In Judy, Renée Zellweger is at the top of her game playing a Hollywood legend at the bottom of hers
Biopics of legendary figures almost always tend to fall short in a myriad of ways. It’s impossible to capture a life in two hours; choosing just a section to focus on eliminates so many other possibilities. It’s tough to know which is right for which person, which is probably why we’ve never had a feature film biopic of one of Hollywood’s most popular stars of all time, Judy Garland. The outstanding television movie starring Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard notwithstanding, tackling the life of someone who grew up in the Hollywood machine nearly from birth until death is a daunting one. For theater director Rupert Goold, choosing the last year of Garland’s life makes the most sense. It ekes out a high level of drama while giving Renée Zellweger a perfect comeback vehicle.
In 1969, Garland is at her lowest point financially, being kicked out of her hotel with her her kids Lorna and Joey in tow, having to schlepp it back to her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) to stay for just the night. After a fight about where she’ll stay tomorrow night and the fate of their two children, Judy scurries off into the night, landing at a huge party where her eldest Liza (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is hanging out. There she meets Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would be her 5th and final husband.
Zellweger knows a bit about being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine and the gaggle of media that want to focus on every flaw, every alleged surgery or unsuccessful marriage. It’s part of what makes her the perfect choice to play Garland. Zellweger does her own singing in the film, and while she may not sound like Garland, what she embodies physically and soulfully is undeniable. The hair, makeup and costuming give tremendous assist but don’t mistake, you can add all of that to an actor but if the work isn’t there, it isn’t there. Zellweger nails Garland’s mannerisms and performance style to an astonishing degree of accuracy. Look no further than the very first number from her London show, “By Myself” and try not to be floored by her. It’s a masterful moment and a career highlight for the Academy Award-winning actress (a feat that Garland herself just fell short of).
Those London shows, which her agent lays at her feet at her most vulnerable period (“They love you in London,” he says), comes in the nick of time. Sid is demanding nearly full time custody of their kids during school time and these London shows could be the thing that saves her and her kids in one fell swoop. She’s hesitant at first; she doesn’t want to leave her kids for this months-long, five-nights-a-week show (“Talk of the Town) but she’s cornered. Do it and have the chance to be with her kids again, don’t and have them taken away. She agrees and immediately rebuffs the assistant assigned to her (the enigmatic Jessie Buckley, having a killer year), refuses to rehearse with her bandleader Burt (Royce Pierreson) and even Bernard Delfont, the theater owner that hired her (Michael Gambon).
Timing is a fascinating element of the film; it’s the 50th anniversary of Garland’s death and the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz – arguably the two most well-known moments of her career. Goold’s film, from a screenplay by Tom Edge and based on the stage play “Edge of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, employs flashbacks to young Judy (Darci Shaw) as she is on the cusp of landing her iconic role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. MGM head Louis B. Mayer is presented here as a monolithic beast of a man, cruel to the core, physically inappropriate and emotionally abusive (“There’s always a girl that’s prettier than you”). He instructs her handler (a Miss Gulch-inspired villain that could have been lifted right off the page of L. Frank Baum) not to let her eat, ever. Pills in the day to keep her appetite down, pills at night to make her sleep. From what we know Garland’s ordeal was even worse and it paints the picture of her lifelong addiction with repetition (including a sequence cutting back and forth between young Judy and adult Judy popping pills) but it’s almost a bit too neat. It’s the film’s main flaw, that it tries to ride the middle to a fault. It’s too cautious to be too dark with her life but also never really sees her as anything more than a victim of circumstance.
The most poignant sequence in the film happens when a gay couple outside of Judy’s show (played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira and the only people at the backstage door) gush and aww over their idol. Judy, in a bout of loneliness asks if they would like to go out and have dinner. But it’s midnight and everything’s closed so the two invite the legend back to their flat for card games and soggy scrambled eggs. One explains that they had tickets to see her in 1964 but that one of them had been jailed for obscenity (when it was still illegal to be gay in the UK). “To hell with them!” says Judy. This unfolds into an impromptu piano version of “Get Happy” and it’s a watershed moment. The legacy of Judy Garland to the gay community – her June death was one of the inspiring moments that kicked off the gay rights revolution in 1969 – finds itself with the best possible version of showing us how Garland herself could have come to understand the real impact of her gay fans on her career and the cost of it as well.
As you watch Judy, with all of the songs and all of the Wizard of Oz-era flashbacks, you start to anticipate, to long, for “Over the Rainbow” and when it comes, in the climax of the film, you’re not really ready for it. Not ready for how so many of Garland’s spins on songs that would otherwise be cheerful, were made melancholy and heart wrenching in her interpretations. This is not different, and hearing this tune, one of the most recognized of all time, brings the culmination of a career to gut punch of a close. It’s both beautiful and sad at the same time. Much like Judy Garland’s life and career as it was.
This review is from the Telluride Film Festival. Judy will be released by Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment on September 27.