Maybe the most tragic character in the entire film, which is saying a lot. Judy is the naive and insecure country girl in the big city. Unfortunately she gets taken for a ride by two men, leading to three years of continuous abuse and heartbreak until her death. She’s the person who most represents the legacy of Carlotta, a beautiful young woman used by men for their purposes and then thrown away after she displeases them. First Gavin used Judy to get away with murder, no doubt promising he’d run away with her after it was all over. Then Scottie forces her to live out that obviously remorseful period in her life for his own pleasure. Gavin left her with a little bit of money and some unfashionable old jewelry, and Scottie all but pushed her off the tower.
Kim Novak did a stellar job with this very complicated role. She had to play two different characters at the same time, and in the end bring the two together. In the tower at the finale, she starts going back and forth between Madeleine’s airy whisper and Judy’s nasal twang to try to appeal to Scottie. There are some interesting parallels in their mannerisms as well. I notice that Madeleine’s wide eyed stares, seemingly possessed dazes at the time, soon become Judy’s default look as a traumatized thousand-yard stare. They both open the windows of their respective apartments while Scottie waits below. Both Madeleine and Judy tend to run a short distance away when they get upset, examples include at the beach, the clothing store and Scottie’s apartment. It’s almost certainly due to the circumstances of her guilt and Scottie’s troubling behavior, but Judy seems a lot more cloistered and timid in her mannerisms than Madeleine, who was more confident and deliberate. It’s as if Judy needed direction and a deeper sense of purpose in life, and taking on the identity of Madeleine allowed her to free herself by becoming another person…for awhile.
A Cycle of Abuse
What little we learn of Judy is that she grew up in Kansas and has (step)daddy issues. Interestingly, her backstory, getting tossed out by a man who took her mother, is the opposite of the Carlotta legend where a man threw away the mother but kept her child. We get a few unsettling insights into her past (“I’ve been picked up before”/”I’ve been understanding since I was 17”) implying abuse or at least mistreatment by men is a common occurrence in her life up to this point. In a lot of ways, she needed rescuing just as badly as Madeleine. Unfortunately nobody (including Scottie) would take the time on a lower class, average-looking, working girl like herself in order to notice or care.
The rescuing modern women need is from a society of objectification (one men also profit off of by selling beauty products to women as well as the allure of sex-appeal to other men). This abuse is a lot more subtle though still harmful, and it is accepted by the would-be saviors of the world like Scottie. Indeed, men like Scottie buy into and perpetuate this cycle without a hint of shame or irony, as evidenced by making Judy over to match his romantic fantasy.
By contrast, the more straightforward “damsel in distress” rescuing Madeleine needed is a common storytelling and sexual trope that no longer really exists in our civilized world. Modern men almost never get to experience the primal thrill of saving or protecting a woman from physical harm, nor do modern women get the thrill of feeling defended. In some ways, this unhealthy post-industrial lifestyle is one we were never meant to live, and none of us individually agreed to participate in. In my opinion, it drives a lot of the sexual dysfunction, insecurities, unrequited longing and escape to fantasy which plagues Scottie, Judy and swathes of real life people.
The Fantasy Trumps Reality
Everything associated with Judy is a cheap reflection of something we saw of Madeleine. Madeleine was in an ornate flower store and bought a full bouquet, while Judy goes to a little flower stand and gets a single boutonnière. Madeleine and Scottie bonded in the eternal Sequoia forest and beach, while Judy and Scottie walk through a pretty but comparatively unremarkable park. Scottie has Judy sit by the fire like Madeleine but there’s no genuine concern for her comfort or love in the gesture this time around, just objectification and reliving a memory for his own pleasure. Additionally, he only throws Judy one cushion to sit on while Madeleine got two. Judy wears the gray suit but has no hummingbird brooch (Judy wears a rabbit brooch with her own clothes). She wears the black evening dress without the brilliant green sash. We have an iconic shot of Judy’s profile in her apartment like Madeleine got in Ernie’s, but her face is blacked out. The quaint old world charm of the McKittrick Hotel Madeleine stays at is replaced by the gaudy and cheap Hotel Empire.
I have no evidence, but I always inferred that Judy Barton is at least loosely based on Judy Garland, perhaps the most tragic and mistreated woman of golden age Hollywood. This is someone who, among other things, had to change her name and appearance to make it in the business, had a tough personal life, and was mistreated by the studio in spite of all the money she made them. Their names are remarkably similar, Judy comes from Kansas (“Toto…I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”) and they even sort of look like each other. This all seems like a pretty big coincidence if it wasn’t intentional. In any case, it’s an interesting parallel and fits with the “making a movie”/”molding actresses for the movie” theme of Vertigo. (More on that later.)
Judy’s True Intentions
The famous flashback scene is somewhat controversial. Apparently there was some debate whether it should be left in the finished film or not. I’ve seen it called “the biggest mistake by a great director” and I admit my first time watching it was what caused me to somewhat lose interest and feel as though the story had begun to meander. However, it does have a purpose. It’s Judy’s one and only real scene to herself outside the influence of the men in her life and the one peek into her motivation. We see here that she really does love Scottie, and feels guilty for hurting him so badly. This helps to make her sympathetic going forward. It keeps us from wondering “why on Earth would this woman put up with this abuse?” She does it because she knows how kind and affirming Scottie could be and how his current sorry state is her own fault. She’s willing to do almost anything to enjoy his love again, as she’s never experienced that protective, tender affection before. This transfers our attention onto her for the final half of the film, and we can truly grasp what a tragic role reversal the whole relationship has become. Finally, at the tower when Judy tells Scottie she did all this because she loves him, we know for a fact she’s telling the truth rather than spinning a desperate lie to get away with her crime. Her confession of these feelings are her last words before death, finally laying it bare for Scottie what is the truth and that her love was real.
Some have also criticized the abrupt ending with the nun and “why would Judy jump?” I think it’s fitting because it shows that by this point Judy has started to drink her own kool-aid so to speak. She was forced into the Madeleine role twice, Scottie has just made her relive her darkest memory and psychologically tortured her for the past hour. She’s been so beaten down that she herself is starting to believe in the idea of possession and Carlotta’s legacy. This is the perfect ending to her character arc, the eye for an eye justice to her crime and another example of the power of narrative/film theme of the movie. It’s unclear whether Judy merely meant to back up a few paces and lost her balance or willfully jumped. Either would be believable, but I personally like to think it was intentional. She’s been so miserable for so long, and even if Scottie accepts her now, she’s had to give up so much for a guy she’s just learned is deeply unstable and prone to malice and anger the same as Gavin. She’s had enough. It fits with the Carlotta story for it to have been deliberate suicide as well. All the same, the debate is part of what keeps interest in the film alive and it’s sure to be discussed for as long as the movie endures.