Judy – A poignant narrative that captures the truth of global icon Judy Garland’s final years

When producer David Livingstone saw Peter Quilter stage play ‘End of the Rainbow’, exploring the world of global icon Judy Garland during her final years in London in 1996, his inspiration led to the film Judy’s journey from stage to the big screen.

After acquiring the rights to Quilter’s play, Livingstone (who most recently produced Last Christmas) drafted in the award-winning writer Tom Edge to translate it to the big screen.

Tom Edge is a twice BAFTA-nominated writer working in TV and film and the creator and executive producer of the acclaimed Netflix original comedy Lovesick; the third season of which went out January 2018. 

In TV drama, Tom worked on the first two seasons of The Crown (Netflix), adapted three of the Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective novels, The Silkworm, Career of Evil and the forthcoming Lethal White (BBC One, Cinemax).

“David asked me to take a look at the play, as he felt that there was a great story to be told about Garland’s time in London.  I didn’t know much about her – if anything I carried with me the cliché of Garland,” says Edge.

“But as I began watching her TV interviews from the late 1960s, I quickly saw that this was someone who was really warm, witty, sharp and self-aware – someone who knew what the clichéd view of her was and who was prepared to play with that.  Writing that character, trying to find my own version of Garland, felt like a great challenge.”

By 1969, Judy Garland had graced stage and screen in a career lasting over forty years, winning hearts around the world with her wit, warmth and incredible vocal ability. Yet despite this, 1969 saw a very different Garland to the child star of the 1930s and the Hollywood celebrity of the 1940s and 1950s.  Hard living had made her unreliable and, as the work dried up, she had fallen into debt and lost her home.

In an attempt to earn money to provide for her young children, Judy accepted a lucrative job singing for a five-week season in London at The Talk of the Town, Bernard Delfont’s fashionable dinner and cabaret club.

London was a last resort for Judy in many ways, says Edge: “London was one of the last places that still had fond memories of Judy that were relatively unclouded.  For Judy it was both a rare lifeline and an opportunity to stare down her critics and prove to herself and others that she still had what it took.”

Edge widened the scope of the story to include glimpses of Judy’s past, helping the audience to better understand the present-day Judy they see on screen.  But he was also determined not to make Judy feel like a victim of her past – she was a survivor and she never gave up – it was this quality that so inspired her legions of fans and that Edge wished to celebrate at the end of his screenplay.

“David had been talking to me about the film for some years” says Cameron McCracken, one of the Executive Producers of the film and Managing Director of Pathe, the film’s principal financier and distributor, “but I was hesitant because of the perception of Judy as a tragic figure.  What changed my mind was the script that David developed with Tom.  It did not shy away from the tragedy in Judy’s life, but it managed to celebrate her genius and her indomitable spirit – she was revealed as an inspirational rather than a tragic figure.  And the film’s ending was wonderfully uplifting!”  That strong reaction to the material was shared by BBC Films and Ingenious Media, both of whom came on board early on to support the production.    

With a long and distinguished career in theatre, director Rupert Goold made his first foray into film direction with 2015’s True Story. David Livingstone believed that the innate theatricality of the story of JUDY would appeal to Goold: “Judy is a performance piece and I knew Rupert was intrigued by the story which you can never underestimate.  He’s an ideas fountain, constantly firing out new thoughts even as we’re filming.”

For the award-winning director, Rupert Goold, “One of the things that really drew me to the script was that it was very specifically about two moments in Judy’s career: the beginning and the end, and I felt there was an opportunity there to avoid the pitfalls of the linear ‘then this happened next’ biopic. The film could become a sort of passion play about the tragic end but ultimate apotheosis of a kind of secular saint. Both an origins story but also a final redemption.”

Director Rupert Goold and Renée Zellweger

This balance of how the past informs the present, and how performance conceals reality, fascinated Goold: “Garland is an old-fashioned Hollywood star. She is remote, as all the golden age stars are now, but I was interested in how you balance the legend with the very human and real; the mother and the myth.  What felt most human was the script’s exploration of Judy’s need to find love and to find a home – after all ‘there’s no place like home’- to find normality.” 

