Judy wasn’t nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. There were numerous contenders for the top film honor, so it was a tight race. But Judy is also not a picture that puts Hollywood in a good light. It would sound conspiracy-theory-like for me to say the Academy doesn’t want you to see Judy, but … I think the Academy doesn’t want us to see Judy.
Previous Oscar-nominated films that have featured Hollywood have portrayed it as the good guy. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, looks back on golden years in Hollywood with delight. Argo, the fun 2012 film that portrays Hollywood as the hero in the Iranian Hostage Crisis, won Best Picture. In Judy, the 2019 biopic of Judy Garland featuring Renee Zellweger (who did win an Oscar for Best Actress), Hollywood is the bad guy.
Further, Judy is a dangerous film for the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements that are championing for better treatment of women in Hollywood. To me, Judy is to Hollywood what Spotlight was to the Catholic Church—the kind of film that makes you think: My God, the level of exploitation and coverup is worse than we thought. We all need a massive wakeup call. And, heaven help us.
In Judy, Zellweger plays the iconic Garland in the last year of her life, performing a nightly show in London as her physical and mental health declined. She is addicted to uppers and downers, her insecurities are high and her sense of self low, and her income is crippled by stifling back taxes. Her drug addictions began early in her career when handlers offered her speed to get through long days of shooting in record time. Her eating disorder was developed when she was denied food on sets because they could not let their leading lady “get fat.” And her agents mismanaged her wealth leaving her with thousands owed to the IRS, keeping her from affording a stable residence where she could raise her kids. The picture of Judy couldn’t be sadder. Worst, all of these portrayals seem to stack up to the facts of Garland’s life.
Throughout the film, viewers are brought back to Garland’s initial days as an actress at age 15, when she is cornered in talks with a senior film executive who chastises her for doing such normal things as eating a french fry on set or taking a dip in the swimming pool at her 16th birthday party. Color within the lines, she’s instructed. As the studio’s control for her every move continues, we see Garland slowly losing her sense of self-agency, giving up more of her personal interests and freedom for the studio’s goals.
Judy wasn’t alone
Judy is not unlike the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn, in which we see Marilyn Monroe’s suffering self-image in the midst of her height of fame. Exploited in the production as well as the portrayal of herself in films, Monroe famously didn’t want to appear as a dumb blonde; nevertheless, studios kept typecasting her, to say nothing of her relentless objectification.
In a 1962 interview for Life magazine, Monroe opened up, saying: “An actor is not a machine...Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer—you’re gay, you’re sick, you’re nervous or whatever. Like any creative human being.... I’m there to give a performance and not be disciplined by a studio! After all, I’m not in a military school. This is supposed to be an art form, not just a manufacturing establishment.” This was published just before her death.
Women like Monroe and Garland are not casualties of Hollywood by accident. I am convinced that it’s no exaggeration that the same industry that put them on the map also contributed to their untimely deaths.
The Hollywood execs that pushed Garland to get more films done in less time, that staged fake birthday parties for the press to see Judy Garland turning 16 while she was denied cake—these are the same handlers that told Marilyn Monroe to swim naked in a pool and allowed press to come take photos at the height of her career. Yes, that really happened. It was billed as if it were her free-spirited idea, fitting with the narrative we were sold about her, but it wasn’t. And what was she going to say to stop it? How could she escape her life now that she was Marilyn? And what was Judy going to do as a 15-year-old while the cameras flashed?
Hollywood execs held the success, the images, and the futures of these women in their hands. They depended on these women to make them lots of money, and to control the money, it appears they controlled the women. The pressure these women experienced had to be enormous.
Where #TimesUp meets #MeToo
There are the words a woman in Hollywood never wants to hear from a discontented boss: "You'll never work in this town again." It’s also what actress Mila Kunis said in 2016 “a producer threatened when I refused to pose semi-naked on the cover of a men's magazine to promote our film.” Kunis snapped. “I was no longer willing to subject myself to a naïve compromise that I had previously been willing to…. I was livid, I felt objectified, and for the first time in my career I said no. And guess what? The world didn't end. The film made a lot of money and I did work in this town again, and again, and again.”
The #TimesUp movement is a very important one for our world today. It is pivotal that women be treated better in the production of our media, and in our portrayals. I love the whole significance of the phrase—the time is up for women to be treated as less than men in Hollywood, or in any industry. But after watching Judy, I felt angry. Time has been up for a very, very, very long time.
For decades, women have been walked over and used for studio profits. They’ve been eaten alive, then it’s onto the next one. What we see today with the Harvey Weinstein trial is more sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood as well, which seems to me just a continuation of the using of women in their “art.” If the industry has already gotten in the habit of treating women like commodities in film production, what is stopping them from treating them like commodities off-screen?
Salma Hayak famously shared how Weinstein pressured her to insert a topless sex scene to her film Frida, threatening that if she didn’t, he would scrap the film. Numerous women have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault that was so prevalent it became viewed internally as something of a cost of doing business with him. Bill Cosby preyed on young women at the start of their careers, treating them as nothing more than bodies to exploit. Jeffrey Epstein treated young women and aspiring models as objects to consume in a game of connections and coverups. The stories that have come out of the #MeToo movement suggest there are deep-seated assumptions by some Hollywood execs that women are for men’s consumption, both on-screen and off.
