Everybody loves someone trying to make a comeback, especially when it’s a beloved entertainer. Audiences appreciate the effort, particularly when the talent is genuine and heartfelt. But launching a personal renaissance can be challenging if it’s burdened by baggage from the past, a bittersweet saga detailed in the new, fact-based biopic, “Judy” (web site, trailer).
In winter 1968, singer-actress Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) had fallen on hard times. The inimitable entertainer, who had made a name for herself as an adolescent (Darci Shaw) as the legendary Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and as the sidekick of Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) in several of the Andy Hardy movies (1938, 1940, 1941), was experiencing difficulties in both her professional and personal lives. She was having trouble getting auditions, finding a manager and earning a living. That, in turn, led to problems at home, making it hard for her as a single mother to support her two youngsters, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), children from her marriage to businessman/producer Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), her third husband from her four failed relationships. For someone who had once been a member of Hollywood’s elite and one of its most dynamic talents, this was all quite a comedown. Judy needed a break to get her life back on track, both at home and on stage and screen.
Professionally speaking, that opportunity came along with a chance to play an engagement at The Talk of the Town, one of London’s most prestigious nightclubs. Owner and impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) offered Judy a huge contract, one that would significantly help her get back on her feet, especially where supporting her children was concerned. There was just one hitch – she would have to leave Lorna and Joey with Sid while she was gone, something she dreaded doing. Judy adored her kids and wanted so much to care for them, so the thought of having to “abandon” them to be able to support them pained her tremendously.
That anguish was offset somewhat when she met a new would-be romantic interest, entrepreneur-promoter Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), while attending a party she was invited to by her eldest daughter, actress Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux). Mickey helped to brighten her spirits in the time before departing for London, a development that helped to soften the blow.
Upon arrival in the U.K., Judy was welcomed with open arms by her hosts. She was put up in a posh suite at a luxurious hotel and assigned an assistant, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), to attend to her needs – and to keep Judy on track. That last task was important given the reputation Judy had developed for unreliability (part of the reason why she had trouble finding work, representation and income). Having become known for an unpredictable streak, an ongoing struggle with insomnia (and related substance abuse issues) and even a suicide attempt, Judy was something of a risk for anyone willing (some would say foolish) to hire her. But Delfont – and London – wanted her nevertheless, even if that took some serious babysitting.
Judy’s engagement got off to a rocky start. But, as the consummate professional that she was, she soon settled in and did what she was hired to do. That was helped along by the development of an unexpected friendship with a pair of ardent fans, gay couple Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Corqueira), and a surprise visit from Mickey, who brought his much-needed companionship, the prospect of a lucrative business deal for Judy and a surprise wedding proposal. Things were beginning to look up.
Unfortunately, the hope didn’t last, and Judy fell back into her old ways. She was exhausted and burned out, not to mention discouraged, especially when she received distressing news from her children. Try as she might to save face, she seemed overwhelmed by everything that had built up on her over the years. In many ways, these circumstances foreshadowed what was to come, a tragic demise to a life characterized by a seemingly unending string of ups and downs – and an often-frustrating, ever-elusive search for happiness.
Many look upon Judy as a tragic character, a contention that legitimately has some merit. However, as she is portrayed here, Judy has a heroic streak as well, one that, in other contexts, is unfortunately overshadowed by other traits. In many ways, this is a half-empty/half-full glass scenario, one in which our individual perspectives about her are governed by how we see her life overall. But, for Judy’s part, what’s more important to consider is how she saw herself.
So how was Judy a hero? Quite simply, she was a fighter, and she had much to combat during her all-too-brief 47 years. After a difficult upbringing, some would say she hit the jackpot when she was discovered by Hollywood. However, once there, Judy faced new challenges from the excessively controlling studio system that tried to dictate virtually every aspect of her personal life, largely because of the impact it was believed it would have on her professional life (and, hence, the studio’s bottom line). In a series of flashbacks, for instance, viewers witness the heavy-handed tactics of studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a condescending, demanding father figure who strong-armed Judy not only in career matters, but also in who she could date, how much she should weigh, and even what and when she could eat. And, if she didn’t comply with his wishes, he resorted to other means to get his way, such as plying Judy with diet pills to control her weight and sleeping pills to induce the rest that the diet pills prevented her from getting.
