October 11, 2019

All famous women are treated as objects but female artists, if addicts, have a particularly gruesome fate. Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe: their privacy is stripped away, their lives made cautionary tales for girls.

Why, I sometimes idly wonder, have I seen, in a mainstream biography, a photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s corpse? But that is normal; their gifts are swallowed by the less essential, but more thrilling truth that they were, even as they produced great art, gravely ill.

When Winehouse was sober, she rarely appeared in newspapers; when she used drugs, she was stalked through the streets. It was as if that, when healthy — when whole — the female artist does not adequately inhabit the narrative created for her and so is less interesting. The gift is, in this telling, only a subplot of the real narrative, which is misogynistic and made only of schadenfreude: a gifted woman’s fall. If there is talent, it must be paid for, and with an early death.

I hoped that in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp these private tragedies might be treated kindly. Both Monroe and Garland would have expert testimony. They were subjected to appalling abuse in Hollywood, and, in an initial stripping away of their selves, even denied their own names. They were really called Norma-Jean Baker and Frances Ethel Gumm.

They deserve our compassion and our gratitude; but even now Monroe’s extraordinary comic gifts are eclipsed by her sexual allure, which was only her best and most-long running joke. Such sensitivity is a fantasy lying somewhere I cannot find it. It’s most likely beyond the rainbow. How else can you explain the treatment of Judy Garland in the biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland?

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In Judy, Garland’s mental illness is the real show. It is treated with more curiosity than the thing that should bewitch us: her voice, which was, and remains, the very best in film musicals — the most complex, the most passionate. Judy’s intention is explicit from the timeframe. It is set in 1969; later that year Garland will die of an accidental overdose of barbiturates in London. The setting is her last engagement in Britain, at The Talk of the Town nightclub where, due to her illness, she is always late, often confused, and, once, is heckled on stage. She should, of course, not have performed at all but Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), the impresario who put her there is presented as avuncular and kindly, another victim of Garland’s maddening caprice. He is not an exploiter. How could he be, when he is played by Albus Dumbledore?

The timeframe might, if handled sensitively, be forgivable, and interesting. But the makers of Judy instead do something else. They do not let us hear Garland’s voice at all. Her name, and her fate, were apparently essential to the project but her voice — her singular gift — was not. Inexplicably, Zellweger — a good actress but only a moderate singer — sings for her.

Garland’s talent is rubbed out, and, in an awful mirror of her own internal struggle – all addicts are two warring souls — replaced by anguish. That is not homage, whatever the PR blurb might say. It is theft. Zellweger, probably unintentionally, does to Garland what Elizabeth Gaskell did to Charlotte Brontë in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, the most passive-aggressive, and least self-aware biography in literature. She mythologises the object of her devotion into sickness and steals the rest.

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What is left of Garland in 1969 when the voice is removed? Wreckage. You watch Garland thrown out of a hotel with her young children — that particular scene opens a trailer; and then Garland cracks a gag. You watch her using drugs in front of her young children. You see her bottoming out; distraught; deranged.

I can barely believe that the filmmakers thought this a respectable homage to Garland and her contribution to music. Her children do not. Liza Minnelli wrote on Facebook: “I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way”. Lorna Luft, meanwhile, suggested that people curious about her mother should watch her films and listen to her records, but perhaps that is less fun than watching a soul dissolve?

Garland was sick, but she was not a fool, and she resented Hollywood all her adult life. They eased her, for profit, into the drug addiction that would kill her. She was fed, still a child, amphetamines to keep her slender and energetic and barbiturates to sleep. It is a truism that it is almost impossible to recover from fame, but Garland had it younger than most. When she became unreliable MGM fired her, burnt out at 28, and prematurely aged.

She reinvented herself — in London, incidentally, in 1951 — and became instead a great stage performer. She returned to film to play Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born in 1954, and should have won the Academy Award, but it went to Grace Kelly — newer flesh, lesser gift — instead. Garland was distraught; she did not believe that Hollywood, which had made and broken her, wanted her to succeed. There is, already, a faint buzz that Zellweger should win the Academy Award for briefly inhabiting Judy Garland. It is PR nonsense for now, but this is how a campaign begins; and it is, if you admire and understand Garland, both unkind and undeserved.

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Judy might, again, be forgivable if it were truthful about addiction, but it is both too salacious and too cowardly for that; you are not shown what the sickness really does, so you are none the wiser; instead you get a pantomime with tears. It repeats, with its emphasis, the myth that there is something inherently cracked in great artistry, if the artist is female. You cannot inhabit your genius fully and freely — that is for men.

In truth, Garland, Winehouse and the rest were not interesting because of their illness, but despite it. Judy is oblivious to that and so it is, unconsciously of course, an old story, poorly told. She rose too high. She must be punished. If you resent gifted women, that is comforting to know.