“I’m one of millions and millions through the generations who fell in love with her” says Renée Zellweger, who delivers an astounding performance as Judy Garland, in fact, there are times when it is impossible to distinguish between the real Garland and Zellweger.

“She’s beloved and internationally revered as arguably the greatest entertainer who has ever lived,” says Zellweger.

Taking the story away from the usual biopic structure – a chronological sprint through the “best bits” of a person’s life – and instead to focus in depth on a particular moment in time, was also a major selling point for its leading actress, Renée Zellweger: “I thought there was an opportunity to explore something that isn’t often considered when you’re thinking about this larger than life personality –  what it was that she delivered in her work and what it cost her. This was a period in her life when she was working because she needed to work, but physically needed to rest.  Her voice, the thing that gives her value and self-worth, is also the thing that she’s destroying in order to be able to take care of her children.”

The film looks at why Judy’s performances took so much out of her.  “Most people put on a veneer when they’re in front of a camera or an audience,” says Zellweger, “I think with Judy, you got the real person.”

The film looks at why Judy’s performances took so much out of her.  “Most people put on a veneer when they’re in front of a camera or an audience,” says Zellweger, “I think with Judy, you got the real person.”

Rufus Sewell, playing Sid Luft, agrees. “She can take any song and just invest it with so much of her own personal connection and experience, a glimmer of something so much bigger; it makes the song feel like the tip of an iceberg.

Her ability to survive a lifetime of exhausting performance was also something Edge wanted to celebrate in his script: “I realised that the Garland who I had carried around in my head was one-dimensional, and that actually this was a woman who contained volumes.”

Capturing those nuances in character and the spirit of fun that Judy never lost was vital for Rupert Goold, too: “I was interested in trying to reconnect with the sexy, witty, dangerous, emotionally available side of her.”

“I think she turned herself inside out and wore every single feeling, experience, relationship and dream on the outside of her skin,” adds Jessie Buckley, playing Rosalyn Wilder.

Rosalyn’s Story

Focusing on such a specific period of the Judy Garland story required a knowledge and level of insight that David Livingstone and Tom Edge could not find in any of the numerous biographies of Garland.

Luckily, they had access to an eyewitness – and not just any eyewitness.

Rosalyn Wilder, who looked after Judy on behalf of Bernard Delfont during her time in London, was able to provide an account of her time with Garland and at The Talk of the Town. After tracking her down via a Judy Garland fanzine interview, her guidance as a consultant on the film would prove indispensable.

“Rosalyn was the unlocking of everything about this story; the whole film really changed because of her,” explains Livingstone. “She’s a terrific woman – funny, unsparing, with a huge amount of insight into the world of 1960s London dinner clubs and into what Garland was like in person.”

“My first impressions of Judy Garland were that she was extremely tiny, very fragile, and rather quiet and that somehow one wanted to protect her. She wanted to be able to talk to you and to trust you,” explains Rosalyn Wilder. “People are either stars or they’re not. People either walk in to a room and they’re important and you know they’re the centre of attention, or they’re not. Judy Garland was.”

However, although the concerts started well, “it was a difficult few weeks” as Rosalyn tried to manage Judy’s notorious time-keeping.

“Rosalyn and Judy have one of the most interesting relationships in the film” comments Rupert Goold. “You have a very normal working girl, sceptical about the rubbish that attaches to artists and celebrities, encountering an old-fashioned diva.”

Jessie Buckley

Jessie Buckley, who was drafted in to play the role of Wilder in the film, comments : “I think they struck up a friendship because there’s a point when the masks drop for both of them and they see that each is just trying to get on with their life, the way they want to live it, without having to play to something or someone else.  Rosalyn’s professionalism is something that overrides her personal feelings, yet Judy manages to crack her. They definitely form a friendship of sorts.”

Renée Zellweger as Judy, and Judy Garland

Becoming Judy

Renée Zellweger’s interest was immediately piqued when she was tapped to play the role of Judy; having been a lifelong fan, it was an opportunity and a challenge she couldn’t pass up.

For Livingstone and Goold, Zellweger was the obvious choice to play the part of Judy.

