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Viewer Guide: “Judy” and “The Founder”

March 23, 2022 | Richard Peña


Judy (2019).

This week’s double feature begins with Judy, the 2019 biopic of Judy Garland in her late career, directed by Rupert Goold. 

With 2022 marking Judy Garland’s centennial year, Garland’s star still shines brightly in Hollywood’s pantheon of “golden age” icons, with a film legacy and life story that continues to fascinate audiences. 

In an Oscar-winning performance, Renée Zellweger stars as the troubled legend in a fictionalized dramatization of Garland’s concert engagement at London’s “Talk of the Town” nightclub in early 1969. With the damage done during her adolescent years at MGM casting a lifelong shadow, Garland’s personal search for a yellow brick road to happiness had proved to be a dead-end, leaving her broke, homeless and on bitter terms with her former manager and ex-husband Sid Luft, played by Rufus Sewell. Worst of all, her incomparable voice is now in ragged shape after decades of substance abuse, reducing her to novelty appearances for fast cash. Desperate to reestablish a stable home for herself and her two younger children Lorna and Joey, Garland’s career options are bleak, leading her to accept an offer to perform in London from British impresario Bernard Delfont, played by Michael Gambon. Placed under the watchful supervision of Delfont’s sympathetic but wary assistant Rosalyn Wilder, played by Jessie Buckley, Garland succumbs to her old demons as opening night approaches. But when an aspiring young entrepreneur appears in her life named Mickey Deans, played by Finn Wittrock, Garland seems poised to make the comeback she so desperately needs. 

 Judy was adapted from a play by Peter Quilter titled End of the Rainbow, but the storyline was considerably revamped for the big screen. To prepare for the role, Renée Zellweger immersed herself in all things Garland, internalizing her distinctive mannerisms to perform all the iconic star’s signature songs herself with the goal of embodying her unique performance style without resorting to superficial imitation. To further her research, Zellweger attempted to contact Liza Minnelli through a mutual friend, but both Minnelli and Lorna Luft publicly announced that they neither sanctioned the project, nor had any interest in seeing the film; Minnelli would later revise her comments to say that she admired Zellweger as an actress and only hoped the film would avoid a cliché portrayal of Garland as a one-dimensional, tragic figure. Despite some criticisms of the movie’s factual accuracy, Zellweger’s performance swept the 2019 international awards circuit, garnering top honors from the Screen Actors Guild as well as both the British and American Academy Awards. 


The Founder (2016).

This week’s double feature continues with The Founder, the 2016 biographical drama on the creation of McDonald’s fast-food corporate empire, directed by John Lee Hancock. 

The year is 1954, and traveling salesman Ray Kroc is on the road, extoling the virtues of a new milkshake machine to unimpressed drive-in restaurant owners. As played by Michael Keaton, Ray is modestly successful, with a comfortable home in suburban Chicago; his wife Ethel, played by Laura Dern, reluctantly tolerates his long absences. But Ray is restless for something more, listening to self-improvement motivational records with a religious fervor. When Ray hears that a San Bernadino restaurant has ordered six milkshake machines, he initially assumes it’s a mistake. But upon visiting the drive-in restaurant himself, Ray is astonished to behold the remarkable operation created by the brothers Mac and Dick McDonald, played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Seeing the brothers’ ingenious food preparation system in action—and more importantly, sensing its vast potential—Ray teams up with the brothers to franchise the McDonald’s methodology on a national basis. At first, the brothers are reluctant, yet eventually accept Ray’s impassioned conviction—under the terms of a strict contract. As we all know, the rest is gastronomic history, but this unauthorized account of the McDonald’s phenomenon also offers a cautionary tale of the toxic power of meteoric corporate success.

Not surprisingly, the McDonalds Corporation was not involved in the production of The Founder, taking a “no comment” reaction to its unauthorized account of Ray Kroc. Filmed on locations primarily in Georgia and New Mexico, the movie recreated the original McDonalds restaurants featured in the story from various sources, including old training films, blueprints purchased on Ebay, materials provided by the McDonald brothers’ family, and by researching the oldest surviving McDonald’s restaurant in Downey, California. The dissolution of the McDonalds brothers’ partnership with Ray Kroc wasn’t as acrimonious as dramatized in the movie, and both were reportedly satisfied with their buyout deal. The brothers’ alleged handshake promise for 1% of annual profits was neither known at the time nor documented; in fact, Dick McDonald was served the ceremonial 50 billionth hamburger in 1984. As for Joan Kroc, she outlived her husband by nearly 20 years, becoming a major philanthropist: upon her death in 2003, her will provided $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army, and $225 million to National Public Radio. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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