Judy had her share of difficulties in her personal life as well, particularly in her romantic relationships. Given the hardships she experienced in her professional life, she sought refuge in the comfort of her marriages. Unfortunately, she experienced her share of challenges in that arena as well, especially from spouses who sought to take advantage of her, gestures that necessitated her to fight back once again.
Judy tired of these circumstances quickly, and her rebellious streak surfaced. She fought back. She sought to reclaim her personal power. But, the more she railed against these situations, the more others came down on her. These were the beginnings of her reputation for being “difficult,” even though her actions were primarily intended at looking out for herself (even if she sometimes went overboard in these matters).
Learning how to balance these considerations – the ability to look out for herself without shooting herself in the foot – was thus one of Judy’s principal life lessons, both in her life overall, as well as in the time frame depicted in this film. Some would say she got a raw deal and that she had to fight her way back from it. On the other hand, others would argue that she was her own worst enemy in how she handled herself. But to say that it’s all one thing or another is patently unfair. Like most of us, Judy struggled to do the best she could to learn these lessons and to come up with solutions to make them work.
Some items she clearly got right, and that’s more than apparent in the film. Her burgeoning talent as an entertainer, for instance, is a direct outgrowth of her belief in herself to be able to put on a show that others would love. Her confidence was at times put to the test, but, when the spotlight was on her, she rose to the occasion. Even when she fell on hard times, she could still captivate audiences with her singing and dancing. She was arguably one of the best of her generation.
Judy also knew how to spread compassion, care and loving tolerance to others. This is obvious, for example, in her love for her children. But it was also apparent in the kindness she showed to others, like Dan and Stan, outsiders who often suffered harsh ridicule from mainstream society. Having often been subjected to the cruelty of others, Judy knew what it was like for those who suffered the same kind of treatment from callous, uncaring segments of society. She offered comfort and reassurance that there was nothing wrong with being oneself, no matter how different one might be, a view she came to realize for herself and that she freely shared with others.
It’s indeed sad that Judy’s circumstances may have ended up being more than she could bear. But, in combatting those conditions, we should never forget that she fought the good fight, and “Judy” celebrates her courageous battle. Her spirit and gumption are indeed inspiring, qualities guaranteed to move viewers, especially in the film’s concluding sequence. It’s through those images that we should remember what gifts she gave us, having made the world a better place for her presence in it, one adorned by happy thoughts and resplendent rainbows.
Doing justice to an iconic performer can be a tricky proposition, but “Judy” does just that where the legendary singer-dancer-actress is concerned. Renée Zellweger in a comeback performance of her own absolutely knocks it out of the park in a touching, brings-tears-to-your-eyes portrayal of the talented but tragic performer. While some elements might have been handled a little better (such as the pacing in the first 30 minutes), the film more than makes up for any minor shortcomings with Zellweger’s phenomenal singing and acting, capturing Judy’s sensitive but sad essence with heartfelt emotion and a superb rendition of her subject’s character. This may not be a perfect movie, but it’s one that absolutely gets it right where it counts.
The fondness we hold for certain entertainers never seems to fade. That’s especially true when they leave us too soon. There’s a certain unfairness associated with that, one that we have difficulty accepting. But, thankfully, we always have the artistry they leave behind. Judy Garland was one of those iconic performers, and her works have lived on long after she left us. And, through this film, she lives again, allowing us to relive the hope of a place where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
A Lot To Chew On
It’s a rare feat when a film covers so much ground that it gives us a lot to take in and assess. In doing so, such stories may well make us feel more than a little uncomfortable (and rightfully so) as they prompt us to take a hard look at what we’re experiencing and how it came about. They may even push us toward taking action at changing what’s going on, even if they make us squirm a bit as we move toward such a decision. So it is with the controversial new fantasy tale, “Joker” (web site, trailer).
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has his share of issues. The mentally challenged Gotham City resident struggles to hold it together with the aid of a cocktail of prescription meds and the regular but largely indifferent counseling of a public aid social worker (Sharon Washington). He ekes out a living as a special event clown, working jobs like retail clearance sales and visits to pediatric hospitals, where he shows off his distinctive cackle and fancy footwork. And, when he’s not engaged with the foregoing, he spends his time caring for his aging live-in mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who has mental and physical challenges of her own.
