Few icons command the kind of solemn respect of the queer community like Judy Garland. Her life and artistic legacy remain one of the great Hollywood stories–one so complex and varied, few filmmakers or performers have dared try to retell it.
Now Renee Zellweger and Rupert Goold have done just that. Judy, the long-awaited biopic of Judy Garland opens in cinemas September 27. Based on Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, it focuses on Garland’s disastrous London concert series at “Talk of the Town.”
We meet director and theatre veteran Goold in the hallway of the Omni Toronto, a posh hotel employed as an interview space during the Toronto International Film Festival. Tan and trim, he wears jeans and an untucked flannel shirt he greets us with a smile. He escorts us into a room where Zellweger awaits. Overjoyed, she leaps into Goold’s arms with a squeal upon sight of him.
Zellweger welcomes us as we sit down across from her at the table, her Texas twang everpresent in her speech. She wears a sweater and drawstring pants, yet still manages to radiate the etherial beauty that helped make her a star.
As part of the Toronto International Film Festival, Zellweger and Goold allotted us a few minutes to chat about Judy, the legend, and how to attract a queer following.
So which one of you was first attached to the project?
RG: We sort of tiptoed together really. Through so much of the process, now when I look back on it, I can’t quite remember decision points. I remember getting my script and meeting our lovely, lovely producer who’s very smiley called David.
RG: Yeah, he’s a wonderful facilitator of relationships and a lovely writer as well. It sort of all grew together at the same time. So I don’t remember a soft point.
RZ: I can’t remember.
RG: You might have been thinking about playing it for ages…
RZ: No! No way!
Well then what drew both of you to the Garland story? And how did you come to trust one another to the point where you felt comfortable working together?
RG: I’m sure Renee would say this about me, but to a degree, it’s a leap of faith. I think that film is often led by performances, but this is so much the icon and the performance, and that’s a huge risk for Renee and Pete’s [producer Pete Shailaimon] investment for a director to feel he can honor. Of course you can’t know, can you, whether you’re going to get there. You just think can we share a language so we can communicate. That’s the starting point. Is it going to be fun? Because if you fail and it’s still a happy process, that’s still enriching. If you fail and it’s miserable…you don’t want to do that.
[He turns to Renee]
I don’t know you feel, I sort of feel that I would rather fail and have an incredibly rich process than to succeed in a hollow process.
RG: I think I felt like I guess the diva, the make-up, the extraordinary showmanship diva that is kind of associated with a certain vision of Garland—and not unlinked to some important ideas about drag culture as well—I felt there needs to be an element of that. But there’s a real woman in there. I felt like Renee was going to be that really well. It wouldn’t be a grand Guignol sort of performance.
So Renee, what made you want to play Garland? That’s stepping into some big ruby slippers.
Wait, I can’t be the first one to make that joke?
RZ: You are.
RG: You are.
RZ: It’s good. Yeah. What appealed to me, apart from the obvious adoration and admiration of her, was why Rupert and David wanted to make the film, and their intention in making the film. I love how he breaks apart the material and looks for subtext in the story in order to conjure an emotional experience. That I love. And it’s interesting how he always wants to put action with the emotion in order to make it palpable. Just the way he described his process…that to me—listen to him talk about characters or story or human experience. He’s a very thoughtful person and a very intelligent person. That was apparent from the start. As he mentioned before, we could have failed at this, but wouldn’t be an extraordinary experience to try?
I’m glad you mention drag culture. That was a big concern I, and I know others, had going into the film. Judy Garland has been a drag icon for a thousand years. Countless drag queens have done Garland. How do you make sure you don’t turn into one of them?
[Renee points at Rupert]
RZ: Yeah. He was very clear from the beginning that he didn’t want an impersonation.
RZ: Also, the focus wasn’t on the drama of the performing icon, but the human behind the persona. The private person filling in the blanks between what you read in the public record and what you might assume a life might be like. Given her circumstances, and considering her circumstances.
RG: Yeah. This is awkward territory, but we had a scene we shot where she hears someone singing “Get Happy” and goes into a club and sees a drag act performing. It was a weird meta scene that was very beautiful, well performed by Renee and the drag artists we were working with. But it was impossible to have two climaxes in the film. I have a lot of respect, I think for the LGBTQ community, particularly gay men. I think there are complex feelings about the “Friends of Dorothy” thing which is quite generational.
True. It is.
RG: Obviously, her relationship with Stonewall and everything that came after Garland was very essential to men of a certain period. Some of the gay men I work with, who are maybe younger than me, writers, actors…in some way they have a problematic relationship to Garland.
RG: I guess they associate…some of them worry about an association with a certain, over-emotive, suffering diva is compromising or marginalizing of their own ability to be in the wider world with respect. And yet equally…one of the reasons I was really drawn to the material actually is a lesbian singer right now who’s writing a musical—she’s only 28 or 29 and a proper badass, which is great. She sent me the “By Myself” TV performance and said it was the greatest performance she’d ever seen a woman give. I was like this is weird. You’re 29, come from an indie background, and for you Garland is an important feminist icon? It’s great.
