Synopsis: In 1969, a down-on-her-luck Judy Garland performs a series of concerts in London.
Judy is a sad story about a former big star who tries for a comeback in spite of her alcoholism and drug addiction. Judy is also an uplifting story of a star who stepped away from the limelight and comes back in an Oscar bait role. Audience, meet Judy Garland and Renée Zellweger.
Judy is based on the Peter Quilter show “End of the Rainbow.” The movie chronicles Garland’s five week run at the London nightclub Talk of the Town in 1969 and adds flashbacks to her loveless childhood. Garland is broke and desperate to gain custody of her two children. But first she needs to make enough money to establish a stable home for them. (I was excited to see that her daughter was played by Bella Ramsey, the preternaturally tough and mature Lyanna Mormont from “Game of Thrones.”)
Judy Garland is a poor bet going into her shows since she is actively abusing drugs and alcohol. (But the nightclub owner is played by Michael Gambon, aka Dumbledore, so I figure that he knows what he’s doing.) Famous since her starring role in The Wizard of Oz as farmgirl Dorothy Gale, she had reportedly been using drugs nearly as long. MGM signed the talented singer when she was barely a teen. The studio system worked her mercilessly and pushed drugs to keep her awake and then get her to sleep. They were definitely no friend of Dorothy.
Darci Shaw plays the Wizard of Oz-era Judy. She does even more suffering in the movie than Renée Zellweger. The studio has an evil woman minding her to be sure that she doesn’t get adequate calories or rebel in any way. She’s also sure to give her an earful if she dares to complain about being overworked. At a publicity photo shoot with fellow star Mickey Rooney, the woman bellows at her to not eat the food placed in front of her. She gives her a diet pill instead. Mmm, tasty.
Just as cruel is MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. When Judy dares to get out of line one day, Mayer looms over her, reminding her that she came to the studio as snaggle-toothed Frances Gumm. And she better never slow down a film schedule ever again! You know, with her outrageous pleas for food and sleep. So Judy keeps working, loses her money to unscrupulous managers time and again, all while shouldering insecurities about her looks, weight and self-worth. But she does have her incredible voice. As long as she’s not too drunk to sing.
Back to Renée Zellweger… Okay, first off, even with good makeup she doesn’t look like Judy Garland. Maybe several years ago, when Renée briefly looked like Robin Wright, a better likeness could have been achieved. But she does give a strong performance, capturing Garland’s mannerisms and voice. (There are a ton of interview and performance clips of Judy G. online, if you want to judge for yourself.)
Director Rupert Goold’s many closeups of Renée Z’s face with puckered lips and heavy false lashes that threaten to shut her eyelids, only serve to emphasis her lack of resemblance to Judy. But the wig and campy costumes are great…
The movie opens with a broke Judy meeting up with her grown daughter Liza at a Hollywood party. Some young huckster comes onto her; possibly hubby number five for Judy. Wardrobe has her clad in a bright sequined pantsuit that she seems to wear for a week as her limp romance with the guy progresses like an illness. She stays pretty bundled up for the mild love scenes, which makes sense because even though Renée gives her character a feeble walk and slight hunchback, I suspect that she is super fit. And maybe she’s had enough of changing her body for roles, à la the Bridget Jones weight gain.
Judy is somewhat of a comeback vehicle for Renée Z. The Texas native’s breakthrough was in 1996’s Jerry Maguire. She went on to showcase her acting and singing talents in early 2000’s hits like Bridget Jones and Chicago, culminating in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (2004) for Cold Mountain. Her career slowed down with some films that were critical and box office disappointments. Along the way, tabloids followed her romances and changing appearance… just like they did with Judy!
In recent interviews promoting Judy, Renée has said that she took time off from making movies (roughly six years) because she had exhausted herself with her work schedule. Renée returned to the silver screen with the well-received Bridget Jones’s Baby in 2016. Thankfully, unlike Judy, she didn’t have a contract that cornered her (Garland worked for MGM from 1935 – 1950) or a dying bank account.
Garland’s London shows offer her a chance to make some money when film opportunities dried up because her addictions made her so unreliable. And it’s a new and very different era for entertainment. I mean, wouldn’t you rather go to a Rolling Stones concert or see a movie starring Barbra Streisand?
Still, the shows are sold-out with enough people eager to see her perform standards from her movie career. Movie Loon appreciated Renée as Judy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the other numbers are kind of tedious. The movie is not particularly entertaining. It also lacks dramatic tension. We see that Judy is pathetic and bitter but instead of feeling drawn into her predicament, you’ll sympathize more with her exasperated London minder, Rosalyn.
Rosalyn is played by the subtle and intriguing actress, Jessie Buckley. At first I thought she was Lucy Boynton of Bohemian Rhapsody fame, then I realized she was in the 2016 series War & Peace— splendid as the pious Maria Bolkonskaya. Her poor character in Judy has to get the performer on stage whether she’s sober or not. Often not. Uncooperative Judy refuses to rehearse, says she’s too sick to perform etc… Rosalyn tracks her down, dresses her, cajoles, flatters and literally pushes her onstage.
Judy is primarily a showcase for Renée Zellweger; she’s very good in the role. I suppose diehard Judy Garland fans might really like the movie, but since her heyday was decades ago it would be kind of creepy to be a huge fan in 2019. I would suggest Cher or Celine Dion as more timely stars to worship who also have a lot of camp appeal.
Judy Garland’s comeback didn’t work out, but Renée’s seems to be working out swimmingly.
P.S. If you want to see a really good performance and show, Movie Loon recommends “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” starring Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday, another woman with a great voice who was brought down by addiction. McDonald won a Tony for the same role on Broadway in 2014.
Movie Loon’s Shortcut Movie Review:
Cut to the Chase: Notable for Renée Zellweger’s Oscar bait performance.
Humor Highlight: Judy’s hide-and-go-seek with her London minder.