“There was no one else who had the ability to sing, act and be comedic in that way. And by good fortune, Renée was the same age as Judy at the time she gave these London shows,” explains Livingstone.

“We needed somebody who has a bit of the comedienne about them, because Judy was hilarious and known for it,” adds Goold. “I think because Renée has done a lot of hugely high-profile comedies, people may forget about films like Cold Mountain, for which she won an Oscar, and some of the other dramatic films she’s made. She has something that, despite the fact that she is extraordinarily beautiful and talented, reaches out and connects to real people at some level.”

Zellweger had her own motivations to tell this story: “As a creative person, there’s nothing that’s more exciting than to be taken out of your comfort zone. I also wanted to look at those in-between moments that seem to get left out when you’re telling the story of a person you think you know.”

With Renée on board, the next step was to capture the look of Judy Garland.

David Livingstone

David Livingstone explains: “When Renée took on the role, she wanted to make sure it had honesty, integrity and authenticity, so it didn’t look like a caricature.”

A year before the official rehearsal process began, Renée started training with a vocal coach in the U.S, before finally rehearsing for 4 months with the film’s musical director, Matt Dunkley.

“What appealed to me about this film project was that it’s such a unique opportunity to revisit these classic songs and the wonderful American song book, with some really wonderful arrangements,” says Dunkley.

Despite having previous singing experience in such films as Chicago, training to become Judy Garland was a huge step into the unknown for Zellweger. Immersion in all things Garland was the key.  Zellweger adds: “I had many moments in the car when for that whole year Judy was riding shotgun. I listened to her music and her speaking, I researched the stories – the whole thing.”

Director Rupert Goold and Renée Zellweger

Encapsulating such a singular figure wasn’t just down to the singing – the distinctive accent, tone of voice and movements during the on-stage performance, all had to be mastered. Dunkley always had confidence in Zellweger’s ability on that front: “She’s an actress who can sing rather than a singer who can act. So, I always knew that the acting side of it was going to be fantastic. She trained with a speaking voice coach to get the sound of Judy’s voice and her pronunciation and she worked with a choreographer to get her mannerisms. Judy was quite twitchy in her body movements and Renée’s capturing of that was amazing.”

Rupert Goold was equally impressed by Zellweger’s physical transformation: “One of my favourite parts of her performance is how she holds her shoulders. Judy had this curvature of the spine and it made her look much older and frailer than she really was in the later part of her life.  On the first day I thought ‘Oh wow, THIS is a proper actor, this is somebody who is playing a role, not just putting on an outfit’.”

“It’s not really till you go ‘action’ on the first day that you know what you’re going to get. I remember my shoulders easing after the first take and going ‘ok she’s brilliant’” recalls Rupert Goold. 

For Wilder, who remembered the real Judy as she was back then, the physical transformation was stunning: “Renée Zellweger has this unique ability to turn herself into whoever it is she’s asked to be. When I saw how the make-up and the dress transformed her, I was absolutely stunned. I had never seen such a transformation in my life; it was almost impossible to believe.”

“When you watch her on the monitors or on set, it’s scary how much she just comes alive,” adds Jessie Buckley. “There are moments when she just completely drops into it and Renée doesn’t look like Renée anymore. She just looks like Judy; her physicality, her voice, her wit and her fear are just there in her eyes.”

It was a somewhat discombobulating experience for Rufus Sewell, who as Sid Luft was only on set for a short period of time and hadn’t had much chance to meet Zellweger before seeing her as Judy:

“That was part of the excitement of reading the script, knowing it was her. When you meet her in the flesh, in the makeup and hair, it’s kind of spooky. I’ve come to know her in character without really meeting the actress, and there is a real vulnerability, a fragility there.” 

Tom Edge agrees on the elements that Zellweger brings to the role: “There’s a jitteriness and a fragility to her physicality, which Renée absolutely captured. She was learning to sing like Judy Garland at the end of her career, where the voice was cracked, where there were notes that were missing. Renée is able to give you those small moments where you see Garland’s confusion and pain poking through.”

Despite playing the leading lady, however, Zellweger only ever felt like a small part of a larger team, each working in their own way to bring Judy to life: “With Jany’s work on the clothes, Brett Tyne’s work with the dialect, Matt’s beautiful arrangements and Rupert’s direction, it all came together and was something that felt true.”

