+ Judy: Inside the Artistry of the C-B.S. Biopic
by T.S. DeHaviland
Much could be made of the historical inaccuracies of the revealing
new C-B.S. miniseries Punch + Judy: the Inside Story. For instance,
Punch was not, indeed, a Brit but a transplanted Italian whose roots
went back much deeper, possibly to Greece. His given name, Pulcinella,
was changed only after he arrived in England (Bramall). Likewise, Judy,
originally known as Joan, was a later addition to the act, and her origins
are probably English, not, as the miniseries indicates, rural Indiana
(Bramall). This is an attempt, perhaps, to Americanize what was seen
as a distinctly British act. One can appreciate The Beatles, for instance,
as a rock n’ roll band, turning out Little Richard covers and
making young girls swoon, or as musical innovators, incorporating LSD
experiences and complex in-studio effects into their work. But to be
fully understood, one must see The Beatles as both products and critics
of post-Empire British society. Indeed, their irreverence of The Queen
in that little ditty on The White Album comes from a place
very similar to the irreverence represented by the Punch and Judy act
as it came, more-or-less fully formed, out of the stage shows and off
the streets and boardwalks of England’s recreational gathering
places. The same culture that brought us Punch brought us Wedgewood
pottery; the same culture that brought us the Divine Right of Kings
brought us the Magna Carta. In other words, England has always
had as much of a populist, anti-authoritarian streak as it has had a
stiff and stodgy exterior. It is both opera box and groundling at once.
Punch + Judy must then retrofit itself into the fundamentally
American idiom of irreverence and informality without the counterbalance
of established propriety. Writer/director Cameron Crowe does this with
that most American of forms: the celebrity tell-all story. By casting
Eva Longoria as the volatile Punch and Vincent D’Onofrio as the
obstreperous Judy, Crowe asks not just that each actor stretch her or
his range by playing against genotype, but challenges the very notion
of what it is the Hollywood biopic ought to be up to.
From the scenes of Punch vomiting up a stomach full of Quaaludes and
Stolichnaya after an all night bender with Dennis Hopper (here played
by Woody Harrelson) in 1976, to Judy’s hauntingly depressive suicide
attempt from an overdose of Chlor-Trimeton in 1982, we get to see the
impact of celebrity at close quarters. Crowe, controversially, goes
into stark detail about Judy’s 1989 arrest for possession of heroin
and her subsequent stint in Betty Ford’s Special Clinic for Puppets
and Marionettes, a move criticized by the Judy family, who argued that
Judy deserved some privacy after a long, and very public, career. It
was protested, too, and by the Puppet and Marionette community who contended
that it painted them all with the same brush. K. T. Frog, acting president
of the Puppets and Marionettes of America (PAMA), said at the miniseries’s
premier that “I may look green, but being of both Puppet-American
and Marionette-American lineage, I can unequivocally state that not
all of us are dropouts and wasteoids, Fozzy Bear notwithstanding”
(Gliatto 32). Also prominent in the series is Punch’s strained
and often violent marriage to Carrie Fisher, made more difficult as
Fisher’s rocketlike ride to celebrity on the vehicle of the Star
Wars franchise funhouse-mirrored Punch’s decline from the
heady days of the Mod Scene of the 1960s to the relative obscurity of
his solo show at the Las Vegas Holiday Inn. By focusing on these aspects
of Punch’s and Judy’s careers Crowe sheds the normal expectations
of a biopic and turns the genre into a sort of grand tragicomedy.
As expected, there is plenty of action with brickbats, and Crowe and
co-writer Clive Barker get kudos for their accurate portrayal of the
great talent in combat and choreography evinced by the Punch and Judy
act. Their grace and deadliness carried over off the stage–this
was a duo that knew how to take a blow and how to administer one. As
the miniseries points out, several major hotel chains refused to put
Punch and Judy up during the world tour of their live show in 1968 citing
liability concerns. As Kitty Kelly reports in her unauthorized biography
of the duo, they had their “batting arms” insured for $1
million by Lloyd’s of London in the event of injury or undue strain
(445). It’s hard not to believe they didn’t make a claim
for the scene in which Punch cleaves in two the oak dining table in
the executive suite at the Detroit Marriot in June of 1968 with one
expert blow. Judy herself is shown karate-chopping Miss Piggy into the
glass mirror behind the bar at The Sands in 1979. The two were later
known to be sparring partners after their differences were reconciled.
Punch + Judy: the Inside Story certainly has its flaws, both
in terms of accuracy and aesthetics, but it is expertly directed by
Crowe and superbly acted by D’Onofrio and Longoria. Clive Barker’s
dialogue is a bit wooden–one is led to believe the main characters
have something stuck up their butts at all times–but this represents
one of his best efforts to date despite that fact. With these production
values, quality acting, and Crowe’s seeming insistence on rewriting
the celebrity tell-all, we are posed with an interesting question: sure,
Punch + Judy is great tv, but is it good art? By casting against
gender and pushing the frontiers of factuality, Crowe and his collaborators
and cast ask for this work to be taken as more than your run-of-the-studio
miniseries. As with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, we have
to ask if the medium of television is even up to the task. Can art be
sustained in 8-minute bits interrupted by commercial breaks? Have we
completely forgotten the ringing afterglow of a badly bruised Judy as
she climbs out of her wrecked Ferrari 308 if an ad taunting us with
the latest Hot Brunette Doritos Girl or the latest upbeat message about
how “good” McDonald’s food is intervene between the
climbing out and the calling for help?