For all intents and purposes, Arthur leads a pretty bleak existence. He and Penny live in a rundown apartment building in a marginal neighborhood, one that epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Gotham City. But, if that weren’t enough, Arthur is repeatedly harassed by strangers who assault him or steal his property, particularly when he’s dressed up in his clown outfit. He attempts to fight back, but he’s often hassled by packs of thugs, making it difficult to defend himself. It’s a wonder how he’s able to cope.
However, despite all these travails, Arthur manages to hold out hope for a better life. Having long been told by his mother that his purpose in life was to spread joy to others, Arthur aspires to become a stand-up comedian, perhaps even getting booked on a late night TV talk show hosted by an entertainer he greatly admires, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). And the first step toward that goal comes when Arthur gets a chance to try out his act at a local comedy club. Things could be looking up.
What’s more, Arthur has hopes for becoming involved in a meaningful relationship. He’s particularly attracted to his neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), a young single mother who seems to be on the same wavelength as him. And, when she shows him some interest, he’s even more inspired.
But no sooner do Arthur’s hopes get raised when reality comes crashing down. He’s left to contend with the ongoing difficulties of his circumstances, as well as those of his mother, who often slips into bouts of delusion. For instance, she’s perplexed that she doesn’t receive responses to the many requests for help that she sends to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), one of Gotham’s wealthiest residents and a recently announced mayoral candidate for whom she once worked. Arthur tries to explain to her that it’s unlikely she’ll hear from him, given that Mr. Wayne employed her only briefly many years ago and that he probably doesn’t remember her, despite the fervent hope she’ll hear from her. It’s truly sad.
Just when it seems things couldn’t get any worse, though, circumstances deteriorate even further. Arthur learns that his public aid support is being cut. Then he loses his job and suffers another attack while on his way home, this time at the hands of a trio of obnoxious Wall Street types (Carl Lundstedt, Michael Benz, Ben Warheit). He then learns a secret that his mother has been harboring, a revelation that immediately precedes her hospitalization for a stroke. And, to top it off, he sees video footage of his comedy club performance on Murray’s show, presented in an insensitive and unflattering light.
In the meantime, conditions in Gotham begin spiraling out of control, especially where out-of-control street crime and the increasingly inflammatory mayoral race is concerned. Criticism against candidate Wayne is running hot and heavy, especially in connection with comments he’s made about Gotham residents disdainful of the city’s wealthy elite. Having referred to these largely working class individuals as “clowns,” Wayne’s detractors respond by embracing the derogatory label plastered on them. Masses of citizens wearing clown masks and outfits mobilize to protest the disempowerment and injustice they feel, spreading chaos far and wide.
By this point, Arthur is at wit’s end. He’s had as much as he can handle. He decides that it’s time to fight back, especially now that he has a pair of detectives (Shea Whigham, Bill Camp) following him, too. And, with conditions being what they are, he’s inspired to take what he considers to be appropriate measures in response. But, considering how Arthur sees the world, those responses are unlikely to be of the kind expected in a civil society. With the clown phenomenon sweeping the city, Arthur joins the fray, assuming the persona “Joker,” one that he believes reflects his emerging mindset – and one that will prove suitable as he seeks retribution against all of those whom he believes have wronged him.
So what’s one to make of all this? “Joker” is the kind of film that draws a variety of responses, depending on one’s own interpretation, both of the on-screen story and its reflection of the real world in which audience members live. For instance, it’s more than a little obvious that the circumstances that define the characters and setting of the picture’s narrative are a mirror of present-day conditions off the screen. We feel connected to those in the film, because they mirror what many of us believe about our world these days. This thus creates a link between what we’re feeling and what we’re watching, an uncanny parallel that may evoke reactions that feel like they hit more than a little too close to home.
The frustration that Arthur feels reminds many of us of the exasperation we feel with regard to many of today’s ills – ineffectual, self-serving politicians, indifferent, money-grabbing corporations, rampant violent crime, and insensitivity toward those with special needs, to name a few. And the more he adheres to those beliefs, the more pervasive these conditions become. However, if he ever hopes for anything better, he must change his beliefs, taking them in other directions – something that we must do as well if we hope for new circumstances to become established in our world. Instead, however, Arthur relishes these conditions, embracing them more than ever as his story plays out – a potent cautionary tale for us, too, if we ever hope for our conditions to change.