These men had in common wealth and influence that made them powerful forces to be reckoned with. How many of them are still on the scene? How many of these ugly sexist trends, that have been worsening since the golden age of Hollywood, are still taking place under our noses? Just like the sex-abuse scandal of the Catholic Church continues to have more information come out, I suspect the exploitation of vulnerable parties within Hollywood will continue to come out in waves. Ricky Gervais called the room of Hollywood celebs a bunch of “perverts” when he hosted the Golden Globes this year—the assumption being the Weinsteins and Epsteins are the tip of the iceberg of a much larger systemic problem.
If Gervais and I are right in our grim assumptions, then that may explain why Judy wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, while less excellent films like JoJo Rabbit and The Joker were.
Women in Hollywood and the rest of us
But why does it keep happening? Why do seemingly self-respecting and powerful women tolerate their mistreatment in Hollywood—do they do so for profit, fame, and affirmation? Maybe, though to be clear, the mistreatment is never their fault or a product of their failure to speak up or not. I wonder if maybe their experiences are more relatable to experiences average women face, if even in different forms than our lives.
I remember many years ago when I would feel the pressure to look attractive for others, whether by the influence of those in my community or simply the ads in every commercial or drugstore. Somewhere along the way on the never-ending quest for just the right makeup or just the right hairstyle, I realized that there will always be one other woman out there who has more resources, or better genes, or, better insights into how to effortlessly reach standards of beauty that I would never be able to reach. Realizing this wasn’t depressing but a positive first step toward my exit from the rat-race mentality. It helped me to realize that my goal should not be to reach the peak of attractiveness by some elusive standard of beauty but to prioritize looking and feeling most myself. When I prioritized that, I would feel more confident and in turn probably end up more attractive anyway, but naturally and in my own way.
Many of us women experience this same rat-race pressure when it comes to work and career. Are you leaning in enough? Are you pushing yourself to the max to advance yourself above others? Work in an industry like film production—where looking good according to industry executive standards is part of doing your job the very best you can—and we can understand a bit better how the system of harassment, abuse, and exploitation continues in Hollywood.
Every once in a while a celebrity—who has a whole team of professionals helping them beautify, and stay fit, and excel in their profession to the nth degree on a daily basis—suffers a loss related to their self-worth, intimate relationships, or desirability. Jennifer Garner’s marriage suffers; Demi Lovato’s self-image plummets; Beyoncé gets cheated on; or Florence Welsh admits a drinking problem. Basically gorgeous and talented women at the height of loveliness and desirability suffer the same dark horses women everywhere face.
There’s a heroic part of every woman that equips her to get back up again after mistreatment; but there’s also an all-too-human part that tends to grin and bear it, brush things under the rug. And many of us women feel unspoken pressure to prioritize pleasing others over setting healthy boundaries or pursue ambition and professional success at the cost of our health, relationships, and self-worth. Celebrities aren’t immune to these challenges that are nearly universal in women’s experiences.
Women can get back up again, and those who have been abused by Weinstein, for example, are doing just that. But what the story of Judy shows is that not everyone gets back up. Judy Garland suffered greatly from her mistreatment in Hollywood, and in this life she never received justice for those who wronged her. The film gives a glimpse of the painful finality that comes from not having recourse.
In her New York Times editorial, Salma Hayak asked, “why do so many of us, as female artists, have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer? Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity? I think it is because we, as women, have been devalued artistically to an indecent state...I hope that adding my voice to the chorus of those who are finally speaking out will shed light on why it is so difficult, and why so many of us have waited so long. Men sexually harassed because they could. Women are talking today because, in this new era, we finally can.”
Today, with numbers, women have shown with their actions that they feel more comfortable coming forward when they experience abuse, to bring to justice those who undervalued them. Today, we have the #MeToo movement. A film like Judy, that shows how much Hollywood can devalue its own stars, and how fruitless it is to grin and bear it, is just the ticket to reinvigorate the movie industry with another wave of self-reflection.
Zellweger gave a nod to that sort of reflection in her acceptance speech for Best Actress at the Golden Globes earlier this year. She noted that for many people she’s encountered, seeing Judy has led them to want to tell her, “the great personal significance of [Garland’s] legacy and her humanity [shown in the film] has been a great reminder that the choices that we make matter, what we make matters, and how we choose to honor each other in our lifetimes can matter a great deal down the road."
That the Oscars didn’t put Judy in its “must-see” category of nine films this year despite its greatness tells us something: some people don’t want to self reflect.
Editor's Note: The mistreatment of women in Hollywood—on and off screen—has gone on for far too long. Since our founding, Verily has been a voice for women that demands public reflection and action with respect to how women are treated in culture. Recently have been spending too much time defending part of that mission to big tech advertising networks, but the growing strength of our Verily Yours membership gives us hope. More than just another subscription, our membership adds our readers to our editorial team—helping us to become less accountable to big tech and more accountable to women. Start your free one-month trial today.