‘Judy’ Is Sad, But A Tour De Force For Zellweger


Some movies, no matter how good, just make you sad. The new film Judy is one of them. Following Judy Garland’s life in the months before her untimely death, we have a tour de force performance by Renée Zellweger, but it remains a harrowing story of the unraveling of an icon.

Judy (Zellweger) is barely getting by, essentially unemployable because no company will insure her based on her behavior. She lives on pills and alcohol, dragging her two little kids along to perform with her. She is turned out of her hotel for not paying a bill and ends up at the home of her ex-husband, the father of her children, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), begging a room for the night. He wants the children, pointing out they need to go to school. The only place she can get work is a gig in London.

Once in London, producer Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) assigns young Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) to keep an eye on her, a particularly difficult job since Judy is extremely intractable, refusing to rehearse and constantly going through massive manic-depressive cycles, fueled by her pills, her alcohol and her memories of horrors wrought upon her by the studio system.

Studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) is portrayed as constantly starving her (to keep her unnaturally thin) and forcing her into an almost puppet-like existence, often living on pills. It is clear that director Rupert Goold believes that the destructive behavior came from the pressure induced on her as a young actress.

Judy, despite all of this, comes alive once onstage. The audience loves her as she sings and mugs for them. She knows all the right things to say, once she is in her right mind. To complicate things, a young man she met in Hollywood, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) shows up and provides support while creating far more hope than ever would be possible. They marry, but eventually the pressures defeat her and the dreams Mickey provides collapse. Even a lovely performance near the end of the film cannot take away the fact that her death is near.

Zellweger is amazing. She has the look and even the demeanor of Garland. Within minutes, you feel you are really seeing Garland, not an actress portraying her. She does the singing, and she does it well, although no one can quite replicate Judy Garland’s voice. Wisely, on the most demanding of the songs, “Over the Rainbow,” she creates her own version. This is one biographical film where lip synching might have been better. Zellweger is sensational. I congratulate her. But when it comes to singing, Garland was in a class of her own.

The rest of the cast is very strong. Buckley more than holds her own in the dramatic scenes, her character a balance wheel for the crazed Garland. Wittrock makes the almost silly Deans a sympathetic character. Cordery is appropriately creepy. Sewell, in a part that should have made him seem evil, comes across as reasonable: Garland was not at the stage of her life where she should be in charge of children.

One of the painful aspects of the film is that all of us have memories of the young Judy Garland. When the name is said, we instantly think of the young girl sitting in a yard in Kansas and dreaming about being over the rainbow. She is a part of our childhood, and that of our children and grandchildren. The younger among us still watch that little girl bring the Land of Oz to life.

This film forces us to look not at the legend, at the good times, at the glory of stardom but of the end. This Garland is a pill-popper, semi-crazed and irresponsible. We see many of the people who adore her and go to her shows turn against her as she fails to perform, but we also see the love cherished on her by many of her fans who will love her despite her failings. And, in some cases, because she reminds us that even the greatest icons can have feet of clay.

The film is powerful. There are few happy scenes and I, for one, would have liked to have a few more of those. But if you like powerful, tear-jerking dramas, this one is definitely for you.