Judy is a gripping and ultimately moving biopic focusing on the final stages of Judy Garland’s career. Features a riveting lead performance from Renée Zellweger.
Think of Judy Garland and two images spring to mind: the exploited teen star who shot to immortality in her screen debut as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and the troubled ageing cabaret performer with alcohol and drug problems. These are the two versions of Garland that are drawn upon in Judy, the first feature film biopic on her (surprisingly), adapted for screen from a stage play. The teen Judy’s nightmarish introduction to the world of Hollywood is covered fleetingly in flashback, the primary focus being on a short period towards the end of her life – a sell-out 5-week concert stint at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, which brought the curtain down on her career.
This London period was a fraught time for Garland (superbly played by a startlingly transformed Renée Zellweger). Drug and alcohol-addicted, and with a reputation for being “difficult”, she is in decline physically and as a performer. She has only accepted the offer of the London dates under duress. No longer in demand as an entertainer in the States and skint, she is unable to support her two children. With her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) contesting custody of the kids, she agonises over the prospect of leaving them with him while she completes her London engagements, but has no choice if she is to get back on her feet financially.
Things don’t start well. On opening night, having earlier refused to rehearse, she is dragged to the stage drugged and near paralysed with stage fright by her panic-stricken London assistant (Jessie Buckley). Then follows one of the outstanding scenes of the film. Initially stumbling and dazed, she re-charges off the buzzing full house (for Garland, the most potent drug of all). After charming the audience with her stage banter she delivers a transfixing rendition of her popular number By Myself that brings the house down.
The success of this scene – it will raise the hairs on your arms – is down to Zellweger. She does the vocals herself, and although she’s no Garland, gets the angst of the song down pat. There’s a ragged beauty to the vocal that makes it all the more poignant. We know it’s personal, we feel Garland in it, her years of hard living, her pain, and ultimately the transcendence of her art, enduring over all.
Zellweger looks uncannily like her character – so much so she’s virtually unrecognisable. She even has Garland’s great, sad, haunted (and haunting) dark eyes, for me her most distinctive feature. O the wonders of today’s make-up wizardry. But the resemblance goes deeper than the merely physical. Everything about Zellwegger – her movement, mannerisms, speech, the whole package – IS Garland to a tee. Truly extraordinary. And truth to tell, the only extraordinary aspect of the film, which is otherwise a solid but rather conventional and unremarkable biopic.
Another highlight, a nod to Garland’s big gay following, is her heart-warming encounter with couple Stan and Dan (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), long-term fans who seek her out after a show. They end up cooking horribly runny scrambled eggs for her back at their flat, but Garland is OK with that – she is lonely and grateful for their company.
The flashbacks to Garland’s career beginnings (the young Judy is played by Darcy Shaw) depict MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) as a tyrant who sees her as a mere commodity, controlling her by undermining her self-esteem while dangling the carrot of stardom before her. To ensure she loses weight, he sets her on a drug regime to diminish her appetite and assigns a minder to watch that she doesn’t eat. Unable to sleep, she is also given sleeping pills. Thus begins the ruinous prescription drug routine that will continue life-long.
While the film reinforces the popular image of Garland as one of the great doomed idols of Hollywood, it’s more a gripping if superficial portrait of a complicated, flawed but ultimately endearing character than a misery-fest.
The happy-sad final scene is corny and emotionally manipulative as hell, but irresistibly moving nevertheless – thanks, once again, to Zellweger (with a little help from her friends). Bring some tissues. Oh, and if you’re a betting type, throw some readies on Zellwegger for a Best Female Actor Oscar.
Movie Website: https://www.judythefilm.com/home/
Judy features: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Darci Shaw, Richard Cordery, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira
Director: Rupert Goold
Writer: Tom Edge (screenplay), based on the stageplay End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.
Runtime: 118 min
Australian release date: Judy opens in Perth cinemas on Thursday, 17 October.
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