘Easter Parade’, then some years later, ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ where she sang about ‘The Boy Next Door’ and then ‘A Star is Born where she sang about ‘The Man That Got Away’.  Her performance in ‘A Star is Born’ is the defining role of her adult career, her portrayal of Vicki Lester is so raw and painful, her voice the best that it ever was.

A few years ago, I heard a theory that Judy Garland’s death was the spark that ignited the Stonewall riots.  The overwhelming grief combined with the continual harassment and persecution proved to be too much and caused the LGBTQ community to finally fight back and say enough!  The dates certainly fit, Judy Garland’s funeral was held on Friday, June 27 1969 and in the early hours of Saturday June 28 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall bar, for the second time that week.   I don’t know if the connection is real and I don’t know if it matters but as an apocryphal event it’s entered into a gay mythology where the love for Judy Garland sparked a movement that fought for the equal rights of a downtrodden section of society, for those people that loved her the most.

The movie of Judy Garlands’ last months, ‘Judy’, was released in late 2019.  Based partly on the stage play ‘The End of the Rainbow’, it shows Judy coming to London to perform live shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub, now the Hippodrome, off Leicester Square.

With a few flashbacks to her days on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ set and on a fake date with Mickey Rooney, we see her as a vulnerable teenager being emotionally manipulated, and drugged, by the powerful studio she worked for.  The personification of this manipulation comes in the overbearing form of Louis B. Mayer. His threatening behaviour strikes alarming parallels with Harvey Weinstein and you see that little has changed in the past 80 years, though hopefully now, the brave women of the ‘Me Too’ movement have helped consign this dark chapter to history.

This is perhaps the iconic performance of a lifetime for Renée Zellweger, the physical transformation is perfect, the dark eyes, the hair, the costumes but the biggest homage to Judy comes when Renée sings.   When Judy arrives at the club for her first night, she’s all but physically pushed on to the stage by her PA and starts in on a lengthy chat as she engages with her audience for the first time. We’re unsure that she’s going to be able to pull this off, she’s clearly unsure of it herself, we’ve just seen her crumpled and coughing backstage.  But then she begins to sing, ‘By Myself’, and it’s like someone pressed the on switch, she instinctively knows how to do it, she’s been doing it for over 40 years.

Judy Garland has one of those voices that you instantly recognise, there’s an indefinable quality laying underneath it and Renée gets it down perfectly.  She isn’t mimicking her, or parodying her, you can hear it’s Renee Zellweger singing but you hear Judy Garland coming through as well. I found a really cool clip on where Renée Zellweger and Rupert Goold, the director break down this scene:

This movie is a love letter to Judy, you see how flawed and flaky she is, how unreliable and temperamental she is but you also see why and how this happened and that she really didn’t stand a chance.  She never comes across as mean or spiteful and the times where she crumbles as a helpless victim are counterbalanced with shows of strength and compassion.

Of one of the things that I learnt from this movie, one really struck a chord with me, I learnt that Judy was the same age as me when she died; she could still be alive today at 97 when you think that Olivia de Havilland is still with us at 103.  At 47, she had achieved so much and yet she was still a young woman who had the potential to achieve more had she chosen to, and to enjoy the rest of her life in her own terms.

Another aspect of Judy that I hadn’t fully appreciated before was the depth of her love for her children, something that is all the more poignant given the lack of any care from her own parents.  She loved singing and when she performed, she entered some kind of ethereal state but ultimately, her work was a means to provide for her children.  You can see the bond she has with them in this interview with Barbara Walters from 1967:

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, undoubtedly fictitious but with a sense of authenticity, is when Judy meets a gay couple at the stage door and ends up going home with them.  Judy is clearly everything to them and for one night their idol becomes their best friend.  I found it powerful because it’s the one scene that really acknowledges her indelible connection with the gay community. As one of the guys plays the piano while she sings, he begins to sob; for him this is not only because this is a dream come true but it’s from the relief that comes when you’ve nothing left at the end of a struggle.

“They hound people in this world, anyone that’s different.
Well to hell with them.”

One of the things that I’m grateful to this movie for is reminding me of how I feel about Judy now and how I felt about her growing up.  It’s a fitting tribute to her and for the people who love her.  It’s awesome, and no surprise, that Renée won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, but it’s also poignant and touching given that Judy Garland never won this accolade herself.  It’s as if she’s been given a second chance and this film brings her that final piece of recognition.

