Judy Garland was and is an icon. Renée Zellweger captures that aura about her in Judy, a biopic covering the twilight of Garland’s life as well as brief moments of her time in-and-around The Wizard of Oz. On stage, Zellweger captures a magnetism where even when things go wrong, every eye in the room is on Garland and she revels in the admiration. In Garland’s life, the vulnerability and trauma she experienced is worn on Zellweger’s face, telling the story of Judy Garland without much work needing to be done. It is an impeccable performance and, above all, it is the takeaway Rupert Goold‘s film. It is a film about a star with such grace and charisma that she became beloved by the world. Perhaps the film does not live up to her status, but Zellweger certainly does.
It is perhaps why the film’s otherwise vanilla nature is particularly underwhelming. Not only is it a film about a revered Hollywood legend, but it presents a major performance from a star who had been off-the-radar for a few years. It is one sure to have Zellweger in the Awards conversation, while Judy itself will merely take a role as the vehicle that got her there. The story and presentation is one most viewers have seen many times, using a classic biopic structure with intermittent flashbacks to tell Garland’s story. It never quite brims with the life she possessed, merely listing off details and including brief cameos of well known figures – such as daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) – while running through the minutiae of her life as it occurred in 1969. It is entirely run-of-the-mill, notable for expanding on those final months of her life but never finding much inspiration in the process. It, especially in regards to her personal life, never feels like anything but a laundry list of details that struggle to add up to much.
In stark contrast, when she is on stage, Judy is often engrossing. Not only is Zellweger phenomenal in embodying the stage presence of Garland, but the vocals are on point and even her struggles feel especially revealing. Backstage, her fears about going on stage and worrying about whether or not she can actually sing hit hard emotionally. One can see the fear and intimidation even after all of these years, a pre-show nervous routine and imposter syndrome that simply never waned. Yet, for the most part, on stage she just turns it on. Zellweger’s transitions from singing to bantering with the audience as she eases onto the stage as though it were a favorite, comfortable sweater is immaculate. In the same breathe, her rigidity and struggles on that stage due to her impairment (either from drugs or alcohol) are heartbreaking to watch. Far removed from those more relaxed moments, the tragedy in seeing such a gifted performer struggle to find themselves in a place that they have loved since age 2 is undeniable.
Commendably never shying away from her flaws – though never really probing them in any interesting way beyond showing them – Judy tries to paint a full portrait of its subject via flashbacks. Tying the wicked treatment she received under Louis B. Mayer’s (Richard Cordery) direction to her self-destructive habits now, one can see a doomed young girl blossom into a troubled adult. Stripped of everything a teenage girl should have and molded into something she was not – largely with pills – Judy is as much a biopic as it is a damning representation of Hollywood’s mistreatment of its stars. It is a pertinent and timely portrayal of this abuse, even if any or all sexual abuse she suffered never rises above implication. It could be sharper, especially in that regard, but in detailing the control she was under, Judy’s flashback scenes are heartbreaking. Darci Shaw, who appears as young Judy, captures her vibrancy at that age while starting to show the wear and tear that will add up to the Garland of 1969.
Judy’s detailed approach to its story keeps it from ever rising above typical biopic tropes, but when it does step out of the usual, it is successful. An encounter between Judy and two gay fans is particularly notable, even if clearly heavy-handed. Finding her cutting loose, appreciating two diehard fans for supporting her (calling them “allies”), and then hanging around with them at their place, it is Judy at its most laid back and comforting. Gone are the bright lights that demand performance while the drugs and alcohol that color her days are far out of her mind. Instead, she is just herself. Whether joking around, showing compassion for the plight of these two men who were seen as “criminals” for their love, or singing, it is a touching scene and uncommon glimpse of Judy Garland as a person rather than a performer. Unfortunately, the two men are not as well treated by Goold who leaves them as typical “gay comedic relief” characters for much of the film before deploying them in the cheesy, over-the-top finale. Compared to Garland’s evident empathy and genuine affection for them, it is unfortunate to never see them become real humans as opposed to mere plot points.
A straightforward and typical biopic, Rupert Goold’s Judy is the kind of film that film lovers will watch purely for Renée Zellweger’s performance ahead of this Awards season. Afterwards, it will likely be forgotten. That said, Judy is a serviceable film even if it is safe and typical. It will prove illuminating to those not very familiar with Garland, while serve as nothing more than a welcome reminder of her brilliance to those who are.