“Renée’s incredibly generous and curious. There’s no big diva sweep, she’s one of the ensemble who wants to muscle things out and create something together,” says Buckley.

“Renée is kind to her bones” adds Tom Edge. “Even in the early hours of the longest night shoots, she’d be the person walking round saying to supporting actors ‘How are you doing?’ I think the whole crew went the extra mile time and again, and they did it for her because of how hard she worked, and how kind and generous she was through that process.”

Another foil to Zellweger’s Garland was her fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, played by American actor Finn Wittrock: “I think that Judy needed Mickey at that time in her life. I think she needed a certain influx of energy and I think he brought a youthful joie de vivre, a kind of masculine energy that she was craving.” 

“Mickey Deans was a complex piece of casting because on the one hand he has some of the elements you might associate with a villain, but he also brings something joyful to her,” explains Rupert Goold. “At some level he’s the Toto of the story. He’s Judy’s puppy-ish companion!”.

“He’s just got a charisma and sex appeal that you can see sizzling and bouncing off Renée. You warm to him and are nervous of him at the same time,” says David Livingstone.

Zellweger responded to Wittrock’s presence, too: “He’s just so charming and has charisma that you can see coming a mile away. There was so much ambiguity about the nature of Judy’s relationship with Mickey and so many people’s contradictory accounts of what that relationship was like. But you can sense what Mickey meant to Judy in Finn’s portrayal of the man and I think that’s a testament to his skill.”

Finn Wittrock feels there was a real love and need for stability at the heart of Mickey and Judy’s relationship: “He loves how iconic she is and he is attracted to the star quality, but there’s also something very genuine in his attraction to her – he wants to take care of someone.”

“I think Renée is just pure energy; I like the kind of ebullient joy she brings to set,” says Wittrock. “You see some footage of Judy and it’s the same kind of bubbly energy. There’s some source of light inside her that’s always on and I think I connected to that.”

Playing Judy’s ex-husband and father to her two young children, Lorna and Joey, was Rufus Sewell:

“I haven’t responded to a script like that in a long, long time; my personal reaction to it was quite emotional.  I saw the movie as I was reading it and I jumped at the chance to be in it. What Sid cares about is the children, and for all of her magic, warmth and kindness, and everything that was amazing about her, Judy was not a reliable mother”.

“What I love about Rufus is that he always brings something very electric and kind of dark but he’s got something very romantic, too,” says Rupert Goold. “I really wanted an actor who you believe in; however seemingly hostile he may be to Judy, you believe in their relationship. I wanted everyone to feel that for all the flaws and the chaos in their marriage, which was in a sense an abusive relationship on both sides, Sid was the great love of her life.”

Two small but vital roles in the film are those of Stan and Dan played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira, who represent Judy’s global fanbase and specifically her large LGBT following. Although they are fictional characters, Judy was known to wander off by herself into West End bars and make friends with the other customers.

“Stan and Dan were a brilliant idea of Tom’s that came out of discussion about how we flesh out Judy’s experience in London, and the need to see Judy through the eyes of her audience at some level,” explains Rupert Goold. “The gay community weren’t allowed to lead normal lives, and there is an interesting parallel with Garland, who’s trying to find a normal life for herself and her children. I spoke to academics who’ve investigated ideas of sexuality through the prism of Garland. For the post-Stonewall generation ‘Friends of Dorothy’ is a strong affirmative voice against discrimination.”

“Stan and Dan are absolutely a highlight of the film; they bring humour and love and magic.” adds David Livingstone. “They help us understand Judy’s role as an icon whilst also embodying the love she generated from her fans.”

The Music of Judy

Getting the music of JUDY right was of vital importance to the sense of authenticity within the film, and there were to be no half measures – to pull it off would require preparation, practice and plenty of passion from Zellweger and her vocal team.

“I’ve never been asked to sing several belters in a row, let alone do a live performance anywhere,” explains Zellweger.  “I just figured we’d start a year before and work regularly to see if there was any truth to the saying that you really can strengthen your vocal chords like any other muscle. The big thing to remember was that I wasn’t doing an impersonation or trying to emulate this great icon.”

