Film review

In ‘Judy,’ Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland brilliantly shows how to make an icon human

The Daily Beast

September 5, 2019

Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in ‘Judy’ deserves many award nominations, resisting cartoonish caricature in favor of a fully rounded interpretation of a complex icon.

Of course that song is coming; this is a movie about Judy Garland.

But, as Judy progresses, one wonders how “Over The Rainbow” will materialize? Rupert Goold’s excellent film is so resistant to a hackneyed view of its subject, it is no surprise that when the song does come it is not only beautifully sung by Renée Zellweger in a career-defining, if not best, performance—it makes persuasive, revelatory sense.

Indeed, Judy, which is centered on Garland’s series of concerts in London at the Talk of The Town in early 1969 (and is released September 27), takes its subject so seriously it knows when and how to apportion its most effective moments of humor and drama. Alongside a resistance to over-dazzle and over-gesticulate, Zellweger executes the best kind of character study. Award nominations should follow.

Zellweger has clearly watched all kinds of Judy Garland videos, and does something even better than impersonation or ventriloquism: beyond the impeccably studied dress, hair, mannerisms, and gait, she makes Garland, even at her most impossible and inscrutable, intelligible to us.

She is an addict, she is a star, she loves her children, she wants love, she is nobody’s fool, she seems untethered yet she knows where to stand, how to put on the show. She is doing the London concerts for much-needed money for herself and her children.

The pre-eminent gay icon, Garland died at 47 on June 22, 1969, just before the Stonewall Riots; both events marked their 50th anniversary earlier this summer, long-dovetailed in LGBT history and collective psychology.

Zellweger’s Garland, as imagined in Tom Edge’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Peter Quilter’s play, End of The Rainbow) is not a camp caricature, although she can be camp. She is not melodramatic, but she can be dramatic. She can sing and dance at gale force, then be catatonic. She is grand, rather than a diva; quiet rather than operatic; steely rather than demanding.

She is mostly inside herself: sometimes lost, sometimes plotting, sometimes fuming, most of the time wanting to work and then, for goodness sake, please let her damn well sleep. Curtains are thrust shut against impinging daylight.

Zellweger’s Garland is resistant to connection—the spikes go straight up if someone presumes too intimate a bond—and then she yearns for it. Zellweger’s Garland can surprise herself when she recognizes that she’s only human—and the film surprises us by showing her as exactly that.

When she is not blotto drunk or zonked on pills, Zellweger’s Garland sings like a siren; but on days and nights when she can’t bear the world, she lets the world know it from the stage—and the world throws bread rolls and missiles at her in return. Zellweger captures her filled with terror and loathing, and yet also behaving terribly, making everything worse.

There’s a lovely moment when it is suggested she drink some milk to go to sleep. Up until now, Garland has taken sleeping pills. What can this strange concoction, this milk, be? She looks at it as if a magic potion. Garland also has a refreshing attitude towards ex-husband Sid Luft’s (Rufus Sewell) taste for modern sculpture, knocking it square off its plinth. Her zingers are pithy, delivered quietly, not drawled after a martini.

What happens, Goold’s film asks, when a star is not only on the wane, but also when that star doesn’t hunger for celebrity anymore; when all she wants is to be able to live, and earn enough to provide a relatively stable life for her children? Zellweger’s Judy pays one cab driver with the last note in an envelope of money secured from her last appearance. She is only “Judy Garland” on stage, she pleads desperately.

In some ways, the plot of Judy is that of the classic women’s picture, from the era of Hollywood that Garland grew up in. Here is a woman both cornered and determined; working every hustle she can in a battle against time and circumstance.

Some critics see a threadbare plot in Judy; to me it felt richer, like someone experiencing a horrible set of realizations, trapped in a maze she knows has fiendishly closed up every exit. Can she get back to her kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd)? Can she finally build a safe life for them all? Her children look as scared as everyone else as she embarks on her mission.

Through cost and choice this is no sweeping biopic, it is not an epic. This isn’t, if you like, A Star Is Born, with Judy Garland herself the subject. It tries to tell a more micro-story, and draw a parallel between the sowing of Garland’s demons as a young Hollywood star and the ones that threaten to capsize her in what would be the last year of her life.

It is significant that the opening scene sees a young Judy (a standout Darci Shaw) walking backwards down the yellow brick road on the set of The Wizard of Oz with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery): What could be a more apt metaphor for Garland’s own life trajectory?

The glory days may be gone, but Zellweger’s Judy is no victim, and she is no flouncing diva. In Zellweger’s performance, she can both seem utterly unmoored—gazing out of limousines, terrified at the prospect of facing the world—and also a sharp, on-point performer and chat show raconteur. Just wait until her last big song-and-dance number; your nerves are less: will she hit a note, but will she fall over the cord of her whiplashing microphone?

The film feels spartan. It clearly does not have a massive budget. Like a party presided over by a creative genius, everything sparkles and looks immaculate, but this is the result of craft, skill, and frugality, rather than huge sums of money. It makes Judy feel even more special, like a very precise, cherished passion project.

