Sadly the well-documented story of Judy Garland is more tragic than beautiful. The incredibly talented but perpetually troubled star of stage and screen was beloved internationally. An amazingly versatile entertainer, Garland would go on to win an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, a Golden Globe, and even nominated for an Emmy.
But behind the scenes Garland’s life was marked by mental and physical health struggles, addiction, and financial woes. Director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” takes place on the downside of Garland’s career, from December 1968 and into early 1969, a mere six months before Garland would die from an accidental overdose. It’s an unpretentious and sugar-free account of a falling star’s life as a performer and a mother.
Renée Zellweger commits every ounce of herself to capturing Judy Garland’s many physical and emotional complexities. Essentially homeless and with her two stability-starved children in tow, adult Judy is on the ropes from the start. Her frustrated ex-husband and the children’s father Sid Lift (Rufus Sewell) agrees to take the kids while Judy accepts a five-week engagement at the snazzy London night club Talk of the Town. Her plan is to make enough money to come back to Los Angeles, buy a home, and raise her children. No more performing, no more touring.
Judy arrives in London and is immediately given a stacked schedule by her assigned handler Rosalyn (a very good Jessie Buckley). Her first show goes great, bringing a rousing ovation from the crowd and rave reviews from local critics. But despite her consummate professionalism and personal drive (she knows what’s at stake), Judy’s fragility and insecurity makes every appearance brim with uncertainty. So she pops more pills, gets less sleep, and crumbles before our very eyes.
The story is occasionally interrupted by a series of effective vignettes which look back to Judy’s teen years at MGM (she’s earnestly portrayed in these scenes by Darci Shaw). It paints a sobering picture of a young girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota caught in the gears of the greedy, abusive studio-era Hollywood machine. Judy is treated as property – overworked and constantly reminded by studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) that there are plenty of prettier girls out there. And aside from shattering her self-esteem, Judy is fed pills that curb her appetite and lay the groundwork for her crippling future addictions.
While these flashbacks do feel very biopic-ish, they do bring to light a thoughtful cause-and-effect dynamic. The film doesn’t fully exonerate Garland from her self-destructive behavior and poor choices, but it does offer some meaningful context and earns her sympathy from those who may not be familiar with her tempestuous life story.
Back to Zellweger, she truly is the driving force of the movie and her performance is more than a imitation, it’s an immersion. Zellweger disappears, replaced by a meticulously performed and fully realized likeness to Judy Garland. We see the many distinct mannerisms: the nervous twitches, forced smiles, squinty stares. And there is a genuine awkwardness to her movements befitting someone walking precariously along a psychological ledge.
And Zellweger sings all of her own tunes. While she may not especially sound like Garland, the emotional resonance from her mixture of song and performance makes it an easy sell. And I’ve read that at this stage in her career Garland’s hard living had taken a toll on her voice. It brought a level of uncertainty to every stage appearance and only added to the singer’s many insecurities. Zellweger channels it through a passionate and wholehearted effort.
“I want what everybody wants,” Judy tells a prying talk-show host. “I just have a harder time getting it.” These are the moments when “Judy” is at its best – when it is digging into the wounded psyche of one of entertainment’s biggest icons. The film does chase a few rabbits (there is an encounter with a fictitious middle-aged gay couple that comes across as overly scripted and manipulative), her marriage to her fifth and final husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) feels shortchanged, and there are moments where the film is too dependent on Zellweger’s performance to carry it. Still, as an unvarnished look at Judy Garland’s last stand against her demons, the movie works better than expected.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS