Calling the film Judy (2019) a bio-pic implies that the totality of Judy Garland’s life can be defined by her sad final six months. Viewers hoping to see the bigger picture about this mid-twentieth century entertainment icon might feel cheated, but all will be rewarded with a dramatic tour-de-force portrait of a fallen star.
We meet the young Judy (Darci Shaw) in a flashback to Wizard of Oz and the tyranny of working under the Hollywood studio system. Told by MGM executives that she was ugly and overweight triggered a life-long dependency on drugs and alcohol. We then meet the adult Judy (Renee Zellweger) at the nadir of her career, long after decades of success. By her late 40’s, American audiences had tossed her aside like a soggy rag doll but the British were still dazzled by her Hollywood star power.
A serial divorcee with two young children to feed, broke and a chronic substance abuser, she left for London hoping to revive her former fame and fortune. Instead, her performances became guessing games to see if she would make it onto stage. Eventually she imploded dramatically under the spotlight, crushed by demons beyond her control.
In its two-hours, the only highs in this film are when Zellweger channels Garland through song. The rest is an over-wrought portrait of unrelenting despair. To compress past into present the film relies on multiple flashbacks, making the editing feel fractured and discontinuous (perhaps intended to reflect Garland’s life). Despite Zellweger’s stellar performance, there is little to like about Judy. Some viewers may be distracted by the visual difference between Garland and Zellweger and the exaggerated facial tics that the latter performs excessively. Yet the film’s centre of gravity is always Zellweger, whose body language on stage is as dramatically sculptural as was Garland’s.
It’s tempting to speculate why this film is made now. Garland’s story has been told many times, and those who do not know about it generally don’t care. In times of turbulence, this film is hardly a celebration of enduring American values. Knowing the ‘true story’ behind the Garland legend shatters illusions and empowers new generations to be wary of the Hollywood dream factory.
Director: Rupert Goold
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Darci Shaw, Jessie Buckley, Michael Gambon