Movies

What Hollywood’s Movies About Aging Starlets Keep Leaving Out

Biopics like Judy and My Week With Marilyn pathologize each actress while missing the big picture.

Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and Renée Zellweger in Judy.
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and Renée Zellweger in Judy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Weinstein Co., Sony Pictures Classics, and Twentieth Century Fox

Judy, the new film about Judy Garland in her desperate final months, isn’t so much a biopic as a thanato-pic. Starring Renée Zellweger in an Oscar-baiting performance (complete with prosthetic nose), Judy follows its 46-year-old subject—a penniless, pill-popping has-been by 1968—to London, where she’s to mount her latest, and last, attempt at a comeback. Even 5,000 miles away from anyone she’s ever known, Zellweger’s Judy finds herself unable to escape the memories and repercussions of a childhood consumed by stardom (whose exacting demands are personified by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer in the numerous flashbacks to the filming of The Wizard of Oz). I’m not sure which familiar scene of crippling stage fright or overwhelming insecurity did the trick, but at some point in the film, I began wondering why we’re so interested in watching beautiful actresses decay.

Though Garland’s death six months after her disastrous final tour isn’t revealed until the end of the film, Judy leans so heavily on its protagonist’s premature demise to provide emotional heft that without it, this ferociously insubstantial film probably couldn’t exist—there’d be next to nothing to it. In its mining of the Hollywood hills for cheap tragedy, Judy joins 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, in which Michelle Williams plays a slowly imploding Marilyn Monroe on the wrong side of 30, and 2017’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, in which Annette Bening stars as a terminally ill Gloria Grahame. Together, the trio represents a distasteful, awards-grubbing minigenre that, at least in these recent examples, clings to shopworn ironies in lieu of fresh insights.

It’s obvious enough why Judy and company keep getting made. Zellweger became the apparent front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar as soon as the movie premiered last month at the awards season–launching Telluride Film Festival, with the story of the contrast between Garland’s failure and Zellweger’s triumph, especially after the Bridget Jones star’s six-year hiatus from acting, practically writing itself. (Indeed, Jonathan Van Meter wrote it for the cover of New York magazine.) Williams used her portrayal as Monroe to play against type, injecting a dose of flirty, cunning sexuality into her screen image and earning herself a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in the process. Bening may not have taken home as many trophies as she’d hoped for her turn as Grahame, but embodying the coquettish, volcanically tempered Oscar winner also gave her an opportunity to prove she can do more than melt steel with her laser-focused gaze. In each case, an aging actress who might otherwise struggle to get such meaty, high-profile roles gets to show she’s still got it by transforming herself into another aging actress. (A cynic might observe that, in so doing, those actresses get to prove they’re not like those aging actresses.)

These films do revise the public images of their titular characters in meaningful ways. In Judy, Garland may be estranged from her grown daughter, Liza Minnelli, and unable to provide even a home for her two school-age children, but the movie moves the actress’s maternal urges back toward the center of her lore. Monroe—still considered the ultimate dumb blonde in too many circles—is reclaimed as a serious actress with lofty ambitions. Grahame, remembered as a pouty sexpot or an incestuous predator if she’s remembered at all, is largely recast as a stoic lover of Shakespeare.

But these films are also, by design, not as empathetic toward their subjects as they could be. Each movie is too enamored of its legend, of her talent and beauty, to acknowledge that her circumstances and pathologies aren’t exceptional but widely shared, borne largely of gendered inequality: unequal pay, imbalance of power, public hypersexualization, and the fast-approaching or long-past expiration date on her usefulness to Hollywood. It’s likely not a coincidence that all three movies are set in England, far from where any Hollywood star ostensibly should be. Nor is it a surprise that there isn’t really a male counterpart to these aging-starlet films, when Hollywood simply doesn’t think its actors age out so quickly. If a studio were to attempt a movie about, say, Cary Grant in his late 50s, it would simply find him starring in Charade, opposite Audrey Hepburn, 25 years his junior.

But if the film industry’s #MeToo movement has reminded us of anything, it’s that, even in Hollywood, women’s experiences of pressure and discrimination aren’t so much unusual as devastatingly similar. Too many women lived in silence and shame, believing that their encounters were unique, or even that the abuse was somehow their fault, but after the dam broke, we understood how many of these stories were practically interchangeable, no matter the stars’ wattage, or whether they were stars at all.

Judy doesn’t imply that Garland was the only young actress mistreated by Mayer—her forced diets, grueling hours, and pill schedules are regarded as industry-standard—but it does by default exceptionalize her case, since hers is the only one we see. In My Week With Marilyn, Monroe is practically the only movie star to matter, to have ever mattered. Film Stars allows for the possibility that Grahame was the victim of a particularly vicious whisper campaign launched by an ultra-powerful ex-husband (Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray). But by failing to account for the unfortunate commonness of their fates, at least within the entertainment industry, the movies of this genre tend to become opportunities to focus morbidly and myopically on the self-destructive habits of a flailing figure, rather than understand the larger context that gave rise to her. The individual struggle of a Garland, Monroe, or Grahame may be inherently interesting in tight close-up, but these movies would be more revealing if they zoomed out a little to show the fuller picture.