The business, it is made clear, was brutal to Garland from the outset; in Judy’s reading she was gaslit into fame by Mayer, toying cruelly with the teenage Garland that, sure, if she wants she can absolutely leave the studio all behind and go back to being Frances Ethel Gumm, back to an America that will swallow her nameless, fame-less self up.

He knows what this menace and bullying will do; she’ll behave like the proto-star he is shaping. The pills she takes as an older woman is a well-known and well-rehearsed pharmacy from these years: slimming pills, sleeping pills, a pill for everything. Pills bring order, pills help you hit your mark. When a young Lorna sees her mother necking something from a pill bottle, and asks her not to take any more sleeping pills, her mother reassures her in a bored voice not to worry, those are the other ones.

The Garland of 1969 is coiled, she has been coiled for a long time. She doesn’t know anything other than to be coiled. Everything is saved for the performance. Living itself, regular living, is a frightening anathema; a set of demands Garland doesn’t understand and cannot meet.

As a young Judy, we see a world of strictly patrolled prohibitions placed around her—all conventional pleasures made ugly. There is a no to eating, to romance, or parties. Everything is set up, confected for show—her 16th birthday celebrations are just a break in filming, populated by young people she doesn’t know. Is the cake real, Judy asks suspiciously. It doesn’t matter; she is ordered not to touch it. The swimming pool in this set-up is another fake; we see Judy dive, against orders, into a tank, and she is beaming. A date with a young Mickey Rooney is another set-up for the cameras.

These scenes of a vicious Hollywood machine molding Garland parallel her later crises; they are intended to show how she became as she did. But they also feel slight, a little too deliberate. They are necessary context, footnotes on the page, when they need to be more than that.

But Goold wants to dwell in 1969 where the film again plays with convention, and lets other characters develop full outlines. Rufus Sewell’s Luft is exhausted and puzzled by his ex-wife, and we understand it. Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, her assigned London assistant (who advised the movie team), finds Garland exasperating but also a curiosity—and she is not in thrall to her. Neither is band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson), and the two of them lead her towards a final gleeful reckoning with a slice of cake which will make you cheer.

Mickey Deans, her fifth and final husband, is given an insecure, venal sheen by Finn Wittrock. The film is generous to all these characters, and makes them complex and necessary prisms for Garland herself.

Oddly, given this well-drawn supporting universe who edge around Garland like nervously patient parents around a temperamental child, Liza Minnelli (Gemma Leah-Devereux), is accorded very little, and the film is missing a significant scene or three in not bringing her more directly into Judy’s line of vision and fire. Michael Gambon is weirdly underused too, reduced to urgent nodding and not much else.

In Judy, Garland observes others; others observe her—the camera stays on her face relentlessly, its moods and sunbursts and scowls. She is like an alien just landed on an earth she doesn’t understand and which doesn’t understand her. So, when the film brings her together with a gay couple, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira), who go to every one of her shows, it not only does so to make an acute point about outsiders supporting outsiders, but it makes a specific point about why gay people adored Judy Garland.

The film doesn’t cheapen or make fun of the couple. It takes their love for each other and devotion to Garland seriously, and it takes Garland’s reaching out to them just as seriously when she returns to their flat for a late-night supper of bad eggs and a game of cards.

There is humor in the surreal meeting, and pathos in the flowering of a genuine bond. When Dan details the persecution on the grounds of his sexuality that he endured in the years pre-the British decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, Garland’s empathy is not theatrical—one diva cooing over a fan—but a sharp inner-made-outer echo of reflected experience.

That strange two-way street—the complex relationship of the devoted and the star—is made real in Judy; it may even, the film suggests, have been Garland’s salve (rather than salvation) if she ever recognized it.

The final scene crystallizes the L. Frank Baum quote that ends the film: “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

Judy Garland’s power at its purest, and which we see in Judy when she sings to exhaustion in the final scenes, is built first on a fierce energy, the enduring lesson of those high-achieving, bullied teenage years of doing as she was told, turning up, and shining to order in the spotlight.

But it was also built in something Mayer saw right away: the connection Garland innately forged with those who relished watching her; a raw connection to the viewer, the embodiment—as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was—of a survivor against the odds, a triumph of hope.

The film does not fetishize this; it doesn’t make Garland a joke, or mock and glamorize her illnesses and extremes. It doesn’t make the icon a clown. But it doesn’t reduce Garland to anything prosaic either: the pill-popping monster, the star past her prime. In Judy, Garland is larger-than-life still, but in the world, both sides eyeing each other nervously. The film is a tantalizing—sometimes funny and sometimes not—set of dislocations.

That song you have been expecting comes at the end of Judy. It is a wrenching interpretation, because Zellweger sings it slowly: a confessional, a treatise, a set of questions, a collective walk along towards understanding.

Like the film itself, it is not mawkishly phrased and milked for sympathy. Just what are we looking for over the rainbow, Garland asks, giving the lyrics as much of a real-time philosophical deconstruction as they can bear. Her heart is also sore, scarred, and utterly broken.

And then, in a moment that rings true rather than hokey, Zellweger’s Garland realizes she is not alone. Her audience has been listening a long time, and heard every word—and they are there for her. This, for Zellweger’s Garland, is a piercing blast of warmth, a delicious shockwave of reality. It’s just a little too late, and—even more brutal—not enough.