AT THE MOVIES
Renée Zellweger Makes the Comeback that Eluded Judy Garland
By Noah Gittell
Let’s get this out of the way: No one was excited to hear that Renée Zellweger was going to play Judy Garland in “Judy”, the first film to chronicle the life of the classic Hollywood star. Zellweger bears no physical resemblance to Garland and is not the kind of actor who can transform herself for a role. We should have trusted the filmmakers more. Zellweger is brilliantly cast in “Judy” because her own life experiences perfectly align with Garland’s and the story being told. I only wish the story were a little stronger.
“Judy” is not a traditional biopic that traces the ups and downs of a notable person’s life. Instead, it mostly focuses on a series of stage shows she performed in London in 1968, when she was no longer employable in Hollywood due to her unreliability and desperately needed a paycheck to earn custody of her two young children. It’s a low point for Garland — she is technically homeless when we first meet her — with these London shows representing her last chance at a show business comeback.
She is hardly equipped for it. At 47 years old, Garland is addicted to pills and still overly fond of alcohol, but her biggest obstacle is a lack of self-worth. As she moves through her backstage life — interacting with handlers, producers, and fawning admirers — we see her play the part of the confident star, but the cracks are beginning to show. She still knows how to crinkle her nose and offer a cutting bon mot to make her fans giggle, but it’s all artifice. Clad in garish make-up and comically long eyelashes, she takes on the look of a tragic clown who has lost her way trying to leave the circus tent.
Zellweger never quite becomes Garland, but she doesn’t need to. They have enough in common that we can easily conflate their stories. Like Garland, Zellweger’s appearance has been the subject of intense and unfair physical scrutiny. She has struggled to find meaningful parts after aging out of ingenue roles. Then again, what Hollywood actress hasn’t? “Judy” also represents a comeback for Zellweger, who digs deep to manifest the symptoms of internalized abuse. Her creaky voice and boozy stumbles present a woman who is barely there anymore, but when she hits the stage, she comes alive. The only time she really exists is when she is performing, and Zellweger nails her performative vulnerability.
I only wish the film went a bit deeper than that. For her performance scenes, director Rupert Goold (“True Story”) puts his camera right at the edge of the stage, aligning us with her audience. It’s an apt description of the film’s overall tone. Despite his warts-and-all portrayal of Garland, Goold only wants us to applaud her. The characters he surrounds Garland with are all shadows. Her ex-husband Vincente Minnelli (Rufus Sewell) is a cipher, and her new boyfriend Mickey (Finn Wittrock) a cliché of sleaziness.
Then there is the awful scene where she is entertained by two gay fans at their apartment, where they cry together over their shared difficulties. A perhaps understandable nod to Garland’s popularity in the queer community, the scene adds nothing of value to the story, except a lens through which to view her greatness. In hagiography, this is what passes for character development.
Despite its admirably narrow focus, “Judy” ultimately succumbs to the same temptations that befall most biopics. It reveres its subject more than it respects her. The filmmakers can’t find a way to place any of the supporting characters on her level. There are no real relationships, which means there is no real drama. Drawing attention to the systemic oppression of women and children in Hollywood is a worthy idea. Putting them in a story worthy of their talents would be a much finer thing.
My Rating: Put it on your Queue