Recent queer icon films Judy, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman tease their key audience while keeping one foot solidly in straight land. Is this progress?
10 October 2019 (AU)iTunes
Two interesting things happened following the announcement of a Renée Zellweger-led Judy Garland biopic last year: Zellweger cleared space on her mantle for an incoming Oscar-shaped addition, and queer folk everywhere flooded to the box office to book their tickets. In the ever-increasing field of biopics centred on the music industry, Judy is a new addition; a glittering drama that covers all biopics that came before it with a shimmering, queer mist.
Once Rami Malek's prosthetic front teeth jammed their way onto our screens, the new age of biopic soon followed. Your Dad's favourite movie of the year, Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was a box office smash that, surprisingly, took home a number of golden trophies come Oscar night. The film was also subject to important critical discussion. Firstly, by its representation of Freddie Mercury's teeth and then, by its portrayal of his bisexuality. Responses varied from vicious take downs to, well, passive take downs, but the consensus was that Bohemian Rhapsody was simply not queer enough, even problematically so.
In waltzed Richard Madden's perfect face, by way of Dexter Fletcher's Rocketman (2019). Featuring walking queer bait, Taron Egerton, this vehicle for Elton John's greatest hits took note of Bohemian Rhapsody's critical reception and amped up its queer representation ten-fold; which is still not saying much but, hey, a 59-second sex scene is progress, right? The film also blurred the genre lines between conventional biopic and movie musical. This is a movie where Egerton sings, where his high-heeled boots float in mid-air, where he takes copious amounts of drugs and shares his soul to a support group while dressed in a bedazzled Devil outfit (think Maleficent meets ABBA tribute show). Basically, Bohemian Rhapsody skipped while Rocketman strutted.
And so, the curtain rises on the two hours of Oscar bait that is Judy. Judy Garland, while not necessarily queer herself, has been a key figure for the queer community since – and before – we knew there was something to be found over the rainbow (Garland created the Pride Flag, I'm telling you). The 1960s, while jam-packed full of queer icons - Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Streisand to name a few – was paved by a yellow-brick road that only Judy could skip (or elegantly waltz) upon. In fact, declaring yourself a 'Friend of Dorothy' was code for homosexual back in the day.
It is no surprise, then, to note the interest Goold's film takes in Garland's gay fanbase. In one scene, Garland returns to the home of a gay couple who have bought tickets to every one of her performances at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London. There, Garland listens with empathy to the trials this couple faced (homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in the United Kingdom until 1967). She even sings with them. While this scene is ultimately a somewhat disjointed aside, it bears all the hallmarks of a touching cinematic moment. We have the extreme close-ups, the swelling violins, and the tragic backstory all coming together in Zellweger's best impression of Garland's raspy – packed to overflowing with feeling – singing voice. In effect, Goold used this couple, named Stan and Dan (Daniel Cerqueira and Andy Nyman) funnily enough, to represent Garland's queer fan base; a fan base that would most likely propel the film straight to box office profitability.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote of this tokenism in passing in his review, "Renée Zellwegger goes full rainbow in vanilla biopic". While this article critiques the handling of Garland's influence on the queer community by Goold, I've drunk the Koolaid and jumped headfirst into the hopeful – albeit melodramatic – note the movie attempts to strike. If we consider Judy in the context of the Marvel-alternative world of music biopics, we see an evolution of sorts taking shape. From the #mascformasc world of Bohemian Rhapsody, which represents queer experience subliminally, if at all, to the acknowledgement of queer experience in Judy, we see an important development. Much was made of Rocketman's 59-second gay sex scene, with some nations even choosing to censor and boycott the film as a result. In contrast, Goold's Judy shows two men living together and even gives them time, within a story not strictly about them, to share their experiences, their struggles and the way they love each other. I told you, I've drowned myself in this Koolaid!
Photo by David Hindley - © LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions (IMDB)
This is not to say that Rocketman's 59-second romp is not important, or that it doesn't represent a key stride in queer representation. It does. But it is interesting, and even more important, to note the ways in which Judy offers more of an effective, and nuanced consideration of queer experience and history, and in such a decidedly different way. Adding to this, we could even consider the movie-musical – which both Judy and Rocketman toe the line, genre-wise – as a conventionally queer form of cinema that adds to what I tentatively call: the queer-ing of the biopic.
As Stan shares his life, his story, and more than a couple bottles of wine with Judy, we see two people bond over the ways in which they've been alienated by the people and systems, that affect them. They share similar feelings of loneliness as they, in different ways, struggle to pursue love.
Judy is by no means a perfect film -- I recommend checking out Judy Davis in the miniseries, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) -- but it does attempt, and achieves with some success, to colour the increasing output of biopics with a different shade of the queer rainbow. That rainbow will consume the world when Céline Dion's Power of Love biopic premiers in 2020.