The most important thing to know about this film—a look at the later period of Judy Garland’s life starring Renée Zellweger as the troubled but exceedingly talented superstar—is that it’s not meant to be a conventional biopic. While we do get the occasional flashback to Garland’s rough and demeaning time on the set of The Wizard of Oz in Judy, the movie is actually more about how a lifetime of insecurities (especially regarding her weight and looks in general) that were drilled into her from a young age by studio heads, her mother and other handlers took its toll on Garland. She was troubled by substance abuse and the desire to be loved unconditionally, especially by men, which often led to troubled entanglements (and five husbands).
Instead of basing Judy on a biography, director Rupert Goold (True Story) is working from the stageplay End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter (adapted by Tom Edge). I’m fairly certain the resulting film is meant to be more of an interpretative musical of Garland’s final series of sold-out concerts in London in the winter of 1968 (she died in mid-1969) at The Talk of the Town venue. Although not a traditional movie musical, the film does feature a great number of singing numbers (all performed by Zellweger) that show the variety of both Garland’s singing abilities and her capacity to get lost on stage and turn a solid show into a train wreck, leaving her devoted audience and the show’s sponsors disappointed.
It’s not like Garland had a choice about whether to play these shows or not. As the film opens, we find Judy essentially homeless. With no money in her pocket and nowhere to settle in for the night with her two children, she begrudgingly takes them to their father Sidney Luft’s (Rufus Sewell) home, and he immediately begins talking about changing their custody arrangement, especially since Judy needs to go on tour to bring in any money. Before she takes off, she goes to visit her older daughter, Liza, who takes mom to a hippy party in L.A. where she meets the much younger, handsome, would-be entrepreneur Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). The two begin a courtship that eventually continues when he flies to London weeks later to meet up with her again to seal the deal on her heart, eventually becoming her fifth and final husband.
In London, Garland is assigned an assistant by the club owner (Michael Gambon) in the form of a prim and proper young woman named Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), and in many ways, once the film gets to London, Judy becomes as much Wilder’s story as Garland’s. In fact, the story might have been slightly more interesting had it been told through the perspective of an outsider to Garland’s life, someone who hasn’t been seduced by a lifetime of growing up watching the superstar. While the two do become quite close, Wilder manages to keep enough of a professional distance to do her job and make sure Garland makes it to every show (well, almost every show, and there’s no telling what might happen on stage).
Watching every aspect of Zellweger’s performance is entrancing and sometimes painful. She captures the essence of what Garland was going through on her best and worst days—the agony of being away from her children, the joy she gets when she’s in perfect sync with her band and the audience, and the inevitable meltdowns that occurred when the traumatic memories of her youth come creeping back into her brain. Darci Shaw plays the younger Judy in flashbacks, and she’s asked to endure what amounts to bullying by MGM lackeys and even studio head Louis B. Mayer in an effort to keep her thin and pretty to play Dorothy. Again, I have no idea how accurate these moments are, but they feel authentic and probably happened to many young starlets of the 1930s and ’40s. And don’t think for a second those scenes don’t have a very contemporary resonance as well.
Judy also captures its subject’s capacity for optimism and keeping her dreams alive for both a comeback and for love to return to her life. I’m sure some will view her as delusional, and that may be partially true, but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for her at every turn. But most of the reason the film is in any way a success is Zellweger; even if ultimately the film doesn’t impress, her kinetic performance is perfection.
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