One thing the film really focuses on is her anxiety, which was exacerbated by her demons of course. Being her is so much pressure. And you, Renee, know about this. An Academy Award, one of the biggest stars in the world for a good decade. One of the most beautiful women. One of the most recognizable faces. That’s a great honor, but it’s enormous pressure. How did you cope with that? And what is it about Garland that made fame so terrifying to her?
RZ: I don’t pay attention to that part of it. I’m not aware of it until I’m in this environment and we’re talking about it, frankly. I feed my dogs in the morning. They need injections. They need pills. I have to give them shots and baths and medications and we go for long walks. I have to vacuum the dust bunnies. I have family things. The septic system gets broken. I have to go to the grocery store. You know what I mean?
It’s your humanity, just day to day life?
RZ: Yes. I have to put gas in the car. I have to return emails. I need to call my mother. So the rest of it…I don’t know. I wear an ugly hat because I don’t feel like doing my hair and it keeps the sun off. Driving in Los Angeles is like being in a mobile tanning bed. That’s existence for me.
So what is it about Garland that existence was so terrifying and taxing? She was someone that, just the pressure of walking on stage and the impulse is to say “Why is this hard? You’re Judy?”
RZ: Well that’s different. We’re talking about a point in her career where she wasn’t sure she could access her instrument to its full capacity as she had in the past. She didn’t want to disappoint people. For decades, she performed at a level that was above and beyond what people experienced in live performance ever before. She’s one in a million years. What if she can’t do that? What does it mean in terms of her identity? And in terms of her bliss and her ability to take care of herself financially? Or her children? There are big implications here. In terms of appearance and molding yourself into a particular beauty paradigm so you’re able to work in the first place, and you’re at the mercy of what studio bosses have determined is marketable, you probably don’t feel like you have much choice. It’s tit for tat. What that means is you’re going to eat soup and not cake.
The weight, obviously, we all know she struggled with because she was so tiny. I have to say also, when it comes to the self-image, I’m glad you guys included the bit about L.B. Mayer touching her inappropriately. That was something she always talked about, but nobody else would ever repeat the story. Nobody would talk about it, even 50 years later. Was that a conscious choice? And why does this keep happening?
RG: We’re all vulnerable in this industry, where you have a huge power balance. Garland, in particular, was not a remarkable looking little girl and she was made a superstar. When you have that power balance, of course, there’s going to be exploitation of that. I think things have improved in the past couple of years, particularly in that they’re addressed more.
RG: That scene, I can’t remember exactly when the #MeToo movement started, or where we are in relation to the script’s development. That material we were already working on. I was concerned that we would look opportune; I didn’t want to look like we had crowbarred it in. When Tom and I were talking about the script and the moment, the Faustian pact she makes and understanding the transgression and the punishment. It was a tricky one, because as you say, there’s no hard and fast evidence as is true of much of her life. I read one thing about her getting slapped in the face by [Victor Fleming] on The Wizard of Oz.
That is true, apparently.
RG: Our job is not to be documentary-like. That scene, it’s meant to be creepy as hell where you don’t quite know where the dynamic is. The uncertainty is what makes it disturbing. In some way—grotesque as this is to say—if you know what’s happened to you, you can process that in some kind of way. Therapy, forgiveness, retribution, whatever it may be. But if you don’t quite know, and we’ve all been there, in a gray area where you feel uncomfortable but you can’t quite put your finger on what.
And that’s just another sign of how powerless she was.
RZ: “You have no autonomy.”
RG: There’s something very profound about The Wizard of Oz being our collective childhood. There’s something very innocent, very pure in there, but also something inappropriately adult. Whatever that was, we think of her as a perpetual child, but she was never allowed to be a child.
Now last question. Renee, you have a big gay following. You always have. I don’t know how aware of this you are, but Bridget Jones and Roxie Hart…
RZ: I thought you were talking about my Rolodex!
I’d love to know who’s in it.
RZ: I was like you are correct.
So why do we like you so much?
RZ: Do I have to give why? Can’t I just say “Yay?”
I couldn’t begin to break that down. But I’m grateful. And I’m glad.
RG: When you think about it…tell me what you think of this. Judy was really funny. Renee is really funny. There’s something about humor. I don’t want to say it’s a point of power, but…
That’s true in that Garland wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, or her demons. And I don’t think you make fun of your demons Renee…
RZ: All day long.
I’d love to know what those are.
RZ: I’m closing the door.
You do have a great sense of humor though.
RZ: Can you elaborate on that?
Well, you’re a beautiful, intelligent woman. In all seriousness, I think it’s easy to be pretty. You see people of all genders who are pretty to look at, but they’re boring as hell. It’s another thing to be beautiful and distinct and have something under that which commands attention. You have to be worth watching.
RZ: You can stay all day.
Judy opens in theatres September 27.