Renée Zellweger is better than Judy. Not better than Judy Garland; better than the movie about Garland that she stars in. Her performance is the kind you watch and think, “Oh, that’s what they mean by ‘award-worthy.’”
We knew Zellweger could sing and dance; one of her three Oscar nominations is for playing Roxie Hart in Chicago. But stepping into the role of a legend like Judy Garland — and not at the height of Garland’s fame but six months before her death, 30 years after The Wizard of Oz — is the sort of challenge actors spend a lifetime hoping for.
Garland was only 47 when she died in 1969, but a lifetime of substance abuse made her look much older. Zellweger (who is 50) plays her as a broken songbird, twitchy, powerful, and frail, the kind of performer you get nervous watching because she could either give the best concert you’ve ever seen or completely break down on stage. Her skin is like wax stretched too thin, eyeliner drawn shakily, hair spiky and dark; she droops when alone and then springs to life when there’s a crowd or some kindness. She — Garland, Zellweger-as-Garland — is mesmerizing.
But Judy is a little unwieldy, though you can see what it’s going for. Based on Peter Quilter’s 2005 play End of the Rainbow, it focuses on a series of concerts Garland gave in London beginning in the winter of 1968. To help explain Garland’s behavior, the London scenes are interspersed with glimpses of Judy’s early life as a child star (played by Darci Shaw) under contract at MGM, where her life is controlled entirely by studio head Louis B. Mayer. There, Judy alternately chafes and bends under the studio’s restrictions, which limit what she can eat, who she can date, and when her 16th birthday party can happen (two months early, because that’s the only gap in her schedule).
The film’s telling of Garland’s youth matches some historical accounts, including, for instance, the implication that Mayer touched her inappropriately. It’s rendered in the film as a kind of heightened melodrama, with rich colors and emotive touches likely intended to evoke the era in which it happened. But contrasted with the realism of the scenes set in 1969, the flashbacks feel forced, which blunts their effect (though there’s something to be said for the flashbacks happening in Garland’s memory, which can only be filtered through a movie-like filter).
Still, the 1968 side of the story is less stylized and more wrenching. Garland is broke, effectively homeless, and on the verge of losing custody of her two younger children to her ex-husband (played by Rufus Sewell) when she’s convinced to go to London for a series of shows that might help her earn enough to be able to keep custody. There, she’s greeted by an excited crowd of fans but struggles through the concert dates, thanks to addiction and insomnia.
There are some touching moments of connection, particularly when Garland ends up eating eggs at the home of a gay couple to whom she’s meant everything, especially through some very difficult times. But the experience of watching Judy is mostly nerve-wracking. Will she show up tonight? Will she be able to get through the set? It’s an experience, one imagines, not wholly unlike what her biggest fans would have had at those London shows.
So her failures hurt to watch, and her triumphs are a joy to behold. But even in painting this portrait of a legend, with a beautiful performance at its center, Judy fails to understand the story it’s telling.
Judy doesn’t quite get what it’s about
Judy is mostly a pleasure, even in its most tense moments, especially because Zellweger performs several full numbers (including “Over the Rainbow”) that give you a sense of the magic Garland brought to the stage.
But it is, ultimately, a tragedy — a story of how the Hollywood system took a vulnerable young girl, made a star out of her, and then ultimately broke her. We see Judy being handed pills as a teenager to help her sleep and get through her work. We see her being essentially forced into developing a crippling eating disorder and an even more crippling sense of self, one that requires constant validation from strangers and from men in order to feel like she’s being seen — even though she is, as one person says, “the greatest entertainer in the world.” Hollywood’s system changed between when she was just a kid playing Dorothy to when she was a 40-something addict getting kicked out of her home for not paying the rent. But it didn’t change all that much.
Which is why Judy may leave you a bit uneasy by the end. I know it did for me. Hollywood has a love affair with its own mythology — movies about the industry (from The Artist to Argo to La La Land) often rocket straight to the top of Oscar-hopeful lists. The industry knows best how to romanticize itself and often rewards the films that do.
For most of Judy, the film felt as if it were a vanishingly rare specimen: a movie about show business that seems both engineered for awards season and critical of what the Hollywood machine can do when it’s cranked into full gear. And given recent revelations about the ways Hollywood’s most powerful can abuse and exploit the vulnerable, particularly women, that self-awareness felt right. We can’t deny how important entertainers like Garland have been in millions of lives, nor should we. But we shouldn’t let that close our eyes to the ways the industry has torn people to pieces.
The end of Judy feels like it’s taking the easy way out by romanticizing Garland’s addiction for the audience. A title card following the last scene notes that Garland died only six months after her last concert in London. But then there’s one more, with a quote from L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz, that apparently is meant to sum up the movie: “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”
Sure. And yet, what Judy is about is not a woman who is, for the most part, loved by others. It’s about a woman who was turned into an image or a facade that could be loved by others. She is beloved but largely by people who only know her from seeing her on screen or reading stories controlled by publicists. (This is perhaps even more ironic given that Zellweger has been very forthcoming in interviews about how she experienced many of the same things and disappeared entirely from Hollywood for six years in order to find herself again.)
Judy knows this is her story, that this is what Hollywood did to her. She tells an interviewer as much during the film. But it’s disheartening that the movie couldn’t make the extra leap into being at least a little self-critical of its own industry. In a film that tries to get at the woman behind the screen star, it’s sad to see the final word get its own message so wrong.
I guess that’s show business for you.
Judy opens in theaters on September 27.