Judy makes a bold move in its opening sequence: Despite all the hype about Renee Zellwegger’s transformation into Judy Garland, Rupert Goold’s biopic kicks off with a flashback to her younger days on the set of the Wizard of Oz. Young Judy, played by Darci Shaw, is then just this side of a regular girl, beloved by audiences for her natural charm. But her request to get a little time off is met with a steely speech courtesy of a terrifying Louis B. Mayer, who makes her understand that there are a thousand girls in line to take her place. She’s replaceable, he tells her, as they walk down the Yellow Brick Road. If she wants this life, and all that comes with it, she better be prepared to do what must be done.
It’s an important scene, especially given the tone of what comes next. When we next see Judy, she’s dragging her kids onstage for a family performance that earns her a measly $100, not nearly enough to pay off the massive debts she’s accrued. Evicted from the Los Angeles hotel they call home, Judy drops of her young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey, with their father Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and heads out to a party so she can spend the night off the streets. Broke and uninsurable, it seems her iconic career is over — until she’s offered a five-week run at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, a move that might allow her to save enough money to get on her feet, and fight for custody of her children. But Judy isn’t a comeback story. What we witness in this movie is Garland’s steep and steady decline, a drowning woman unable — or unwilling — to grasp at the hands that might lift her to the safety of a lifeboat.
Despite its daring choice of opening scene, Goold’s film is a pretty standard biopic, based on the 2005 play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. Tom Edge’s screenplay is a rollercoaster ride of expected highs and lows: Garland arrives in London to much fanfare, only to nearly miss opening night in a drunken stupor; for every successful show, there’s one where she’s nearly too catatonic to stand; days spent gallivanting around the city are followed by nights of chronic insomnia and drug binges. It’s heart-rending, to be sure, but also tragically predictable in format. We’ve seen this story before, countless times. On the other hand, it’s quite fitting: Garland’s tale of woe is kind of the origin story for Hollywood downfalls, setting the tone for many of the elements we now consider tropes.
The most powerful moments comes when Goold get specific about Garland’s legacy. A scene showing her spending a night with two of her gay fans is the most beautiful and touching of the film, a lovely tribute to her meaningful impact on a community that embraced and supported her in return. Similarly, the flashbacks to her past — shot in an almost dreamy fashion by Goold, as if to express them as out-of body-nightmares, rather than memories — have a devastating impact. In one such recollection, Garland is shown at a diner, posing for pictures of her and a fellow leading man on a typical date. But while he’s scarfing down his burger, she stares down at her plate of fries in wonder, barely daring to bring one to her lips. When she does, a golden smile spreads across her face – this girl is starving. Soon enough, her studio handler starts to berate her, reminding Judy that she isn’t to eat any of that food — there are pills to curb her appetite. In an act of rebellion, she snatches the burger from her male counterpart and takes a mammoth bite. We see similar little victories throughout the film, each one earning Judy the kind of backlash that has lasting effects on her mental health.
Too much screen time is devoted to Garland’s fast-tracked and erratic relationship with fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who follows her to London after meeting at an L.A. party. More interesting by far is her complex and genuine relationship with British handler Rosalyn Wilder (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckely, who continues to prove she belongs in every film), burdened with the herculean task of making sure Garland is where she needs to be, and in shape to perform. Theirs is a tense journey towards a begrudgingly admiring truce.
As advertised, Zelleweger is phenomenal. It’s a turn that will undoubtedly earn her a nomination for Best Actress (her third), transcending the rest of the film’s shortcomings. Still, despite the hype, she doesn’t exactly disappear into the character so much as give her own interpretation of a Zellweger-Garland hybrid — and to be honest, it’s a relief. No one can really be Judy Garland, and most attempts come off as quacky impersonation and parody. What’s most interesting about her performance is how it delves deep into the ways Hollywood exploits, corrupts, and depletes its women; the more talented the star, the bigger the trauma. Those themes resonate strongly in today’s context, in which the toxic dynamics that form the bedrock of Hollywood are being reassessed and questioned once more.
That could all get pretty heady, but Zellweger also delivers on Garland’s signature wit and charm. She’s dryly funny, throwing out zingers and self-deprecating quips that only reinforce her glamorous allure. Only a true star can joke about Frank Sinatra being the most talented entertainer in the world, knowing full well we won’t believe her. Zellweger also wears the hell out of Jany Temime’s glitzy, vibrant costumes — the more rhinestones the better! But her vocal numbers don’t quite have the kind of wallop that the film hopes they will. Sweeping shots of her singing fall a little flat without the backing of Garland’s real voice. But in true Garland fashion, the movie doesn’t work without her performance. With it, though? For a few brief moments, one can forget the overall drudgery and soar, far over the rainbow.
Judy is currently in cinemas.