Judy is the first feature film to be made about Judy Garland, which is incredible given her life was so ripe with cinematic pickings. At least 2019 has particular resonance: it’s the 50th anniversary of her death and the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz.
Adapted from the stage play End of the Rainbow, Judy is a sad story, but Rupert Goold’s movie isn’t played for tears, nor does it portray the icon as a victim. We see her as ambitious and determined, someone who loves showbusiness, however cruel it is to her, and unable to resist the adoration of her fans.
“Garland is an old-fashioned Hollywood star,” Goold has explained. “She is remote, as all the golden-age stars are now, but I was interested in how you balance the legend with the very human and real; the mother and the myth. What felt most human was the script’s exploration of Judy’s need to find love, to find a home and to find normality.”
Although the film focuses on the star’s latter days, it’s on the yellow brick road where the story begins, with the teenage Garland (perfectly portrayed by Darci Shaw) on the set of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Garland’s life was far from the fairy tale that was sold to the public. Goold’s movie shows how exhausted she was from a relentless filming schedule and how fed up she was with being controlled by her studio, MGM. She was being given pills to keep her awake, send her to sleep and even suppress her appetite.
A performer since the age of two, Garland starts to question whether it’s time to step away from the limelight and lead a normal life. But, as the fearsome MGM boss Louis B. Mayer is quick to remind her, there are far prettier girls than her out there. So she has a simple choice: follow his rules and become a Hollywood star; or disappear into obscurity.
When the film moves forward 30 years, Garland’s one of the most recognised faces on the planet, but her star is waning. She has a reputation for being difficult, is millions of dollars in debt, living in hotels and fighting with one of her four ex-husbands, Sidney Luft (an unrecognisable Rufus Sewell), over the custody of their two children.
She has no choice but to accept a lucrative five-week gig in London, performing at the cabaret club Talk of the Town, owned by Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon). Desperate and fragile, Garland’s using pills and alcohol to get through the run, but while her voice might be failing, she’s determined to prove she’s still got it.
There are good nights, and tragically awful ones, which see her heckled by the crowd, and it’s down to Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) to get her onto the stage, no matter what. Garland’s melancholy is temporarily eased by the arrival of dashing Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) who becomes husband number five, but the romance is soon shattered, and she finds herself alone – again.
Zellweger is the same age Garland was during that London run. She is superb, and will surely be a red-carpet regular this awards season. Her performance is much more than the wig and prosthetics, which she’s joked oozed onto her co-star during kissing scenes. She’s mastered Garland’s stooped posture and twitchy movements, and spent a year working with a vocal coach to hone her voice in order to sing the songs herself.
Like Judy, Renée’s small frame fills the stage as she belts out some of the most famous numbers, or stumbles around it following another binge. “As a creative person, there’s nothing more exciting than to be taken out of your comfort zone,” Zellweger has noted. “I also wanted to look at those in-between moments that seem to get left out when you’re telling the story of a person you think you know.”
In the film, Garland is witty and self-aware. She knows how she’s perceived and there is no attempt to sugar-coat the star or her diva-like behaviour. She can be tricky and petulant, even sulkily pouty when she doesn’t get her own way. But there’s also vulnerability where romance and her two younger children are concerned.
Garland famously had a complex relationship with her eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), which we glimpse when they meet at a Hollywood party and Garland can’t help but undermine her daughter’s success. It would’ve been interesting to see more of their dynamic, but then that could be a movie in itself.
Judy does include scenes with a fictional couple, Stan and Dan, who are two of Judy’s most avid fans and end up inviting her for dinner at their home. The scenes might feel a little forced for some, but they represent what Judy means to the LGBT community as Stan and Dan thank her for the music and the comfort it’s brought them over the years.
The film could only end with one song, and when Over the Rainbow is finally performed, it’s the audience who lift the physically and emotionally drained star by singing the song back to her. For a woman who lived for the adulation of her fans, it’s a fitting finale and one that Garland herself would surely endorse.
Judy is out on 2nd October.
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