“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow. during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Ben-Hur” (2016) movie review

BenHurJust as epic a story today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age! Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios present the reimagined classic historical drama of Ben-Hur. Appropriately released by two of the most recognized names in the industry harkening back to the early days of cinema, Ben-Hur plays out almost as well as it did decades ago. Sitting in the auditorium last night, I wondered what it was like to see a larger-than-life nail-biting story on the silver screen when the original was released in 1959, just before the final decline of the former powerhouse of motion picture production, the studio system. The grand experience of this film is only overshadowed by the unusual pacing. Typically epic stories require a minimum of two hours, and often come close to 3-hour runtimes in order to do the story justice and tell it visually and emotionally in the most impactful way possible; however, this film is just over two hours. This moderately quick pacing hinders one’s ability to really appreciate the foreground and background stories. The grandeur of the Roman Empire fails to show as prominently as it should have in this film that bares a striking resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in many respects. There are many sweeping shots of the Circus (chariot racing arena) that are disappointingly mostly CGI’d. Still, there is something remarkable about this story. Whether you are approaching this film from a historic standpoint (historic in an appreciation for classic Hollywood stories), religious perspective (forgiveness and sacrifice), or simply for the bad ass racing of chariots in a grand arena, you will likely find something to enjoy about this movie.

On the backdrop of the final years of the messiah, Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince named Judah Beh-Hur (Huston) who is falsely accused and betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Kebbell). Sentenced to a life of perpetual rowing of Roman galleons in battle, Ben-Hur endears harsh treatment and near-death experiences in order to one day seek his vengeance. Meanwhile, Messala becomes a war hero and favorite of the people and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. When the destruction of his ship opens the door for escape, Ben-Hur finds himself washed upon the shore to be picked up by a wealthy African (Freeman) who races chariots–or pays for young men to race chariots. Striking a deal between them, the wealthy African and Ben-Hur work together to train for Ben-Hur to defeat Massala in the circus in order to reclaim his name and truly hit the Romans where it hurts–losing at their own game.

One of the most unique aspects to this film is the parallel plot between the background and foreground, the plot and subplot. At the end of the day, the message of Ben-Hur is one of forgiveness. The forgiveness between brothers and the forgiveness of Christ. Although this is not a film based upon the story of the messiah (or passion), the character of Jesus is an important element in the journey from vengeance to forgiveness. On three occasions, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, not knowing who he is. Each of these chance meetings can be read as symbolic of the different acts (or stages) in the film itself. As the story of the passion of the Christ is one that many recognize (even those who are not Christians), it helps to get an idea of what is going on in the background at the same time at the story at the forefront of the film.

Cinematically, the film was a little disappointing. It feels like a lot of potential and opportunity for incredible cinematography and production design was wasted. Although there are many wide or establishing shots, the majority of the film consists of American medium shots. It would have been exciting to see more of the physical world of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire but instead we spend a lot of time indoors or in close proximity to our cast. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more in the way of physical production design. The world on screen should have been one that I could have almost felt. Furthermore, I find that the pacing of the film was not adequate enough to actually tell the story in the manner in which it should have. It’s mostly like there was a 2.5-3hr movie condensed into a typical 2hr runtime. Sometimes epic films are guilty of way too much exposition, but Ben-Hur definitely could’ve benefited from additional development and exposition. Everything just happens too quickly and with minimal challenge.

Chariot racing. That is synonymous with Ben-Hur. And you will get plenty of horses, chariots, and crashes. Not unlike NASCAR of today, chariot racing was all about the violence and crashes. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch heroes battle it out on the ground of the circus (or race track) to see who will be the “first to finish…last to die.” Many early films were more concerned about the spectacle of cinema more so than the story or message. After all, MGM’s famous logo states Ars Gratia Artis (latin for “art for art’s sake”), meaning the goal of cinema was to contribute to the world of the visual and performing arts. Not necessarily to entertain, although that is certainly part of it, but to create beauty, intrigue, and push the boundaries of the mind and eye. One of the most mesmerizing elements of the original Ben-Hur was the chariot racing. Likewise, the most exciting parts of this new incarnation are the sights, sounds, and spectacle of the chariot races.

Although there are certainly areas of the film that disappointed me, as I have mentioned, I highly recommend for anyone who appreciates historic dramas that wax nostalgic the days of the golden age of Hollywood. And who doesn’t love a great chariot race???

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 2)

My Book

(Continued from Part 1)

Understanding the synergy or convergence that exists between the cinema and theme parks requires looking to the history of the relationship between the two entertainment giants. Before Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), Universal Studios Florida, and more than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25 (Murdy, 2002). More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse the “people out there in the dark,” as famously referred to by Norma Desmond in the timeless classic Sunset Boulevard, into the magic behind the screen (Sunset Blvd, 1950).

