Though we love them–Hollywood biopics tend to be one-note. These films center a famous historical figure, tracking their childhood through the most critical moments in their lives. Renée Zellweger’s turn as Judy Garland in Judy reinvigorates the biopic genre. Chronicling the last year of the late legend’s life–Zellweger is searing, impactful and profound.
Despite her immense stardom, by the end of Garland’s life in 1969, she was nearly penniless–divorced yet again, banished from many Los Angeles hotels and struggling to raise her young children, Lorna and Joey. After some mental health issues and some struggles with opioid addiction–a habit that was thrust on her as a young girl under MGM studios– Garland was deemed unemployable and uninsurable.
As a last-ditch effort to make some money and wrangle her children away from her ex-husband–Garland took a residency at the London Theatre. She was obviously haunted by her time in showbusiness. The emotional and physical abuse that she suffered under the tyrannical MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer as a young girl was especially horrific. However, despite the weight of her past and her failing health, Zellweger depicts a light and vibrant movie star.
The Chicago star brings a vivaciousness to The Wizard of Oz legend who was always willing to try and fight through her despair and loneliness. While most people would have leaned into the tragic thread of the late movie star’s story– Zellweger works diligently to bring forth her charm and wit. In the beginning of the film where she’s seen interacting with her children–her world has fallen apart, but to them (and us) she’s positively dazzling. Despite her apparent pain and suffering, she musters up every ounce of courage so that they are safe, secure and cared for. Later in London–she meets a gay couple who have also been beaten down by life. Amid her own despair, she connects with them. Though she was riddled with anxiety, insomnia, and alcoholism, the magic and desire to be the stage never left Garland. Zellweger walks the tight rope between joy and anguish so gracefully in her performance that it will leave you enchanted.
When the Jerry McGuire actress isn’t on the screen–the film suffers a bit. Director Rupert Goold wanted to illustrate the monstrous behavior of Louis B. Mayer and the absolute circus that was young Judy’s (Darci Shaw) childhood. It included endless working hours, forced starvation and constant medication. However, the flashbacks felt flimsy and unnecessary under the weight of Zellweger’s performance. It may have been enough to simply have Zellweger’s Judy Garland reflect on those moments without ever having to see the visual.
To be clear, Judy Garland’s residency at the London Theather was not some smashing success. She had some beautiful nights–but many of them ended in disaster–with the entire show closing early. However, amid her tantrums, breakdowns and even her nonsensical romance with opportunistic Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) who would become her fifth husband–the audience never stops rooting for Judy Garland. Her pain just as much as her humanity and her talent are palatable through Zellweger.
The commitment that Zellweger made to this performance cannot be stressed enough. From the slim figure to the dark coiffed hair, the actress literally becomes the A Star Is Born legend. Based on Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow– Judy isn’t just a film about the last months of a Hollywood icon’s life. Amid #MeToo and Time’s Up, Judy is an opportunity to reflect on the behind the scene abuses that many women suffered at the hands of Hollywood power players during a time when speaking out was unfathomable.
Judy debuted Sept 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere in theaters September 27, 2019.