2019 Film Fest Ghent: filmmaker Rupert Goold introduces “Judy” with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland

In the early morning of June 22, 1969, Judy Garland passed away at age 47 in the bathroom of her London home, located at 4 Cardogan Lane, a tiny and very basic cottage which she had rented for about four months. Hard to imagine this was the final home of someone who once was one of Hollywood’s most prominent stars.

Since this year is the fiftieth anniversary of her death, the former American legend who dominated the screen from the late 1930s through the early 1950s and managed to come back twice with “A Star Is Born” (1954) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961, both films earning her Academy Award nominations), comes to life again in filmmaker Rupert Goold’s “Judy.” The acclaimed British stage director (b. 1972) who had also made “True Story” (2015) with Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones, came to the Film Fest Ghent on October 12, 2019, to introduce “Judy” to the Belgian audience.

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s biopic “Judy.” Photograph: Pathe UK

The film takes us through the winter of 1968 during her performances at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. With occasional flashbacks to remind us of her unhappy childhood and the incredible screen charisma she had during her heyday as one of MGM’s leading ladies and biggest moneymakers, the film—based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play “End of the Rainbow”—doesn’t show the glamorous showbiz icon she once was. During her final year, she was broke and considered by many a has-been diva. But, paradoxically, while performing on the London stage, facing booing crowds and fighting her addictions and pills dependency, Renée Zellweger, Academy Award winner for her role in “Cold Mountain” (2003), delivers a powerhouse performance. Not only the hairstyling, makeup and costume department did miracles to make sure this profound makeover would succeed just perfectly, Ms. Zellweger’s superb all-singing and all-dancing portrayal simply is Oscar-worthy material. At first, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine her playing Judy Garland, and now you can’t think of anyone else who could have done it better. On top of that, the film is a moving and a dazzling screen effort about a woman who is no longer capable of delivering her fans the dream to follow the yellow brick road on their way to the wonderful land of Oz.

The interview I had with Mr. Goold at the Film Fest Ghent will be published soon when “Judy” will be released in Belgium. During our conversation, we also talked briefly about British film director Ronald Neame (1911-2010) whom I had met at his Los Angeles home in 2003; he had directed Judy Garland in her final film, “I Could Go On Singing” (1963) and told me this during our interview.

“Judy Garland was still a star when we made that film [“I Could Go On Singing”], but we had a terrible time: we had a love-hate relationship. She often had fired her directors, except for Vincente Minnelli. When I was pleasing her, I was her pussycat. But when she hated me, which was about a third of the time, she’d say, ‘Get that Goddamn British Henry Hathaway off the set!’ Henry Hathaway had a reputation of being a bully and whenever she disliked me, she used to call me the British Henry Hathaway. But you’d never know: you’d have four or five wonderful days… thank God for Dirk Bogarde because she really loved him and he was a great help, although it didn’t stop her from throwing her breakfast at him one morning. She tried to get me off the picture right towards the end. She once walked off the set and said she wasn’t coming back, she didn’t care about the film anymore. Arthur Krim [1910-1994] came up to me and said, ‘Ronnie, what are you going to do? She wants you to leave.’ I said, ‘I’d willingly leave, just like that, because I want to see the picture finished, but I have a feeling that it won’t get any better. Tough as it is, if you’ll stand by me, then I’ll go through it to the bitter end.’ And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll stand by you.’ That same day, this was on a Thursday, we stopped shooting for three days and sent Judy a telegram through her agent, saying that if Miss Garland wasn’t on the set the following Monday—which was at the London Palladium, where she had to do her last song—we will cancel the picture and we will sue her. I had to take that chance, hoping she would be there. I called a thousand extras at the London Palladium and they were all there by nine o’clock on Monday morning, but no Judy. I had three cameras and by ten o’clock I turned the cameras around on the audience and I played Judy to the audience, I did all the movements, miming to her voice, and got all the crowd reactions. I had that done by about 11:30.”

An MGM publicity still of Judy Garland (1922-1969) during the 1940s. Photograph: Film Talk Archive

“At twelve o’clock Judy comes in, the makeup man I think asked me, ‘What do you want her to do?’ I said, ‘Tell her to get ready and come to the set, I’ll take her through the song.’ She apparently said, ‘Ronnie’s gonna teach me how to sing??’ Anyway, at about half past twelve I took her through the movements and she said, ‘That’s all right, pussycat, let’s do it.’ And she was great! We were out of the theater at six o’clock and for the rest of the film she behaved beautifully. Afterwards she did a long sequence—about six minutes—which was so much like her in real life, the scene where Dirk goes to rescue her from the hospital. It was a very intimate scene, so close. So I planned to start on her as a sort of me figure, and very slowly, as the scene developed, come in to a waste figure. Then at a certain point, halfway through, cut, and I would do the rest in close shots. As we came in, the close shots would get bigger and bigger. So we started the first shot, which was supposed to end halfway through. As the scene went on, I realized more and more that something magical was happening. It was no longer the character from the film, it was Judy being herself. The dialogue was more or less the same, and Dirk, such a fine actor, adjusted to her dialogue. When we were a third of the way through, I knew that something was happening that I’d never get again, because the tears were streaming down her face and it was so genuine, there was no acting about it. We were on a dolly track and I went like this to the man who was pushing the camera, that he’d continue to move in closer and Dirk, who was so intuitive, realized what I was doing so he got in closer to Judy. And then, horror of horrors, a little light on the top of the camera, which was for her eyes, started to burn up as we got closer in. The cameraman signaled to the chief electrician and slid very slowly something in front of this little lamp so that it didn’t destroy the scene. We shot it and it went on for I suppose six minutes. At the end of it, there was nothing I could do but say, ‘That was magnificent. Print.’ We never cut in to the close shots. That was the magic of this woman: despite everything—and God, she put me through some hell—we loved her very much. My wife once asked me, ‘How can you like Judy after all the things she tried to do to you?’ I said, ‘Well, we can’t help it, but we all do, the whole unit.’ And at the end of the film, we were doing a last close shot of her at the Shepperton Studios, a very simple sequence with only two or three lines of dialogue, that I wanted to cut in to another sequence that we had already shot. After the third take, it was excellent and I said, ‘That’s it, Judy darling, that’s really it.’ She looked at me, she looked around at the whole unit and she looked back at me again, and she said, ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone.’ And she walked away. We were all in tears, she just had this way and we missed her—my goodness, we missed her. I tried to put it down in my autobiography [“Straight from the Horse’s Mouth,” 2003], but you can’t really get anywhere near what this experience was like.”

[The trailer of “Judy”]

JUDY (2019) DIR Rupert Goold PROD David Livingstone SCR Tom Edge (play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter) CAM Ole Bratt Birkeland ED Melanie Oliver MUS Gabriel Yared CAST Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Jesse Buckley (Rosalyn Wilder), Finn Wittrock (Mickey Deans), Rufus Sewell (Sidney Luft), Darci Shaw (Young Judy Garland), Fenella Woolgar (Margaret Hamilton), Richard Cordery (Louis B. Mayer), Gemma-Leah Deveraux (Liza Minnelli)