A friend of Judy Garland once told E! True Hollywood Story that he feared her humor and wit would be overshadowed by the tragedy of her life. After all, the special he was being interviewed for was called “The Last Days of Judy Garland”. Since that special first aired in 2001, the interest in Garland has shifted from salacious and exploitative to reverent and celebratory, if not muted by generational distance, but little has been made of this wry sense of humor her friend once spoke of.
Judy aims to correct the record in its retelling of the Hollywood legend’s final days in 1969. Stepping into Garland’s ruby red slippers is Renée Zellweger, playing this remarkable woman at her lowest ebb: effectively homeless, schlepping her young children Lorna and Joe to sub-standard gigs for a pittance pay, and regularly popping pills just to function. It’s an untenable situation, and Garland makes the difficult decision to leave her children behind to perform a sold-out run of shows at The Talk of the Town in London to better provide for them. While she’s initially greeted with the adoration she craves (and deserves), Garland is incapable of escaping her demons, present and past (seen in flashbacks to her years on the MGM lot, with the domineering Louis B. Mayer and her cold stage mother Ethel). Even when a romantic and financial lifeline appears by way of the charming Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), Garland can’t help her self-destructive tendencies, which start spilling onto the stage and risks her phoenix-like career revival.
And yet, the constant barrage of humiliations and terrible behavior don’t rob Garland or her film of their levity. Judy often plays like an uncomfortably dark comedy, unearthing laughs from the absurdity of planning concerts around a notorious unreliable woman deep in the throes of addiction, poverty and depression. The black humor works best when Garland is allowed to be self-aware: her quip about which pills put her to sleep and keep her awake lands quite well. But the film’s comedic leanings rest uneasy alongside its heavier beats, and director Rupert Goold visibly struggles to balance them. The film doesn’t come alive until Garland steps on the London stage for the first time, injecting a desperately-needed dose of energy into its sleepy first third. That vibrancy is followed by a gutpunch of a cut, to an utterly drained Garland in her dressing room, sharing doubts with her concert manager that she could recreate the magic night after night. It’s effective, even when Goold repeats the trick, but the feeling of unease doesn’t dissipate. The bouncing back and forth between tones, along with flashbacks that shoot for context but ultimately prove superfluous, makes for a disorienting experience that robs us of the opportunity to really understand Garland and the forces at play in the final stages of extraordinary life.
It’s a shame, because Judy does capture moments of its legendary subject’s tortured brilliance, when it gets out of its own way. One of Garland’s greatest gifts was her ability to connect on a deep emotional level with her audience, and the film is at its best exploring that connection. Judy’s musical numbers are excellent all-around, stunning showcases for Garland’s untouchable showmanship. Off the stage, the film briefly zooms into a sweet late-hour interlude with Garland and two gay male fans, who found refuge in her music (enough to buy tickets to multiple shows). These particular scenes not only showcase Garland’s unique (and progressive) relationship with the LGBT community, it does more work than any other non-singing moment to humanize the larger-than-life star. Seeing her comfort a sobbing fan at the piano, and her fans comforting her by singing her signature song “Over The Rainbow” back to her at that final show, evoke genuine, earned emotion. The fact that the film abruptly ends after that final scene instead letting the moment breathe says everything you need to know about the film’s approach.
Judy, like many recent celebrity biopics, relies heavily on the magnetism of its star to fill in its emotional blanks. Thank God then for Renée Zellweger. The Oscar-winning actress completely disappears into the Garland persona, embodying the entertainer’s crippling insecurities, personal and professional frustrations, desperation for true love from family and husband, and her full-throttle dedication to putting on the best possible show for her audience. Zellweger’s performance works at every level, whether she’s elevating the screenplay’s awkward attempts at wit with caustic weariness, or fully committing to the musical numbers. She’s especially impressive here: there is no coming close to Garland’s voice, but Zellweger molds her own considerable vocals to take on the legend’s approach to phrasing and intonation that feels and sounds authentic. It’s a performance more than deserving of an Oscar nomination, and at this stage, it’s doubtful anyone could stop Zellweger from claiming what Garland famously couldn’t during her lifetime: the Oscar for Best Actress.
A half-century has passed since Judy Garland’s untimely death at the age of 47, making now as good a time as any to revisit the Hollywood legend with fresh eyes. Unfortunately, Judy is not quite up to the task. It’s tonal confusion and surface-level exploration of Garland’s demons threaten to flatten one of the most complex performers of all time. It’s only through Renée Zellweger’s bravura performance that Garland’s once-in-a-lifetime gifts truly shine through. If Rupert Goold wanted to show us a new side of her, to finally show the world that witty side that her friend spoke of so warmly, I can’t say he succeeded. But it may have been worth the effort anyway, if only for Zellweger, and to introduce Garland to a new generation, even if they’re probably better served by that E! True Hollywood Story special.