There’s a moment in Rupert Goold’s Judy, a biopic about Judy Garland’s London tour shortly before her death, that rises above your standard-issue celebrity sob piece to something truly brilliant. After showing up late, and drunk, to her first performance at the “Talk of the Town,” Renée Zellweger as Garland can barely stand, and needs help into her dress. She takes the stage after her chaperone (Jessie Buckley) performs a little reverse psychology to appeal to her vanity, and over the course of a solemn performance of “By Myself,” she goes from disheveled has-been to bona fide diva, recapturing her glory one note at a time.
Despite refusing rehearsal with her band leader, the on-stage orchestra keeps up with her perfectly, the lights make her face sparkle, and Judy herself transforms before our eyes, straightening her posture, engaging with the crowd, and singing the song about as ably as one can, her slurred pre-show speech becoming immaculate enunciation with perfect pitch. The 47-year-old Garland almost seems to de-age in front of us, regaining just a touch of that old black magic that made her America’s sweetheart for the bulk of her short life. And all of this happens in one single, unbroken shot, with Zellweger providing her own vocals.
It’s the moment that will almost certainly get Zellweger some serious consideration for Best Actress next year, and it truly is spectacular to behold. Sadly, the rest of the movie fails to stack up. Apart from one other moment – a genuinely sweet scene where Garland has a late night meal with a gay couple (Royce Pierreson and Arthur McBain) who admire her so much that they’ve bought tickets to every one of her London performances, showing us what being a “Friend of Dorothy” really meant to some people – the film plays more like a sordid bit of cable TV fodder than a legitimately interesting portrayal of one of the most tragic figures of American entertainment.
For her part, Zellweger does an admirable job, even outside that first metamorphic solo. The problem she encounters a few times – and one which the film at large suffers in general – is that everything is a bit too melodramatic to be believable. For half the movie, Zellweger plays Judy Garland as the end result of a lifetime of abuse and shallow praise, and in those moments she truly shines. The rest of the time, especially when she’s fall-down drunk, she portrays late life Garland in the same way a comedian might parody her daughter, Liza Minnelli, now.
Most of the rest of the cast (Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock, David Rubin, and Rufus Sewell) serves as little more than a sounding board for Judy’s ongoing vices, allowing Zellweger to command center stage in just about every scene. That makes sense to a certain extent, as this movie is based on the stage play The End of the Rainbow rather than any authorized biography of Garland. Also, it’s all too commonplace this time of year for star vehicles to dominate the cinema slate, as studios push prestige fare out in hopes of Oscar nominations. We just had such a film with Ad Astra, with everyone there serving almost no purpose but to propel Brad Pitt forward, so it should come as no shock that it’s happening here with Renée Zellweger, who already has an acting Oscar (Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain), but who has been enjoying a career resurgence of late that another gold statuette would certainly validate.
My major issue is that this film offers us no real insight into who Judy Garland was as a person. Instead it goes for shallow controversy like an episode of Behind the Music or a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. Garland’s life is in shambles, but it’s not her fault, because you see, when she was filming The Wizard of Oz, the teenage Judy (Darci Shaw, who does a passable impersonation of Dorothy Gale’s doe-eyed, hopeful voice) was basically Harvey Weinsteined by studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). As an adult, Judy is never responsible for her own actions, she’s just being manipulated by opportunistic coattail-riders. She’s not an unfit mother because of her addiction issues, her ex-husband is just trying to steal the kids from her! A film can be laudatory and still acknowledge that people contribute to their own downfall. A lot of bad shit happened to Judy Garland in her life, but that doesn’t mean she’s 100% the victim. The truth is much more subtle than that, and likely much more interesting. We just didn’t get to see any of that here.
Instead we’re given a one-note film centered on a tremendous performance that every once in a while devolves into parody without ever truly reaching for profundity. Renée Zellweger does a tremendous job as Judy herself, but sadly, the film Judy misses just about every note around her.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What celebrity’s life would you like to see made into a biopic? If birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I? Let me know!