There is nothing to get the Judy Garland fan community more fired up than the news of a biopic of their favorite rainbow diva. Well the flames have been fanned as it appears that Anne Hathaway is about to dance down the yellow brick road. Finally after several years of speculation, Harvey Weinstein himself has confirmed on The Howard Stern Show that filming will commence this summer with Anne in the lead. Though the movie is still officially listed as In Development on IMDB, he has said unequivocally he bought the source material and wants to see it filmed. We can take comfort that Hathaway has proven herself a staunch defender of the gay community, particularly her views on gay marriage and adoption. And now she will embark on playing the greatest icon the LGBT community has ever had.
Garland fans are split down the middle about whole issue of a biopic about Judy Garland. I must confess a note of personal trepidation myself. Some are thrilled at the prospect of Garland’s life as a major motion picture. There are a great many Garland enthusiasts who would rather not see any kind of film. Others have their own ideas about who should play “the world’s greatest entertainer”. Despite the fact that Miss Hathaway has been attached to the project since day one with no other candidates in the running for the coveted role of the one and only, “Miss Show Business”. In fact Weinstein confirmed this firm casting in the most recent interview saying “she sang beautifully for me and there is no need for her to audition and the part is her”. In his words “there is no testing” where Hathaway is concerned.
Fear and trepidation are warranted, especially when one considers the source material. The film is to be based upon bestselling author Gerald Clarke’s book, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. While it puts things into a certain well rounded perspective, the biography features and tends to hone in on the more tabloid and sensationalist moments in Garland’s life, many of which have no bearing on the lady herself or her legendary status. As an example one such salacious “fact” was made up by a former jilted ex fiance of Garland’s who later said he made it up just to get back at her (some 31 years after her death. I guess real grudges take devotion). It could be worse I suppose if the producers had decided to film David Shipman’s Secret Life of an American Legend, or worse still Peter Quliter’s play End of the Rainbow (EOTR). As I have previously reported, the musical play is worse than The National Enquirer, Star and TMZ all rolled into one. One might also read a sense of caution into the film’s current working title of the film, The Life and Troubled Times of Judy Garland. Weinstein has said he is uncomfortable with the book’s title, Get Happy for a major motion picture. The production and creative team of ABC’S Emmy award winning miniseries, Life with Judy Garland (LWJG) gave credit and sung the praises of leading Garland historian extraordinaire, John Fricke for his creative consulting; ultimately invaluable to their success. Something this big screen project could benefit from. And how about Garland’s family?
When the film was originally green lit in April of 2009, Liza Minnelli made a statement to Canada’s Citytv, “Well, I love Anne Hathaway. And I hope that it’s a good movie and I hope that it’s true. You know, that they don’t just concentrate on the crap like they usually do.”(I hope) that they talk about her the way she should be talked about which was she was a fabulous entertainer, a great mother and just a wonderful human being.”
Speaking of Liza, some fans have balked and quibbled that Hathaway bares a stronger resemblance to Miss Minnelli. But as Judy herself once quipped to Johnny Carson, “Well, we are related!”, and, though Miss Minnelli bears a cadence stronger to her father, Vincente Minnelli, it is hard not to see Judy in her eyes. Of course, if you are going to nitpick about an actress’s eye color, nose shape, height, etc. you are going to lose sight of what could be a very good performance. Though, her appearance as a 22-year-old Judy might have been jarring, Judy Davis certainly delivered the goods in her Emmy Award winning portrayal in LWJG. While making one appear younger or older on film can be treated with make-up and cinematic fakery, the one thing that cannot be faked on camera is honesty and the one thing Judy Garland could never be accused of is being insincere. It is far better to capture the essence of someone then to simply be”a look alike”. Perfect examples would be Michelle Williams who so aptly captured the spirit of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn and Jessica Lange as the matriarch of HBO’s Grey Gardens, Big Edie Beale.
Anne Hathaway has proven herself beyond capable, for me personally, going back and watching her academy award winning turn as the doomed Fantine in Les Miserables. It is easy to see Hathaway summon the vulnerability and strength that is so essential to Garland’s core. Clearly Hathaway likes a challenge as she is going to tackle all of Garland’s singing vocals on her own. Of course, she must now switch gears from her soaring soprano to a very rich alto which gets fuller, chestier and brassier as the decades pass.
Joan Beck Coulson, author of Always for Judy: Witness To The Joy and Genius of Judy Garland (scheduled for publication this June 2014) knew the legend, saw her many times in concert, tapings of her CBS TV series and was invited in at private recording and filming sessions of Garland’s last film “I Could Go On Singing”. Miss Coulson shares her misgivings on this forthcoming movie: “Hathaway seems a nice enough young woman who seems to admire Judy but I would have preferred an actor of the caliber of Stockard Channing to portray Judy — alas too late now”. When it comes to tabloid takes on Garland’s life , Coulson was very vocal about Peter Quilter’s EOTR or as she refers to the show “the title of which I refuse to remember!” Coulson’s concern is that, in particular, the newer and younger generations ” will see a distorted image of her. Those who write these plays, movies etc. do not consult with people who actually knew Judy”.
