For tens (hundreds?) of millions of her fans around the world, Judy Garland’s name means different things: The girl from The Wizard of Oz, Mickey Rooney’s one-time on-screen pal, the poster child for Hollywood studio system abuse during its Golden Era, the mother of Liza Minnelli, the gay icon, and more. The simply titled film, JUDY, by director Rupert Goold (TRUE STORY), looks at “Judy Garland, the drug and alcohol-addled train wreck”, focusing on her final year.
It’s 1968 and Garland’s (Renée Zellweger, the BRIDGET JONES trilogy) life couldn’t be in worse shape. Newly divorced from her fourth husband and living in a Beverly Hills hotel with her two youngest children (from third husband, movie producer Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell, HERCULES)), Garland is essentially unemployable due to her erratic behaviour and unreliability brought on by years of substance abuse. When her manager throws her a “Hail Mary” and books her in for a five-week run performing at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, she’s given a chance to get her life back on track again. The damage, though, is deep and it falls upon the club’s talent minder, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, WILD ROSE; TV’s CHERNOBYL; soon to be seen in DOLITTLE), to deal with the star’s inner demons. In six months’ time, Judy would be dead at age 47.
JUDY is based on the play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, who also penned “Glorious!” about amateur opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins. (The movie starring Meryl Streep is not based on his play.) Zellweger throws everything she’s got into this performance, portraying Garland’s vulnerabilities and fragility with tremendous sensitivity. She nails the entertainer’s jerky body movements to the point where it seems like she’s either going to crumble into pieces or explode into a rage at a moment’s notice. Perhaps for Garland, that’s how it was. To prepare myself for writing this review, I watched old episodes of Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin when she was a guest on their talk shows. Both men were terrified of her (Griffin especially), not because she was megastar but rather because they knew she was stoned out of her gourd and they didn’t know how she’d react to anything they’d say.
As we saw in CHICAGO many years ago, Zellweger is not the best singer but she can certainly carry a tune. Here, she doesn’t try to compete with Garland and she puts her own spin on Garland’s repertoire. It works as even Garland was far from being in top form at this point in her life. What she is good at is capturing Garland’s ability to make every song she sang believable, as if it was written with her in mind. Clearly, the people who vote for awards were suitably impressed as Zellweger has already won nine statuettes for this performance including the Golden Globe and the National Board of Review. She also been nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar, and it’s expected that she’ll take those home as well.
As good as Zellweger is though, she’s let down by a script that lacks pizzazz. Quite simply, JUDY is this year’s THE WIFE – a film with a fabulous leading performance but not much else going for it. Okay, Finn Witrock’s (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; LA LA LAND; THE BIG SHORT; NOAH) wig is something to behold but the rest of the film is fairly unmemorable with rather dull performances from everyone else in the cast and mundane camera work. Perhaps a more experienced director might have made something magical here.
Shortcomings aside, JUDY is still well worth seeing both for Zellweger’s performance and to remember what a tremendously talented (but sadly screwed up) entertainer Garland was. Hollywood doesn’t make stars like that anymore.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 17th, 8:30 am HK time!
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