“You won’t forget me, will you? Promise you won’t.”

StoryScreenplay by Tom Edge, based on ‘End of the Rainbow’ by Peter Quilter
CastRenee Zellweger, as Judy Garland
Jessie Buckley, as Rosalyn Wilder
Finn Wittrock, as Mickey Deans
DirectorRupert Goold
Running Time118 mins

A Star is Born

It’s fitting that this is one of my first pieces given the connection between this website name and a previous iteration of this movie.   In this version of ‘A Star is Born’ there’s also a respectful nod to Judy Garland not long after we first meet Lady Gaga’s Ally that shows this version isn’t afraid to embrace its past.

On seeing the trailer some months ago, I was immediately predisposed to thinking that this was going to be incredible.  And it is.

This movie almost seems impossible not to be great; it’s the perfect movie for re-imagining with each generation.  The love story and the rise and fall of stardom are universal themes and a new version will simply make it relevant for today.  It’s also a cautionary tale that Hollywood curiously chooses to retell given that if ever there was a bad guy in this story, the industry that creates and maintains these stars fits perfectly.

The first version in 1937 received seven Oscar nominations, winning one for the story.  The second (and the only other version that I’ve seen) added the musical element that its taken on ever since and received 6 nominations.  Whilst Judy Garland is undoubtedly why anyone would watch this movie, James Mason is utterly believable as a broken man on a rapid descent from stardom.  Judy’s belting out ‘The Man That Got Away’ as she and her band play in a deserted bar is one of the key moments from her incredible career.

But back to 2018…

Bradley Cooper as Jackson and Lady Gaga as Ally feel completely equal in this version where in the Garland/Mason version they hadn’t so much.  They both have a huge story, both are beautiful, believable and they both break your heart.  I know Gaga divides opinion and I think you’d have a hard time watching this if you really don’t like her.  But if you like her even just a little bit, this can’t help but make you love her.

With Bradley Cooper, you’d think there was a risk in letting an actor not known for his  singing represent a character who’s meant to be Pearl Jam or Nirvana level famous, but there’s no risk here, he sings like he was born to it.   This movie shines when Cooper and Gaga are together on screen creating such chemistry that you miss them when the story temporarily shifts elsewhere.  When they both sing on stage, especially for the first time, you see a jaded star rekindle the joy he’d lost in performing next to someone tentatively reaching for that chance to shine having long since given up.  It’s incomprehensibly moving.

(I’d recommend watching the clip below after seeing the movie.  It isn’t a spoiler but may lessen the impact of the scene)

I was captured at how beautifully this movie is shot with some intensely intimate close ups that reflect the intimacy of the relationship; the view from the back of the stage out to the expanse of the audience giving us some sense of what the performer experiences; the wide open spaces of the Arizona desert that make even a wind farm look beautiful; the yellow sky and the palm trees of Los Angeles – this is how you want America to look in a movie.

The script must be sure to win awards; there’s very natural sense to the characters’ talking to each other, a lot of this is due to the skill of the acting but also to the deftness of the dialogue.  I was especially drawn to how you see the two leads get to know each other, as this often seems to be too quickly and clumsily done on screen.

In one of the scenes that shows the negative side of fame, we see Jack bundled into a car after a concert escaping a crowd who seem more like an angry mob than a group of appreciative fans.  Then later, we see him in a shop being photographed by a checkout assistant who basically says that she’s powerless to resist the urge to intrude.

Given that this movie is about two singer-songwriters, the music in this film is beautifully composed, written and performed.  Some of the songs belie the musical nature of the movie only in that they drive the narrative forward.  However, the songs stand alone as instant classics with ‘Shallow’ being the big hitter, to name some of the other songs would be a little spoiler-ish.  I’d recommend only listening to the soundtrack after seeing the movie.   Apparently, Lady Gaga compiled the album and included a lot of dialogue snippets; there’s a reason the album was released the same day as the movie.

I think any established director would be proud of what they’d achieved with this movie, but for Bradley Cooper’s first time in a dual role both behind the camera and in front, this is indeed something special.

StoryScreenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters
Based on the screenplay of the 1937 film by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell
CastBradley Cooper, as Jackson Maine
Lady Gaga, as Ally Maine
Sam Elliott, as Bobby Maine
Andrew Dice Clay, as Lorenzo Campano
DirectorBradley Cooper
Running Time136 mins