Review: “Judy”

3 out of 5 stars.

Some films feel like they were really only made to showcase their stars, and “Judy” is no exception.  The biopic directed by Rupert Goold and based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” focuses on the final months of singer and actress Judy Garland’s life, and while its depiction of how fame can ruin a person vacillates between heart-rending and manipulative, it often feels like everything else in the movie is filler, there only to support actress Renée Zellweger’s staggering performance as the titular Judy.

The year is 1969, and Judy Garland’s star power isn’t exactly what it once was.  While she is still popular with her fans, her decades of drug and alcohol use have given her a reputation as unreliable to work with, and she finds herself struggling to stay out of debt and provide a stable home for her two younger children, Lorna and Joseph.  On the brink of losing custody of her kids to ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), her agent provides her with a lucrative opportunity: she could appear in a run at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, but she would have to leave her children in America.  Judy reluctantly embarks for England, and during her weeks in London, she falls in love again (with the much younger Mickey Deans, played by Finn Wittrock) and struggles with both the public and her own personal perception of her.

Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) talks with her children, Joey (Lewin Lloyd) and Lorna (Bella Ramsey)

Zellweger’s performance is truly transformative.  Some of her gestures and expressions are a bit caricature-ish, but her overall resemblance to Garland at the end of her life is uncanny.  Moreover, she possesses Judy’s stage presence.  Zellweger can’t sing like Judy Garland (no one can, with the exception of Liza Minnelli), but she can sing, and her raw talent bursts off the screen every time she performs a number as Judy.  She also makes the distinction between the confident onstage Judy, and the frail offstage Judy, but there is a magnetism to her presence that makes it believable that so many people would gravitate toward her and root for her despite her problems.

The film flips back and forth between Judy in 1969 and Judy as a teenager in her early years at MGM in the 1930s, just prior to “The Wizard of Oz” making her a bona fide star, not just the girl next door.  Young Judy (played by Darci Shaw) is both verbally abused (we see MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, played by Richard Cordery, constantly tell Judy that if she can’t do the job, there are plenty of girls prettier than her who would be willing to step) and physically abused (she isn’t allowed to eat to maintain her figure, and is prescribed drugs to keep her awake and drugs to make her sleep—this is widely believed to be what set Judy down a path of drug addiction in the first place).  These scenes are contrasted with the scenes featuring present-day Judy in a way that makes it clear that the film is telling us, this is the reason why she is this way now, and we should feel sympathy for her.  While it is easy to feel for Judy, who has had people take advantage of her fame her whole life and only wants to be with her kids, Goold’s film tries much harder than it needs to to draw these emotions from the audience.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s finale, which could have ended strong with a show-stopping number, but drags on for another few minutes with an ending that is about as emotionally manipulative as a scene can get. 

Renee Zellweger performs a number as Judy Garland

It’s interesting when biopics choose to hone in on a specific period in its subject’s life, rather than tell their whole story from start to finish.  “Judy” acts as both a snapshot of the star during the last year of her life, and also a testament to her legacy—it’s clear from this movie that she was an icon even before she had passed away.  And the film briefly touches on her status as a gay icon, as in one of the most refreshing and fun sequences in the movie, Judy spends an evening with a gay couple who attended her show, and have Judy paraphernalia scattered throughout their flat.  There are a few other supporting characters, theatre head Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) and Judy’s London assistant Rosalyn Wilder (the fabulous Jessie Buckley), but they are really only there to do just that: support.  The surrounding movie is merely a temple to support its central figure, depicting her flaws and struggles while simultaneously lifting her to almost god-like heights.  And like any biopic, the events it depicts aren’t exactly true to life.  But with a performance like what Zellweger delivers here, that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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