DIRECTED BY: RUPERT GOOLD/2019
Renee Zellweger Goes for the Gold as the Beloved, Doomed Judy Garland in Late-life Biopic.
The life of Judy Garland wasn’t anything like the famed yellow brick road she once followed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The can-do spirit of Dorothy that helped show the cowardly lion his courage, the rusted tin man his heart, and the vulnerable scarecrow his brains couldn’t help the actress behind Dorothy defeat the demons in her own life. Multiple marriages, isolation, financial ruin, and substance abuse plagued Judy Garland until her untimely death in 1969 at the age of 47. Yet the new biopic, titled simply Judy, dives headlong into the final months of Judy Garland’s life and emerges shimmering like the ruby slippers Dorothy once clicked together due to the powerful performance of Renee Zellweger in the title role.
At the start of the film we find Judy and her two youngest children performing together in a sort of family act. Late nights, constant traveling, and life in hotels are taking their toll. When they are turned out of the Beverly Hills hotel they’ve been living for non-payment, Judy finds herself homeless and reaching out to her ex-husband, and the children’s father, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). He keeps the children while Judy goes out on the town, running in to her oldest daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), where she meets New York nightclub promoter Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Eventually she is asked to play a run of shows at London’s “Talk of the Town”. Hoping to parlay these shows into a means of getting back on her feet and getting a new home for her and her children, Judy heads to London.
Renee Zellweger’s performance is transformational. She doesn’t simply perform as Judy Garland, as much as she becomes her. This is not a caricature, but an embodiment. Her vocal effect, the facial movements, her emotional regulation, and her cadence are all locked in to bringing Judy Garland back to life through her performance. For all practical purposes, Renee Zellweger channels Garland perfectly and as a result gives us the performance of her career, even singing as Garland in the film.
While the tragedy of what Garland’s life had become at this point in her life is all there, we also see several flashback scenes of what she endured as a teenager, around the time of filming The Wizard of Oz, that led her towards her eventual demise. The focus on her public image that had her craving to just be able to eat a hamburger like a normal teen saw her instead doing publicity shots at a diner holding a hamburger, but a strict studio rep making sure she never did so. The same scene played out as a giant birthday cake is staged for publicity at a studio created birthday party. She again can’t partake leading to an effectively awkward and tragic scene of her trying a piece of cake in 1968.
Most disturbing is the ominous way in which she is being subtly groomed, and sexually exploited, by studio head Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery). He also is seen giving her several comments regarding her weight and body image, preying on how she was getting the part of a lifetime, and how he could easily give this role to any one of hundreds of girls who would die to get this role of Dorothy. It is easy to see the connection between this pressure and the eating disorders and substance abuses she would develop later.
For a girl who had been a star since she first sang on stage at age 2, we sympathize with Garland’s humanity of being an extremely talented woman who simply needs a chance to rest from all that is demanded by her. A rest from what the audience, the industry, and her family demanded from her. Despite this need for rest, she continued to pour herself out on stage, and off of it. This led to a tragic reality that seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The reality was that sometimes the most lonely people in the world are those who seem to be the most loved, especially those that trade in the false currency that is celebrity.
Stars are adored by their fans, but how many stars are able to truly relate to their fans as normal human friendships do? Performers are most vulnerable as they understand the public persona they give to the audience is not the same one they are when the lights are turned off and they go back to their daily lives. They know that fans often only want to be near them because of what the fan has gotten from the public offering, and there is no reciprocity, other than financial gain by the star. When fans are being genuine, it is easy to not trust it. Stars have seen the lies in their industry, and the strings behind every movement.
Yet, despite a celebrity’s mistrust, there is still a desire to truly connect to other human beings on a real, authentic, and personal level. Renee Zellweger captures this perfectly in one of the most effective scenes of Judy, when a spent Garland meets two men, a homosexual couple, who overwhelm Garland with the usual ecstasy of having been able to meet one of their idols. Instead of retreating to her hotel, she invites them to dinner in what becomes a comedic series of misfires as its too late to find anywhere in London that is open that time of night to feed them. Instead, they go back to the men’s apartment where Judy attempts to make them eggs. The connection and conversations show Judy Garland that such authentic connections are possible, and perhaps had she had more of them, she wouldn’t have continued to spiral downward the way that she did.
While the film itself is strong, there are some issues with pacing, and it plays it a little too safe overall in terms of its approach and presentation of the subject matter. That said, the performances are strong enough to overcome these issues and by the end, the audience is sure to be joining in with the on-screen audience with singing Garland’s iconic hit from The Wizard of Oz, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. If only Garland could have clicked her heels and found a way to get back “home” and find the girl she used to be who lost her way so long before, we wouldn’t have to again lament the loss of her talent. As she finally declares and asks, “You’ll always remember me, won”t you?”, Judy is the film, spurred on by Renee Zellweger’s iconic performance, that answers Judy’s longing with an emphatic, “Yes!”.