Celebrity conflates our notion of art and artist, of course, and so
it is difficult to tell what of Punch + Judy constitutes clear
aesthetic choices on the part of Barker and Crowe and what derives directly
from the Pollockesque canvases that the lives of the subjects present.
If the art of William Carlos Williams is the be believed, then it really
can exist, and exist better, in the interstices of our professional
and commercial lives. With its sensationalistic and salacious details,
perhaps the lives of Punch and Judy can exist only as art between the
cracks of commerce, as abnormality offset by the banality of an advertized
In one scene, Punch is shown heaving all of the furniture of his hotel
room in Dubuque, Iowa off the balcony and into the swimming pool below.
There’s not much new here: it’s your standard celebrity-behaving-badly
scene. But scored with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry,
Be Happy,” and filmed in garish, cartoonish, slow-motion, the
scene becomes something more akin to an unnatural mating of Baz Luhrmann
and a Heironymus Bosch painting. And I don’t mean a Baz Lurhmann
film either; I mean Baz Luhrmann. With the randomness that only advertising
executives are able to accidentally create, this scene was followed
in most major markets by one of those creepy “see Spot save”
commercials produced by the unconscionably hip Target stores’
vast reserve, this one, I think, featuring prepubescent ballerinas dressed
up like mice.
If truth and beauty are truly equivalent, as John Keats contended,
then the anguish of a celebrity, and that celebrity’s God-given
right to trash any hotel room he damn-well pleases, is the height of
veracity, at least as presented by Cameron Crowe ca. 2006. And dancing
mouse-girl ballerinas? Keats is silent when it comes to cute-but-disturbing.
And perhaps that is the point: Punch + Judy shows not so much
that we retreat into art but that we retreat from the oppressive irrationality
that is advertising. That the tv miniseries itself is a commercial venture
would seem a bit problematic to this approach, but far be it from me
to commit the intentional fallacy.
The tragedy of celebrity has merely become (yet) another trope, another
formula upon which to hang the apparatus of art. One thinks of Oliver
Stone’s The Doors, a film that is not about Jim Morrison,
but about the art of the dissolution of the life of a rock musician
named Jim Morrison, or the highly under-rated Jean-Luc Godard biopic
of Sir Stirling Moss, 300 SLR. Each brought to the heart of
the celebrity the art of the film, recreating cohesive life stories
into the mish-mash of the arthouse scene.
In another pivotal moment in Punch + Judy, Judy is discovered
showering with Warren Beatty (Anne Bancroft in one of her last performances)
when she is due on the set of a taping of the pilot episode of the ill-fated
Punch and Judy FlowerPower Hour, a variety show that was originally
slated for the 1969 lineup of new programs on ACB*.
It’s another throwaway scene as far as the advancement of the
plot is concerned: every Hollywood scandal movie featuring a leading
lady must have a sex scene with Warren Beatty to be taken seriously.
But in the hands of Crowe and Barker, the scene is intercut with shots
of headless torsos and the My Lai Massacre, thus revealing the true
importance of celebrity in American life. In its capacity for social
commentary, then, Punch + Judy fulfils the final purpose of
art and further disturbs the balance between itself and commerce, which,
with its aggrandizement of the status quo, is never able to deal with
social issues head on: it must either lampoon or ignore through a sort
of distracted absurdism.
To the age-old question of “Why must celebrities misbehave?”
Crowe and Barker have an answer in Punch + Judy. Meanwhile,
or rather immediately after the darkened screen indicating the next
commercial break, Johnson & Johnson pose the even more venerable
“Why can my whites never be white enough?”
*The legal sparring between C-B.S.
and ACB/Dizzey over this scene has become a bit of contemporary Hollywood
legend. The airing of the miniseries was delayed three years due to
the litigation, and certain aspects of the scene, notably Bancroft’s
wardrobe (or lack thereof) had to be changed substantially. (See also
Bramall, Eric. “Who Is Mr. Punch?” (1973). Punch and Judy
on the Web. Ed. Chris Somerville. 7 Feb. 2006. <http://www.punchandjudy.com/who.htm>.
Gliatto, Tom. “PAMA Blasts C-B.S. Miniseries: Frog at 11.”
People 23 Jan. 2006: 31+.
Kelly, Kitty. Punch and Judy: The Inside Story.
New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Punch + Judy: The Inside Story. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Writ.
Cameron Crowe and Clive Barker. Perf. Eva Longoria and Vincent D’Onofrio.
C-B.S. Productions, 2006.