By Tim Jackson
As Judy Garland, Renée Zellweger is in a movie that doesn’t match her fine performance.
Judy, directed by Rupert Goold. Now screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Boston Common.
In the first shot of the new biopic Judy, a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) stares fixedly at the camera looking surprisingly like a young Renée Zellweger. She’s roused from her stupor by studio chief Louis B. Mayer who, calling her his “favorite,” wheedles her into taking the lead role in the Wizard of Oz. It is a look at the first of many abuses Garland would endure when young that would lead to a life of substance abuse and insecurity. From this flashback we cut to Zellweger looking remarkably like a middle-aged Judy Garland. The actress has done her homework; she sinks into the performer’s distinctive physicality: her blowsy way of talking, nervously pursed lips, arms akimbo anxiously fanning the air, her strategy of tossing herself around the stage with abandon. Zellweger’s puffy-eyed beauty blends neatly with Garland’s wounded grace. She captures the way Garland squinted her eyes — as though she were continually trying to make sense of the world, and not succeeding. When frustrated, Garland would end up throwing tantrums. Zellweger’s is a dark performance that goes beyond impersonation and taps into the singer’s broken soul. She does all the singing in the film. Her voice is no match for Garland’s — but Zellweger catches the singer’s inflections and style. The big problem is that she is in a movie that doesn’t match her performance.
Garland’s voice was a dazzling blend of beauty and pain. Her triumphs were compromised by a lifetime of booze, pills, and insecurity. There are scenes here that will no doubt enthrall Academy voters, who in the past have been keen on sturdy impersonations. Zellweger’s effort is admirable, but she can’t lift Judy past the formulaic. By focusing on Garland’s last days — a 1969 five-week booking at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub — the plot can’t help but be flat. Flashbacks portend her unraveling, but the background information is too skimpy. The emphasis on Garland’s self-destructive streak cheapens the narrative, reducing it to melodrama. The screenplay is based on a stage play, End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter (who also wrote a comedy about Florence Foster Jenkins, which was adapted into a movie with Meryl Streep). Garland is not Florence Jenkins; her character demands much more fleshing out. Instead of providing depth, Judy embraces the classic, superficial template of the rise and fall of a star.
Garland’s emotional and physical abuse is underlined: Louis B. Mayer, the domineering studio head, taunts her about “earning a million dollars” before she turns 21 (she is 16). “You have something none of those other pretty girls can ever have. You know what that is? Your voice,” he tells her. Mayer regarded her as his property, calling her “my little hunchback” (she had that slight stoop). As the studio head made her a star, Judy’s mother provided the necessary “pep pills.” Natasha Powell’s performance as the toxic mother Ethel Gumm is one-dimensional and malevolent. “Down the hatch,” she proclaims as she hands Judy her pills. Sitting with Mickey Rooney in a diner set for one of their many Andy Hardy films, Judy is forbidden to eat so as much as a hamburger.
A desire to please men, compounded by a lifetime of drug dependency, vitiated her judgment. Later, three failed marriages left her broke. In the film, erratic behavior forces her to surrender her children to ex-husband Sid Luft, which broke her spirit. Played by Rupert Sewell, Luft is reduced to your archetypal Angry Husband. Knowing a little more about that relationship would have been dramatically worthwhile. Luft authored a book, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland, and was the subject of a documentary, Sid & Judy. Finn Wittrock gives a more nuanced performance as Mickey Deans, her fifth and final husband. Deans, a New York nightclub owner and piano player, attempted to revive her career, but the marriage failed quickly. Garland and Deans played out a complex love story; in this and other ways the film plays fast and loose with the facts. Deans wrote a book three years after her death, Weep No More, My Lady. While no biopic can portray a life in all its nuances, too many scenes here have been manufactured to make the same point: Judy was exploited and that led to her road to ruin. One particularly cringeworthy episode involves a pair of enthusiastic gay fans. Judy was an adored mainstay of gay and drag culture; the scenes in Judy that attempt to address that relationship come off as artificial and stagy.
There have been a slew of biopics in the last few years — Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Shelley, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, First Man, Vice, Rocketman, Stan & Ollie, and the upcoming It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. These films are at their best when the actors are given chances to create detailed characterizations in an illuminating story line that serves up unexpected insights. Judy achieves half of that goal with Zellweger’s fine performance. And that is too bad. Garland is an important 20th-century icon. She deserves to have her amazing career in film, music, and television, as well as her vital place in American culture, be seen as more than just another Hollywood tragedy.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.