Renée Zellweger is now considered an Oscar front-runner for her performance as Judy Garland in Judy. She is excellent, and it’s nice to see her back onscreen. I only wish the film was nearly as good as she is.
Based on a play called End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, this haphazard biopic focuses on the last days of the show-business legend. Strapped for cash but desperate to keep her children Lorna and Joey Luft from being taken away by her ex-husband, she goes to the one place she can still find lucrative employment: London. This means leaving the kids behind—an agonizing choice—and struggling to deliver the kind of show her fans expect from her. It won’t be easy.
Judy offers a sad portrait of a woman at the end of her rope: demanding but unreliable, still capable of capturing an audience but woefully lonely and insecure. She’s a living train-wreck.
The film is interspersed with jarring flashbacks to her youth. There are troubling encounters with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and perennial costar Mickey Rooney, and a frightening depiction of her mother (never identified as such), who gives her pills to boost her energy, restricts her food intake, and expects her to obey her studio’s every command.
If you know anything about Garland’s life this will be all too familiar. And if you remember a superior TV miniseries from 2001 called Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows starring the great Judy Davis, you’ll find yourself making unflattering comparisons. Yet at the Telluride Film Festival, where I saw this film, I sat alongside people who are not steeped in show business lore. They found it all fresh and fascinating.
Director Rupert Goold and his star decided to have Zellweger perform her own songs. She fares well, but being familiar with Garland’s indelible renditions of “Get Happy,” “The Trolley Song” and other signature pieces I became disengaged from the film. Nobody ever sang—or sings—quite like Judy Garland, and attempting to cover her just doesn’t work.
The actress shines in the non-musical scenes, affecting Garland’s look, facial mannerisms and mode of speech. She captures the mercurial nature of a woman who has lost her compass, over-reliant on alcohol to bolster her confidence and soothe her aching heart. The script by Tom Edge doesn’t offer enough evidence of Judy’s sharp wit and tart tongue.
A few poignant sidebars to the narrative provide relief from the repetitive cycle of Garland’s implosion. Jessie Buckley lends able support as the unfortunate person charged with keeping an eye on the star while she’s in London, but Michael Gambon is wasted in a brief appearance as famed impresario Bernard Delfont.
I suppose I know too much about Judy Garland to approach this film as an average moviegoer would. But I do know the difference between a compelling biographical story and a pale imitation.