REVIEW: Judy [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 118 minutes
    Release Date: October 2nd, 2019 (UK)
    Studio: LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions
    Director(s): Rupert Goold
    Writer(s): Tom Edge / Peter Quilter (stageplay “End of the Rainbow”)

What if I can’t do it again?

Playwright Peter Quilter has stated that the original play (“Last Song of the Nightingale”) on which “End of the Rainbow” was modeled upon found its inspiration from an alcoholic male singer met while traveling with his partner on a cruise ship wherein the latter was also a performer. Because he changed his lead into a woman, however, everyone assumed the show was about a thinly-veiled Judy Garland. This reception led him to research the Wizard of Oz legend’s final year on earth and the man who’d become her fifth husband, Mickey Deans—but just enough to imagine what might have happened rather than document what did. It’s interesting then that the material would eventually become an “official” biography on-screen. From presumed fabrication to “fan-fiction” to bio-pic, Judy was born.

Directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, the film depicts the troubled star in the midst of a custody battle she can’t win. Broke and homeless once her latest hotel releases her room for dereliction of payment, Garland (Renée Zellweger) has no choice but to take her two young children to their father’s (Rufus Sewell‘s Sidney Luft) at one in the morning before heading to a party her other daughter (Gemma-Leah Devereux‘s Liza Minnelli) was attending. This place she’s never been populated by people she’s never met becomes her shelter for the evening (I don’t say place to sleep since her body is allergic to slumber). And with the help of a stranger’s (Finn Wittrock‘s aforementioned Deans) unsolicited praise, she finally accepts what must be done.

With America continuing to treat Garland as a pariah—uninsurable and undesirable thanks to drug and alcohol abuse-led erratic behavior and persistent unreliability—her last hope for a lucrative enough paycheck to afford the stability her kids need lies in England. They love her there and Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) knows he can sell out his nightclub Talk of the Town every night if she takes up residency. So Judy crosses the Atlantic, accepts Delfont’s accommodations, and falls victim to her ever-increasing self-destructive anxieties. She flakes out of rehearsal with band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson) and forces her handler Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) to collect her at the hotel so she attends opening night at all. With a firm push into the spotlight, however, Garland does deliver the goods.

If Zellweger’s shell shock while Rosalyn dresses her and a heartbreaking flashback to a domineering Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) manipulating a young Garland (Darci Shaw) behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz isn’t enough to comprehend her psychological duress, the words spoken amidst countless bouquets after this show should. It doesn’t matter that she brought her A-game or that Rosalyn got her on-stage. Tomorrow brings more self-doubt and depression. More opportunity to drink or take an extra pill and make it so no one can get her out of bed. It only takes one tumble to turn her victim into the villain. One slip to place her failures firmly upon her shoulders rather than those who stole her youth, identity, and agency for box office glory.

This truth is where Judy excels even if the package does little to advance the bio-pic beyond its generic machinations. By going back in time to see the pervasive sense of ownership Mayer held over Garland (diet pills for lunch, eighteen-hour days, and a firm grip on her “girl next door” image to negate the thought of romance with Mickey Rooney), we’re able to recognize how damaging the less abusive (but no less controlling) ways in which this British gig places its own demands upon her. She’s more or less suffering PTSD as the bright lights, smiling faces, and undo pressure remind her of the prison this career erected from the start. Everyone wants her to be grateful for her talent without understanding the unseen cost.

But we see it. Whether her near hyperventilation state knowing she has to perform or her self-deprecation in the face of two super fans (Andy Nyman‘s Ben and Daniel Cerqueira‘s Stan) for whom she can reciprocate love because they provide it without asking for anything in return, she’s fighting to maintain a balance as her world is torn asunder. All she cares about is her children and it’s not difficult to imagine her disinterest in taking this job has less to do with being away from them and more to do with who she knows she’ll become in that world. She will be helpless to combat the stress, ridicule, and expectations. She’ll be unable to sleep, rehearse, or know if she’ll be good until singing that first note.

It therefore becomes about pain management—psychological and emotional pain. Deans comes back into the picture as a distraction and smooth-talker who gets her hopes up only to see them crash back down since Garland is nothing here if not a woman of extremes. The smallest glimpse of good news will push her to the brink of bursting from elation and the smallest sign of trouble will cause a bottomless spiral into despair that has her lashing out at her most ardent allies. So of course she’s going to talk back when restless audience members heckle her. Of course she’s going to show her disdain when a talk show host asks serious questions in an accusatory way as though she didn’t become this “difficult” with reason.

It’s a complex role depicting a complex soul and Zellweger is stunning in her portrayal. People will have issues with the film (I do too with Rosalyn wasted as a potential friend doing nothing to help Garland above her boss while Dan and Stan inject life into the proceedings only to be forgotten until a ham-fisted “Oscar” moment of a grand gesture), but no one can deny this central performance. On-stage singing with fire or tripping with embarrassment, Zellweger embodies Judy in a way that spotlights the actor’s talents rather than forgetting them to “believe” she is Garland. You can feel that maybe she’s exorcising some demons of her own about Hollywood’s treatment of women while showcasing the struggle one of its most beloved casualties endured.

[1] Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the upcoming film JUDY. Photo Credit: David Hindley. Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions
[2] Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in JUDY. Photo Credit: David Hindley. Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions
[3] Jessie Buckley in JUDY. Photo Credit: David Hindley. Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

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