Even though Arthur and his followers seek to redress what they’re experiencing, they fight back using means comparable to what they claim to detest. In essence, they perpetuate the prevailing conditions, only with them at the helm, by employing like tactics in combatting what they supposedly consider unacceptable. His behavior calls to mind such cinematic antiheroes as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” (1976), Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) from “The King of Comedy” (1982) and D-Fens (Michael Douglas) from “Falling Down” (1993). There’s quite an irony in that as the oppressed seek to become the oppressors. And it’s not an answer for those who hope for their situations to change, again, something viewers should ponder as they seek to do the same in their world.
This scenario arises in various segments of society. For instance, the film makes quite a statement when it comes to its view of how Gotham (and, by extension, the real world) treats the mentally ill. The unfeeling, uncaring attitude that pervades the handling of these individuals speaks volumes about such treatment. Is it any wonder, then, that those impacted in this way would eventually act out in an effort to get what they require to cover their basic needs?
Likewise, a similar case can be made for the nonconformists of society. Early on in the story, for instance, Arthur routinely suffers abuse at the hands of those who see him in his clown outfit, labeling him some kind of “freak,” even though he’s just wearing the garb needed to do his job. That sort of intolerance is prevalent in Gotham, and it increasingly rings bells about how many of us in our society are treated these days. It’s yet another warning to us about how we handle ourselves – and others.
At bottom in all of these situations is a failure to consider alternatives, to look for new ways aimed at rectifying what we’ve mishandled in our creative efforts. Instead of examining new methods to set things to right, we sink deeper and deeper into the morass of perspectives that spawned the mess we’re in, creating an ever-deepening hole that becomes increasingly difficult for us to extract ourselves from. That’s a bleak prospect, one that bolsters the dark nature of this film – and a view of our off-screen world that’s unfortunately becoming far too entrenched.
In tackling the foregoing, “Joker” takes on quite a formidable task, and it’s to be lauded for its attempt to nudge movies in the comic book genre in an entirely new direction. And, in doing so, it gets many aspects right, such as its excellent, 1970s-style production design and the mostly solid (though occasionally hammy) performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It also sends a clear warning to us about ourselves, albeit one that’s both cautionary and potentially incendiary at the same time.
Yet, despite these strengths, the picture has its share of problems as well. Uneven pacing, mishandled back story revelations, heavy-handed sociopolitical allegories, excessive narrative elements, violence bordering on gratuitous and plot holes aplenty all conspire to weaken an otherwise-ambitious production. What’s more, at the risk of playing spoiler, the film features an ending that’s out of place compared to the apparent climax that preceded it. And then there are derivative elements taken almost verbatim from a variety of other pictures, including the aforementioned “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Falling Down,” as well as “Network” (1976) and others. What this movie gets right is indeed impressive, but, unfortunately, there’s not enough of that compared the package overall. In this case, the glass truly is half empty.
Given the breadth of territory that “Joker” seeks to cover, it’s undoubtedly one of those pictures that’s creating considerable conversation and on a multitude of fronts. In that regard, it could be doing us all a favor by prompting discussion of conditions that we’ve been all too willing to disregard. The 800-pound gorilla in our reality has indeed been identified and exposed. But will we take advantage of this opportunity to bring about meaningful change? Or will we descend even further into the mess we’ve created, giving us “inspiration” to further justify unacceptable behavior and perpetuate ineffectual attitudes? There’s a lot of food for thought in that. So get ready to grab your fork – and dig in.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
It Can’t Happen Here – Or Can It?
Those who naively cling to the idea that government abuses of power, particularly when it comes to racial, social or ethnic profiling, can’t happen here need to rethink those notions. To find out more, tune in for a special edition of Mission Unstoppable on Tuesday October 15 at 1:40 pm ET, when host Frankie Picasso and yours truly will interview journalist and filmmaker Assia Boundaoui about her stunning new production, “The Feeling of Being Watched.” The film, which has been playing in limited theatrical engagements and in special screenings at film festivals and community centers, will air Monday October 14 on the PBS series POV and will thereafter be available for streaming on the POV web site. For more about the film, click here and scroll down to the second listing.
For the video version of the broadcast, tune in to Facebook Live at 1:40 pm ET by clicking here. And, for the audio-only version, available after the live broadcast, visit the Mission Unstoppable page on The Good Media Network web site by clicking here. Don’t miss this informative and provocative interview about what went on and what we can do to fight back.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.