Come on, Get Tragic: Renée Zellweger Excels As “Judy”

Come on, Get Tragic: Renée Zellweger Excels As “Judy” October 6, 2019

If you’re of a certain age (born between, say, the late 50s to the early 80s), Judy Garland is permanently imprinted on your synapses as Dorothy Gale, and less so as a legendary singer.  In the days before cable, the yearly showing of The Wizard of Oz on network TV was a family event.  The kids got to stay up late and receive nightmare fodder from its flying monkeys and apple-flinging trees.

Only as an adult did I learn of Garland’s later career as Carnegie Hall and variety show performer, her powerful voice, her stage charisma.  And only much later did I detect in videos of her late-life appearances the telltale signs of inebriation.

Renée Zellweger, as “Judy”

Judy, as directed by Rupert Goold, fills in the gaps of Garland’s biography by honing in on winter 1968.  After a prologue with teenaged Judy strolling the Oz set with menacing studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), we fast-forward to Judy in her late 40s.  Broke and homeless, she desperately deposits herself on the doorstep of ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) with their two young children.

Her unreliability has made her stage and studio poison in America, so Sid takes custody of the kids she can no longer provide for.  Potential salvation comes through an offer of a 6-week gig in London, and though she’s loath to part with her kids, she accepts.

Judy spends most of its time on those weeks in London, with Garland vividly brought to life by Renée Zellweger.  At this point, Garland floats along on a diet of alcohol, stimulants, and sedatives (the film hints at an eating disorder, too, suggested by Zellweger’s gaunt figure and the way she manipulates food and daintily ingests the tiniest of portions).  Zellweger perfectly captures the slurred phrasing, unsteady gait, and overcompensating movements of a person striving but failing to hide their intoxication.  Zellweger has caught some flak for her singing in Judy, but I don’t know enough about Garland’s late-life abilities to know if Zellweger’s raspy yet emotive warbling accurately imitates the singer’s aging voice, or if it signifies Zellweger’s less-than-perfect capturing of Garland’s vocal expertise.

Judy generates the most suspense with each nightly performance, as we question whether Garland/Zellweger can bluff her way through a show, let alone make it from her hotel room to the theater.  Each evening is a high wire act, our tension embodied in that of Garland’s London handler Rosalyn.  Played with restraint by Jessie Buckley (impressive when held in contrast to her exuberant, vivacious star turn in Wild Rose), Rosalyn mirrors the audience’s emotions as we move from exasperation to affectionate admiration.

With occasional flashbacks to the teenaged Judy (Darci Shaw, in a nuanced screen debut), and expertly dropped bits of backstory across the London scenes, we learn of the hardships Garland endured.  Thrust onto the stage as a child by her vaudevillian parents, her father a semi-closeted gay man, she was dropped into Louis B. Mayer’s lap (sexual innuendo intended) at age 15.  In Judy, Mayer is a creepy control freak who would’ve been Weinsteined today.  He verbally abuses Garland and starts her on not-so-yellow-brick-road of addiction, with diet pills because she’s too fat for the camera, then downers to counteract the uppers and facilitate sleep.  One expertly manic montage jumps timelines, mixing images of adult Garland singing “The Trolley Song,” young Garland rehearsing, clips of pill consumption and restless tossing in bed.

Held together by its nightly performances, Judy lacks momentum at times.  This may betray the script’s origins in End of the Rainbow, a musical stage drama.  Even though there are scenes of Garland’s life out of the spotlight – especially her romance with charming younger beau Mickey (Finn Wittrock), who threatens to become failed marriage #5 – they have a scotch-taped together vibe to them.

An exception to this is a lovely sequence with a couple of gay admirers, whose loitering at the stage door turns into an affecting encounter with their idol.  As they recount the persecution they’ve endured, Garland sincerely, empathically tells them, “They hound people in this world, anyone who’s different.”

Judy does profit from its literate yet realistic script.  The sole exception is a final scene that’s more Hollywood than authentic.  Before this, however, we sense Garland’s pain over her kids’ absence.  Telling Sid she’ll lose custody “over my dead body,” he cruelly replies, “No one would be surprised, believe me.”  We feel her desperate need for adulation when she pathetically beseeches an audience with “you won’t forget me, will you?”

Jessie Buckley, as Rosalyn, in “Judy”

Visually, this is a gorgeously realized film, with a rigorous eye for detail.  The lighting accentuates Garland’s worn, heavily made-up face, with Rosalyn’s unweathered countenance its opposite.  The floral wallpaper of Garland’s London hotel blends with her ornate outfits, while Jessie Buckley’s auburn tresses are similarly accentuated by the reds and dark browns of the theater.

Zellweger’s Garland comes across as someone tragically lacking an inner life.  Yet I don’t see this as a fault in her performance, but more likely an accurate portrayal of a woman pressured from her youth to focus solely on surfaces.  In London, Garland is motivated to make money to get her kids back, and to bask in the adulation of the nightly audience (and conversely, is visibly wounded by their jeers).  She can dig no deeper than to utter, “I want what everyone else wants; I just seem to have a harder time getting it.”


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )


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