We could have hired an impressionist, but I didn’t want to obsess about the voice,” adds Rupert Goold. “Renée is a lovely singer and a great musician, but Judy was a professional who had been on stage night after night her entire life so it’s a big thing to take on. I kept saying to Renée, ‘I don’t want an impersonation, make it your own, I want to see Renée Zellweger in there.  Somewhere in her anxiety about delivering the role is what’s brilliant about her performance.”

Renée’s journey to Judy began in Los Angeles: “I started with a voice coach, Eric Vetro in LA; he’s an old pal and I love him, so any excuse to stand next to his piano and hang out with his poodle, Belle, is a good one! Then I came over to London and I worked with Eric on Facetime and with Mark Meylan at his studio. Mark actually came to set quite a few times to make sure that I didn’t damage myself, because if you could do it to your voice, I did it during this process! There was laryngitis, vocal strain, inflammation, and plain old fatigue.  Throughout , I continued training with Matt Dunkley our genius maestro Musical Director.” 

“We weren’t trying to do an impression of Judy Garland because she had a unique voice, “ explains Dunkley, “Renée naturally has a higher voice; what we call a head voice whereas Judy, at this stage of her life, had a very low voice, down in the chest, so we worked with Renée to get her singing in that way. She’s done a remarkable job.”

For David Livingstone, being able to sing live without the backing of a full orchestra during filming was all the more impressive: “She’s singing to the sound of a band that’s playing in her ear piece. It’s bold and courageous for her to do it. She’s not only singing, but performing and exposing every last detail of her voice without it being submerged in a band.”

The most powerful moment was saved for last, as Edge explains further: “’Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is the song she usually ended her sets with at London’s Talk of the Town; it was a song that had followed her all of her life and a song that was iconic almost from the moment she first sang it in The Wizard of Oz.

The song gave Zellweger the opportunity to create something special for Judy’s swansong on The Talk of the Town set – one that neither cast, crew nor any extra in attendance will ever forget.

“When a singer begins a great song, you feel the audience collectively breathe in and then they release at the delivery” says Rupert Goold. “She starts and it’s so gorgeous, and then her voice gives out and the audience has to sing for her, to finish the song. We were lucky on this film in that we had a really wonderful collection of crowd artists, 300-odd people dressed up to the nines in their 60’s gear. Renée must have felt incredibly intimidated coming onto the stage in a big theatre to perform to them.  But if you look in the background you can see people really crying, which might well have been third or fourth takes. It was because they fell in love with her.”

After a year of training, fear was never an option for Renée Zellweger: “Those people I worked with took all the fear out of it. I didn’t have time to think about being judged; I just had to hush the critics in my head.”

A new legacy  

With so many conflicting stories of Garland out there already, the filmmakers’ hope is that the film will cast a new light on an oft-misunderstood and misrepresented figure endowed with a towering talent.

“What is it about her that connects? I think that throughout her career she had a huge emotional availability, a transparency. There’s no mask. There’s just her,” says Rupert Goold. 

“She managed to triumph over so much adversity. Her sheer genius and natural ability is one in a hundred million years,” adds Renée Zellweger. 

I hope a lot of people have more of an understanding of who Judy was as a person, and they have an understanding what she went through,” says Darci Shaw. 

For Jessie Buckley, the musical legacy of Judy is what the film aims to celebrate: “She turned herself inside out in order to give as human a performance as possible. When she sings, she wants to move people and give people hope. That’s what audiences came for – to find hope in life. When somebody can do that as humanely as Judy did, that’s magic.”

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Judy Garland’s death and the 80th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz, the film that turned her into a star overnight. But the story of Judy’s life still feels relevant, all the more so in the #metoo era where Judy stands as a symbol of defiance.

For screenwriter Tom Edge, he hopes that the film shows a different side to Judy Garland that people might not know about: “You can never make the claim that your picture of her is definitive. All you can really do is get a sense of her, and try to find a narrative that conveys your truth to the audience. The portrait of Garland that the film offers is a sincere attempt to capture the essence of her, her warmth, her generosity, and her spirit. I hope we do justice to her.”