Interestingly, according to famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, horror is often concerned with revealing “other” scenes to the audience (Freud, 1919). And, keeping with this theoretical approach to horror cinema, Laemmle opened this “other” scene to the guests of Universal Studios Hollywood.  But more than horror, Laemmle also brought the studio guests face-to-face with western action/drama (Murdy, 2002). From early in the 20th century, the concept of cinema and theme park convergence was born. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures (Murdy, 2002). The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers (Murdy, 2002). Between 1961 and 1964, Universal outsourced the famed tram tour to the Gray Line bus company.  Following a feasibility study, conducted by researcher Buzz Price, the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened in July 1964 (Murdy, 2002).

Following the ending of the Studio System, the now bankrupt motion picture studios had been purchased by various conglomerates looking for new sources of income (Riley, 1998). One of the sources of income that studios began investing into was the concept of movie-based theme parks. With the opening of Walter Elias Disney’s Disneyland in 1955, Universal Studios made the decision to incorporate stand-alone attractions into its newly reopened studio tour (Davis, 1996). Both Disneyland and the future Universal Studios used their intellectual property (IP) as the basis for creating theme park rides, shows, and attractions. Although movie studios as a “park” began with Laemmle, in its current incarnation, the convergence of cinema and theme park began with Disneyland, and later was perfected by Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. Since the movie studios already had dedicated movie-going audiences, it made sense to capitalize on the idea of incorporating the concepts from the movies into attractions that the general public could enjoy and be immersed in (Davis, 1996). This action both acts as advertising for the respective studios and generates income for the movies and park improvements.

In today’s entertainment marketplace, media conglomerates are restructuring themselves to be as large a player in entertainment and media as possible with the ability to integrate various products and services into multiple areas of exhibition (Taubman, 1970).  This is easily witnessed in how the Walt Disney Company, Sony, and Comcast companies are setup. Walt Disney Company has significant investments in: motion pictures (i.e. Disney, Buena Vista, Touchstone), theme parks, TV (i.e. ABC, Disney Channel), leisure/tourism, radio, video games, stores, and record labels). Sony has investments in consumer/commercial electronics, computers, video game systems, motion pictures (i.e. Sony, Columbia, Tristar), television (CBS), record label, recording studios, radio, and stores. And, much in the same way, Comcast has investments in motion pictures (i.e. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks-SKG), theme parks, resorts, television (i.e. NBC, Golf, SyFy), video games, radio, record labels, and recording studios.

Whereas the fall of the original studio system set the precedent for media companies not to own or operate all the elements of media creation from conception to employment to production to the distribution, also known as vertical integration, companies are now embracing the idea of horizontal integration. Horizontal integration allows a media company to push or market its products or services through various media channels. And, this is a perfect example of why media conglomerates own and operate theme parks. This is a common practice by Disney and Universal in their respective parks and resorts. Disney can release a movie, base an attraction off that movie, use that movie as the basis for a video game, and even include costume characters in the parks and on the cruise ships. In the same vein, Universal can take one of its movie properties and integrate the characters and story into a theme park experience, use the concept for a video game, and maybe even develop a TV series as a spinoff of the movie. This type of integration allows the companies to effectively customize glorified marketing campaigns for their brand. Having a given branding on various commercial outlets allows a company to maximize its exposure to general audiences/customers (Taubman, 1970). As companies acquire more intellectual properties, media outlets, and commercial infrastructure, they are able to actively change entertainment offerings over the years; and this is definitely the case with the theme parks owned by media conglomerates that also have movie studio interests.

Continue to Part 3

The Hollywood Studio System: Employment Then and Now

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

In light of the recent film Hail, Caesar!, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the old studio system and whether resurrecting some of the practices might actually prove to be a positive affect upon employment in media and entertainment.

The entertainment industry is evolving more quickly than it ever has, and film production companies and distributors are of no exception. Just like the advent of television had a major influence on the sharp decline of movie patrons in the 1950s and 60s, the advent of on-demand and streaming “television” and movie content today is having a major impact on entertainment sources today. But this article does not aim to analyze distribution, production, nor revenue; its aim is to analyze the state of employment opportunities in the film and narrative television industries. What better way to begin to explore this controversial topic than with the studios that started it all.

HISTORY

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The rise and fall of the former “studio system” lasted for a period from the 1920s to the late 1960s, with the 1940s to the 1960s being the period of the downfall. During this time, there were five major film studios known as the Big Five, essentially controlling the film industry from production to distribution. The Big Five consisted of Paramount, MGM, RKO, Loew’s, Fox Pictures, and Warner Brothers. Though not as prominent, three smaller studios known as the Little Three, consisting of United Artists, Universal, and Columbia Pictures, were the chief competition. Regarded as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Era, the landmark Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount in 1948 marked the delcine of the Studio System. In short, over about a 15-20 year timespan, studios began opening their lots to independent filmmakers–independent of the Big Five (not independent by today’s definition), terminating permanent staff members, and refraining from entering into longerm contracts with performers and movie houses. Although the Walt Disney Company was not part of the Big Five nor the Little Three, it is the only studio today still operating as a studio from the old Studio System.