Speaking of those who knew Judy, her life included a cast of characters right out of a Hollywood movie themselves not to mention the political jet set (i.e. John F. Kennedy). Who else might play a part? Brett Light is rumored to be in the running for Gene Kelly. I, for one, would love to see Zachary Quinto in the pivotal role of Garland’s husband Vincente Minnelli. Who might make a good candidate as the Ethel Gumm? The stage mother from hell! Perhaps, Stockard Channing? Dustin Hoffman as Louis B. Mayer? Robin Williams came to mind after his inspired performance as President Eisenhower in The Butler. Perhaps Mad Men sensation, John Ham as Garland’s 3rd husband the tempestuous and tough guy, Sid Luft!
This is not the first time one of Mr.Clarke’s books has been purchased for the silver screen. Sony studios bought Gerald Clarke’s book Capote but the film itself only really focused on the creation of In Cold Blood which was the very high and most dramatic point of Truman Capote’s life. With Judy, where do you start and where do you stop? You could make a major motion picture of each act of her life (and a few of the intermissions!) and each it would stand on its own. In fact, it was hinted (briefly) back in 2012, that this new film might be done as two separate films. Though, sadly, I am not sure that Middle America will regard “Dorothy’s” life the same way that they did Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Lord of the Rings.
Miss Garlands fan base has additional cause for alarm now that the Weinstein Biopic on Grace Kelly has been officially shelved after is debut at Cannes this month. The Princess’ family is no doubt relieved as they have said publicly that many scenes were completely fictionalized and most of the movie is not based in fact. It should be noted that before she was a Princess she stole the Oscar from Judy for her role in the country girl. Groucho Marx said it best that Judy’s loss as Best Actress for A Star Is Born “was the greatest robbery since Brink’s.” The director however has evoked his right to cancel distribution as he said the movie Weinstein forced him to edit is not the movie he wanted to make; edited down for a playable major release length — from 3 hours to 2 hours.
We have to remember that Weinstein is both a producer (the guy who puts up the money or arranges the financing for a picture, and he is also a distributor (the guy who puts the movie in theaters and shares in the profits of ticket sales). The fact remains that a movie screen only has so many hours in a given day or night they can show a film. If you can get $15 a ticket in New York for a 2 hour movie, it stands to reason you can make more if you show that movie 5 times in a night. Versus a 3 hour movie you can only show 4 times in that same window of time. As a recent example My Week With Marilyn (which literally dealt with a little more than a week in a legend’s life) was based on source material from a book that was 160 pages, and the movie’s running time was 101 minutes. Capote (starring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman) was based on source material that was 636 pages long, and the movie’s running time was 114 minutes. The aforementioned Princess Grace Of Monaco was edited down from 196 minutes to 117 minutes. All three of these prove the rule that biopics need to come in close to 2 hours.
The last two biopics of note that went longer than this were Ghandi — filmed in 1982 with a running time of 191 minutes, and JFK filmed in 1991 with a running time of 188 minutes. Both of these movies had intermissions. An intermission is almost of unheard of today, and is a distributor’s nightmare. Their adage is “get them in and get them out”. To be perfectly honest just to barely scratch the surface of Judy’s life a film would need to be at least a three hour length. LWJG actually had a running time of 180 minutes. However, it was cut to 170 minutes when aired to make room for more commercials. It aired over two nights in December of 2001. As an aside, LWJG screen writer Robert L. Freedman confirmed to me that ABC was pushing to make this a two-hour one night only story of Judy Garland. They feared audiences would not tune in for a second night. The producers and creative team had to fight to be true to Judy to depict her life from soup to nuts and produce a two part miniseries.
If the creative team sticks to the facts and let the comedy and tragedy of Judy’s life play out as it happened sans gross embellishment and with Hathaway’s incredible talent then the film could be pretty spectacular. For my money all concerned screenplay, direction and leading lady must all combine to present in an understated way Garland’s larger than larger life. If we are going to see a film depicting the woman fumbling for a bottle of pills of every two minutes: A GREAT BIG YAWN. In the end I am reminded of a scene between Harper Lee and Truman Capote in the film INFAMOUS. Sensing that Mr. Capote is attempting to “color” the facts of the Clutter Family for his new found reportage, “In Cold Blood”, Miss Lee looks him dead in the eye and says “the truth is enough!”. Tell the truth . Tell it with class and an even hand. In the end hopefully Anne Hathaway, Harvey Weinstein and company will all produce a film that proves that they are all “Friends of Dorothy”.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Vincente Minnelli as Judy Garland’s first husband. He was her second husband.