2019, PG-13, 118 min. Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Andy Nyman, David Rubin, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Bella Ramsey.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 27, 2019
Judy Garland will forever be remembered as the sweet girl in pigtails who longingly sang about a happy place over the rainbow where dreams really do come true. But in her all-too-brief life, Garland never found the bliss imagined in the song, plagued by personal, financial, and professional troubles for the world to see. She drank too much, popped too many pills, married the wrong men, and attempted suicide on several occasions. Tragically, this gifted artist died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1969, at the unfathomable age of 47. In the years following her death, the popular narrative that developed about Garland and her tumultuous life enshrined her as a casualty of the entertainment industry, her exceptional artistry relegated to an afterthought. Quite unfairly, she’s become yet another showbiz cautionary tale to be pitied. Poor, poor Judy.
The biopic Judy, which takes place during the last year of the singer’s life, embraces the Garland-as-victim mythos from the outset, though the movie never denies her tremendous talents. (Hopefully, the film may prompt the unfamiliar to further investigate her on YouTube.) In the awkwardly overlong opening scene taking place on the soundstage of The Wizard of Oz, studio mogul Louis B. Meyer heartlessly manipulates an impressionable teenaged Frances Gumm (Garland’s birth name) as both wander along the yellow-brick road that would ultimately make her a star. This Technicolored flashback is one of a handful of similar scenes encapsulating Garland’s shitty childhood as an indentured servant to MGM, seemingly inserted in the movie to glibly explain the hot-mess adult you meet three decades later. They all announce: See what they did to her as a kid?
Once the movie actually begins, a frazzled Garland (Zellweger) is dragging her two young children from hotel to hotel, trying to stay one step ahead of unpaid bills as she struggles to find a paycheck in an industry burned one too many times by her unreliable behavior. Desperate, she accepts a lucrative gig overseas to perform a series of concerts at London’s Talk of the Town, thinking it might be the springboard for yet another comeback in a seesawed career. Tom Edge’s script, which is loosely based on Peter Quilter’s West End stage drama, smooths over some of the play’s hard truths about Garland during this twilight period of her life, explaining her self-destructive behavior during the bumpy concert run as triggered by offenses, both real and imagined, committed against her by an insensitive world.
Zellweger gives a fearless performance in this movie. She captures the essence of Garland with such immersive nuance that the line between the actor and the role doesn’t only disappear, it’s as if it never existed. The inflection in her voice when making a self-deprecating joke, the way she sits in a chair smoking a cigarette, the incessant fidgeting and theatrical gestures, the reference to everyone as “darling," the slouching posture onstage – it all seems so natural, so far removed from mimicry. That Zellweger had the audacity to decide to actually sing the standards in Garland’s act, rather than lip-synch them, and then perform them with such bravado in a voice eerily channeling Garland is the real icing on the cake here. In Judy, a star is reborn.