It’s hard to believe for someone that is considered an icon within the world of entertainment but I didn’t really know much about Judy Garland. I’m aware of the things that most people probably are. She starred in the Wizard of Oz as a young woman. She had a fantastic singing voice. Tragically she died at a relatively young age and is now considered a somewhat tragic figure in the history of Hollywood.
This movie, Judy, is not a traditional celluloid biography of her life. It is set in 1969 when, out of necessity, she traveled to London to play a series of concerts. She was heavily in debt and the film industry in America considered her too unreliable to not cast in movies or offer her any meaningful or lucrative employment. She needed money to be able to provide a stable home for her two youngest children, Lorna and Joey Luft, whom her ex-husband, Sid Luft, was seeking custody of. Hence her trip across the pond.
As the movie postulates Judy Garland at this time was not a well woman or really in control of her life. She drank too much, relied on medication to function, was underweight and suffered from insomnia. She was showing the brutal effects of a lifetime in the ruthless movie business when every aspect of what a star did was controlled to the most minute degree by powerful studio bosses, in Judy’s case Louis B Mayer of MGM. We see this in flashbacks to her time making the Wizard of Oz. If we believe what we see on screen, the things that Meyer says to her and the way she is treated have a deep and detrimental effect on Judy and stay with her for the whole of her life thereafter.
Before going any further I think it’s important to bear in mind that this is only one interpretation of Judy Garland at this point in her life. I purposely kept away from any comment made by her family about the events shown. As a viewer you have to accept that dramatic licence has probably been taken and accept the movie on that basis.
I don’t think it will be any surprise when I say that Renee Zellweger is the beating heart of this film. I did wonder whether anyone could really do Garland justice or if any portrayal of her would just look like an garish imitation. I wondered if we would see or feel any soul. I am happy to say that Zellweger delivered in spades. I was absolutely riveted by her whenever she was on screen and that is almost every frame of the movie. It’s hard to put into words but you feel Judy’s pain and experience her vulnerability, her fragility as she struggles to keep moving forward and preserve hope for a future with her children. This all down to Zellweger. And it wasn’t so much what she said or the lines she spoke, but the way in which she moved her body and held herself – it all spoke so much to the state Judy was in. I also have to say that I don’t know how she did it but Zellweger conveyed so much emotion through her eyes. It was quite remarkable. She genuinely managed to portray the profound and complex emotions and feelings that were so much a part of who we are led to believe Judy Garland was in those last months. I was so impressed.
Via Zellweger we see a woman trapped, almost haunted. Wanting and desperately needing a rest and a break from working. The acting, touring and singing which had been her life since she was two years old. But circumstances meant she couldn’t. She didn’t know anything else. Other than her children her career was her life. What would she do with herself if she could step away? She was locked in a vicious cycle that only ended with her death.
And I cannot leave it unsaid just how good a singer Renee Zellweger is. She recorded all the vocals and performances you hear and while she is not an exact sound alike of Garland, she handles all the performances with ease and command, giving each song depth and meaning. Her rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow had me all teary.
But all that being said, the movie taking place around Zellweger was solid but unspectacular. It felt very conventional, almost clunky even. I think the writing and screenplay could have been much sharper and perhaps more subtle than it was. I don’t know how to say it but sometimes it felt like a megaphone was being used to tell the audience something or get an idea or theme across. There was very little nuance to what was taking place. For me the moment where this was most obvious (and I believe when it negatively affected what should have been the emotional climax) was at the end when Judy gets one last chance to sing on stage after a disastrous drukan stage appearance that derailed her ‘comeback’ and we hear Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I won’t say exactly what happens but it involves an audience interaction that felt wrong and totally out of place to me. I would have much preferred it to have been just Judy, sitting on stage under the spotlight, worn out by life, uttering the one of the best lines of the movie in silence. That would have packed a real emotional punch and been much more in keeping with the tones of Zellweger’s performance.
What else to say … lots but I think I will leave it there with some final thoughts.
This is a film centered and powered by the performance of its leading lady. She gives it life and energy. I am not surprised that Zellweger has won a slew of awards for her work here – they are all well deserved. It will almost certainly go down as the definitive portrayal of later in life Garland for many years to come. It’s such a shame the movie supporting her wasn’t better.
Rating: This is really difficult and at first I was tempted to give it 4 stars based purely on Zellweger but I am going to stick with 3 stars.
Watched: 20 October 2019.
(Header Image: Rene Asmussen)