If there’s one rule in showbiz, it’s that you never, ever get on the wrong side of Liza Minnelli. Ever. Unfortunately, director Rupert Goold didn’t get the memo and has proceeded to forge ahead with a biopic of Minnelli’s late mother, Judy Garland, despite objections.
The two have locked horns before, with the iconic 73-year-old actress taking to Facebook to express her anger at the project, which stars Renee Zellweger in the lead role. She made it clear she does “not approve nor sanction” the movie “in any way,” and she hoped Hollywood doesn’t do “what they always do.”
What’s really strange about Judy is that a 22-year-old Minnelli is also portrayed (by actress Gemma-Leah Devereux). Set in 1968, at which point Minnelli had already become a bona-fide star, there is a short exchange in which Judy (Zellweger) asks Minnelli whether she is nervous about a performance. “No,” she confidently brushes it off, before heading to a party at ‘Andy’s place” (Andy Warhol). This is likely to have raised eyebrows too, especially as Goold quite openly chopped and changed parts of the original story, removing a later Minnelli appearance to make Judy’s separation from her family seem harder.
Making a biopic is almost always a risky business. Knowing someone in person and portraying their life on screen often brings out creative differences. Just cast your mind back to Tarantino’s controversial portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood over the summer and you’ll get a sense of the kind of upset a family can experience due to a single bad scene. To embark on an entire film, then, is an even greater mine-field.
I think the dialogue between a screenwriter or director and the individuals related to the film’s subject is really important. Although the filmmaker might have an agenda, it’s common courtesy to run some of the ideas past those closest to the subject. In Tarantino’s case he reportedly didn’t even ask Lee’s family about the screenwriting, causing a lot of friction later on (and a defensive response from the director).
In this case, Goold has responded to Minnelli’s comments, at first with a bit of levity, but with earnest remarks too: “I mean, if somebody made a movie about my mum, I would go, ‘That’s not the story I’d tell!'” Goold laughs, then admits, “It’s an invasion of privacy at some level, I suppose. And that’s the complexity of being a child of a star, is it’s somebody you want to own in an intimate, personal way, yet is sort of in a gaudy way, like, public property.”
He seemed reasonable about the exchange, though also continued to talk about Minnelli and her reaction to his film: I’ve got a friend, he’s a dancer and backing singer who had worked with Liza, and he said, ‘The thing about Liza is she’s incredibly passionate and emotional but also will really change her view.’ Not that Liza has been hostile to the movie, particularly, but I have every faith that she’ll see it and find it celebratory.”
In any case, Judy has been receiving glowing reviews from critics in the festival circuit and as it proceeds to go out on a wider release. Zellweger is being hailed as a contender for next year’s Academy Awards, so no doubt there’s a lot to look forward to that might, as Goold optimistically suggests, change Minnelli’s mind. Judy starts its select release today (September 27).