PRESENT DAY

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

With the major studios today only producing about 20 films a year, the majority of films releasing in first-run movie theatres are produced by independent producers. As stated earlier, this is not independent as we think today; independent by this definition means movies produced outside of the major studios, but often distributed by them (or a subsidiary). Think: Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Since the fall of the Studio System, big banks are more reluctant to invest in or finance films, so producers are responsible for securing their own funding. Less funding means fewer job opportunities for film and television graduates. Most film and television professionals in the entertainment business today are independent contractors–being attached to films and television shows for however long the production time or run-length is. Although a long-running television show provides more employment stability than films do, both are high risk professions. Of course, along with the high risk comes potentially great rewards.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

Why would the return of some semblance of the old Studio System be a good turn of events in today’s economy? Simply stated: more jobs and opportunities for budding professionals and college graduates. Why is that? Any first-year film student can tell you that studios keep a low threshold of permanent staff members in administration and production. The majority of talent and crew on each film is independently contracted. And with gaining entry into a union becoming increasingly difficult, it leaves many potentially talented professionals out of work or in low-pay positions on low and moderate budget films. If the Studio System were to return, they would have the collateral that big banks are looking for to invest in films. After all, film, television, and to some extent theatre, are the United States’ largest exports even though they are only recently counted as part of the U.S.’ GDP (gross domestic product) in terms of evaluating the health of the economy. If there were more permanent positions in production with studios and production companies, the unemployment rate would drop significantly in entertainment because budding professionals and college graduates could land positions in which they could grow and excel.

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

But what about exploitation and monopoly? Are those not reasons why the Supreme Court stepped in? Yes. However, there are many reasons why personnel in entertainment today, as permanent staff members, would not undergo the same treatment. The reason: unions. SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, TEAMSTERS, and EQUITY do an excellent job at protecting creative peoples’ rights and opening doors of opportunity. But, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access into these organizations. And with the unions being the gatekeepers to opportunity in the industry, where is a budding professional or college graduate supposed to go? If studios produced more in-house movies and television shows, then that would require them to hire permanent staff members. Those seeking a career in the industry would find their place. Some may argue that production companies offer internships to recent graduates; but with lawsuits increasing in the last few years, internships are increasingly being seen in a negative light. One hypothesis is that unpaid internships are taking the place of entry level jobs. With the number of entry-level jobs decreasing since the recession began, the unemployment rate in entertainment is rising.

One way to combat the increased unemployment in entertainment business is to bring back the large studios that have the financial assets to offer and hire permanent positions. This would enable the studios to hire a number of cinematographers, writers, directors, etc. And, those individuals would work on the films produced by the respective studios. If studios were to increase the number of films produced each year, as they once did, then there would be more opportunities for professionals. Regarding the monopoly studios had on movie houses, the present laws on the books would not allow for a studio to have complete control over a particular theatre chain.

There is plenty of room for studios and production companies large and small. Unlike the days of the Studio System, in which outside companies could not shoot films or television shows on another company’s lot, the smaller studios should be allowed to still rent the stage and lot space as they do today. Of course, if Studios were producing more movies on their lots, that may cause the smaller companies to have to look elsewhere for locations. But, that could be a good thing; because if they purchased land for a backlot or sound stages, that would create more jobs for craftsman. In order to combat the rising unemployment rate in the entertainment business, professionals need to get together to develop ideas as to how to hire more personnel. Bringing back the Studio System is just one idea as to how to create more full-time jobs in film and television production.

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

With studios forced to produce more movies in order to make payroll, that could potentially mean more writers can sell their scripts and perhaps more original ideas will make their way to the silver screen. This action could create human resource databases at the various studios and production companies that would advertise vacant positions. Just like applying for a job at Disney World, you could see what positions are available. Bringing back a new Studio System would allow for studios to advertise full and part-time regular positions. For instance, you could see which studios are hiring cinematographers, directors, composers, etc. Professionals in the creative and technical arts would also benefit from employer provided health insurance and retirement. Although as independent contractors, film and television professionals make more money than working as a regular employee, regular employees benefit from regular paychecks and benefits, and to an extent job security.

Technology is making the production of movies and television shows more efficient than ever, so a major studio could hire permanent staff members to work as producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. Employment opportunity and stability are key elements to the health of an industry–even creative ones. Even though the old Studio System ran unchecked for many years, causing the eventual breakup, carefully constructed and regulated today, the return of a new Studio System could mean more jobs and opportunity for college graduates pursuing entertainment business careers. And just maybe, more movies!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • US adds entertainment and innovation to GDP, Time Magazine, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/08/01/hey-america-entertainment-just-made-you-hundreds-of-dollars-richer/
  • History of the Studio System, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/394161/history-of-the-motion-picture/52153/The-Hollywood-studio-system
  • Paramount Pictures v United States, 334 U.S. 131 (1948)
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, New York Southern District court, http://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/cases/show.php?db=special&id=300
  • US Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/home.htm
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. 2013 WL 2495140 (S.D.N.Y.) – See more at: http://blog.legalsolutions.thomsonreuters.com/legal-research/westlaw-topical-highlights-labor-and-employment-july-10-2013/#sthash.J9tcpnM1.dpuf
  • Hollywood Studio System Collection, http://mediahistoryproject.org/hollywood/
  • Bigelow v. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 327 U.S. 251 (1946)