A powerhouse performer packed into a frail body and even frailer psyche Judy Garland left behind a legacy that is equal parts Hollywood history and cautionary tale. “Judy,” a new film directed by Rupert Goold, examines the declining days of “The Wizard Of Oz” star as she arrives in London to perform a series of concerts.
The year is 1968. Stateside Garland (Renée Zellweger) is at a low ebb. She lives in hotels she can’t afford, is fighting for custody of her children and playing in nightclubs for $150 a show, a fraction of her former superstar salary. She is an unemployable legend. “Unreliable and uninsurable,” she says. “And that’s what the ones who like me say.”
When she’s offered a five-week run at the ritzy Talk of The Town at the Palladium in London, England, she’s reticent. She doesn’t want to be separated from her kids for that long, but she’s broke. She decides to leave her children so that she can make enough money to return and put a roof over their head.
in London she is treated like royalty, packing the club night after night but her insecurities eat at her. “What if I can’t do it again,” she says after her wildly successful opening night. Drink, pills, self-doubt, on-stage meltdowns and a quickie marriage make for an eventful but uneven series of shows. In the press parlance of the time she is often “exhausted and emotional.”
Flashback to young Judy (Darci Shaw) on the MGM backlot set the stage for the tragedy that follows.
“Judy” often veers into sentimentality—the finale clumsily documents the moment when the singer finally got the kind of support she always needed from an audience—but doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of Garland’s life. Bringing the story to vivid life is Zellweger in a career best performance. She looks and sounds enough like Garland to be convincing, but this isn’t just mimicry. The actress digs deep, finding the humour and humanity in a person often regarded as a tragic figure. “I am Judy Garland for an hour a night,” she says. “I want what everybody else wants but I seem to have a harder time getting it.” Zellweger makes us understand how and why Garland spent a lifetime trying to please people who repaid her by always asking for more.
“Judy” is at its strongest when Zellweger is onscreen. Off stage she captures Garland’s complexity; on stage, in numbers like “I’ll Go My Way by Myself” or “The Trolley Song” she is a musical tour de force. The flashbacks, while nicely done, feel like information we already know and don’t add much to the overall movie. We learn just as much about Garland’s psychological unrest from Zellweger nuanced performance as we do from the broadly written flashbacks. This is, after all, a character study, not a history lesson.