If anything Judy will leave you thinking, “My God how have we underestimated Renée Zellweger so badly?” Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ve always thought she was spectacular. For myself, I must confess I’ve always liked her and thought she was good. But I had no idea she was this good.
Rupert Goold’s biopic of the legendary Judy Garland doesn’t look at her through rose-colored glasses. Goold and Zellweger give us Judy Garland in the flesh; talent, flaws, and all. Zellweger shows us a Judy which is vain, contemptuous, kind, wise, daft, naive, angry, sad, and everything else. It is not just a perfectly realized performance, it is a great one.
Adapted from the musical drama End of the Rainbow by Peter Quiller, Judy looks at the end of Garland’s life with flashbacks to her early days at MGM. The script by Tom Edge doesn’t hold our hands as he weaves back and forth. He assumes if we are watching a biopic about Judy Garland we have some sense of who she is.
At the same time, Goold doesn’t exclude those who may be discovering Judy for the first time. It’s just that when Judy goes to a party thrown by Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), her daughter, Goold and Edge don’t waste time explaining who Minelli is in relation Judy or even that she’s famous in her own right. The information is there, you just have to pay attention.
Goold makes it easy by having Zellweger in almost every scene and it’s all but impossible to tear your eyes away from her. She looks, sort of like Judy Garland but the best performances of real-life people tend to be by actors who look similar to the role as opposed to exact replicas. She doesn’t sing like Judy, who could? Besides Minelli anyway. But it’s easy to forget Zellweger was in Chicago and can sing and when she’s on good lord it’s like watching lightning striking a bandstand, it’s incredible.
Zellweger’s Judy Garland is vanity-free as she allows Ole Bratt Birkeland’s camera to gaze at every wrinkle, pore, and scar as she commands every moment and scene. Her Garland is an addict so desperate for love she finds herself trusting the wrong people while also fighting to keep her kids. She’s so busy being “on” and trying to keep herself from exploding she has no idea how it’s affecting her kids.
When her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) confronts her on this she lashes out. “Don’t tell me I’m a bad mother. I’m not! I would know I’ve had one!” Zellweger tenderly explores the heartbreak of a woman who is just now coming to terms that she may, in fact, be a bad mother, no matter how much she loves her kids.
Goold and Edge thrust us into Garland’s psyche, or as near as anyone can of a legend who famously and rightly kept most people at a distance when not on stage. Judy opens with a close up on young Garland’s (Darci Shaw) face. We hear the voice of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), head of MGM studios as he tries to tell Judy how good she has it. Her eyes fill the screen as he tells her how talented she is before adding, “…but don’t be silly. Any one of them could replace you. There’s a girl out there who may have a skinner nose than you, the bridge isn’t so wide. Maybe she has better teeth than you.” Mayer’s voice is soft and soothing and it’s hard to tell when he’s being loving or abusive, by design.
Goold and Edge show how MGM and Mayer tormented and emotionally abused a young girl into being one of the greatest entertainers of our times. Tired, hungry, and fed up young Judy acts out and dives into a pool. Mayer shows up to set and pulls her aside. The scene is terrifying as Cordery’s Mayer towers over Shaw’s Garland. The intensity grows as he speaks in that low soft voice of how replaceable she is but adds how much he loves her because she sings from her heart. Placing his hand over her breast he explains “If you want to swim then just come over to my beach house.”
Judy hums with a great love for both its star and the people who adore her but holds no love for those who abused her trust and love, which is as it should be. Goold and Edge even acknowledge the impact Judy Garland had on the queer community. As she leaves the club one night two men are standing outside waiting for her. The film never says the word “gay” but again if you listen and watch it all but spells it out for you.
She invites the couple out to eat much to their stupified astonishment. But being after midnight in London nothing is open and so they go back to the couple’s place. It’s there Judy realizes how close the two men really are. “We wanted to see you back in ‘69 but he was in prison.” “Prison?” “Only for six months. Turns out what we did wasn’t a crime after all.” Judy nods. Zellweger’s response is breathtaking. Not merely because of the words but because of her delivery. The restrained fury and understanding in her voice is the work of a bonafide maestro.
If Zellweger was alone then Judy would merely be a showcase. But she is surrounded by people not just content with giving supporting performances. Part of what makes Judy so captivating is that everybody seems to be running at the top of their acting game.
Finn Wittrock as Judy’s fifth and brief husband Mickey Deans is perfectly star struck while also being blatantly opportunistic. Scheming at times while also genuinely baffled by how people use and treat Judy. Yet, it never occurs to him that he might be using her as much as they are.
But if anyone is to be mentioned aside from Zellweger it must be Jessie Buckley. Buckley plays Roslyn, Judy’s assistant while she’s in London. Unlike Zellweger, she doesn’t have the hurdle of playing one of the most well known, recognizable, and infamous icons of the twentieth century. Her Roslyn though is an equally complicated character.
Much like Mickey, she is star-struck at first. But as time wears on and Judy misses scheduled appointments, rehearsals, shows up to work drunk, and from time to time seems lost as to where she even is, she adopts the role of manipulating handler. It’s a role she excels at until one night she pushes and manipulates a clearly inebriated Judy onto the stage and suddenly realizes, to her horror, what she’s done.
Buckley’s Roslyn is us, she’s our conduit. She looks at Judy with love, then contempt, followed by pity, until by the end she can’t help but be powerless and hopelessly in love with her. Buckley’s eyes stare at Judy with such a range of mixed emotions as she learns to stop looking at her as Judy Garland and instead look at her as Judy. A lonely old woman who more than anything just wants to raise her kids but can’t stop herself from performing. It’s the one addiction she can never kick.
Birkeland’s camera swings and sways throughout the film like a conductor waving a baton. Yes, craning the camera up to the ceiling as the Trolley song crescendoes is an obvious choice. But it does not mean it is wrong or ineffective.
It is unfair of Judy to have the last song Garland sings be Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Even more insidious to have her break down in the middle of the song only to have the audience serenade her by singing the song back to her. How could I not be a ball of snot and tears? I am not a monster!
I loved every moment of Judy. Strange considering while I’m a fan of Garland’s I’ve hardly seen a pittance of her exhaustive library of work. Judy looks at a fragile woman who gave us everything she had and then some. By tearing away the shrouds of myth and legend Goold and company give us something much more moving and complicated, Judy Garland.