If Joker has put Joaquin Phoenix firmly in line for an Oscar, Judy has done the same for Renée Zellweger. Like so many Hollywood bio pics the film charts the decline that inevitably follows fame and fortune. We focus on the tumultuous final year of Judy Garland’s life, although the story is punctuated by flashbacks to her days as a child star filming The Wizard of Oz under the micromanagement of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).
If there is something stiff and artificial about these flashbacks the same could be said about Garland’s first taste of a movie set. Born Frances Ethel Gumm, to a show business family in Grand Rapids Minnesota, her screen persona was a construction of Mayer and his underlings. Garland was signed at the age of 13, largely on the strength of her singing voice. She was never allowed to feel comfortable about her looks, being constantly reminded that other actresses were taller, more glamorous and desirable. Her diet was controlled, her social life was staged for the camera.
We watch Garland being bullied and manipulated by the studio in a way that today would be termed ‘child abuse’. She was fed with pills that ushered in a lifelong relationship with barbiturates. The film’s emphasis on how the experiences of childhood set the pattern for the rest of one’s life is impeccably Freudian.
The Garland we meet at the start of the movie is 46 years-old. It’s the late 1960s and she’s dragging two small children along to poorly-paid stage spots. By this stage she has already run through several comebacks and has a well-deserved reputation for unreliability. Her career is on the skids, she’s broke and desperate, popping prescription drugs and swilling booze to get through each day. On this particular evening her only option is to leave her young son and daughter with their father – husband and divorce no. 3 – the theatrical agent, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
Leaving Sid’s house she goes to a party being hosted by her elder daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma Leah-Devereux) where she meets a smooth, young entrepreneur named Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who will eventually become husband no. 5. In the meantime Garland is persuaded to undertake a series of gigs in London, where her popularity is still sky-high. That final season at swanky nightclub, The Talk of the Town, occupies the bulk of the story, as we see her struggling to calm her nerves, performing a triumphant version of ‘By Myself’, then crashing back to earth.
The final burnout in London is reminiscent of the Laurel and Hardy film, Stan and Ollie, which shows the two aging comedians touring Britain, trading on past glories. A singer in her forties might still be close to her prime, but Garland has already inflicted too much damage on herself, both physically and psychologically. Zellweger captures all the star’s fragility, her bravado, her neurotic posturing and moments of exhilaration on stage. Zellweger may not have her subject’s exceptional voice but only die-hard Garland fans will find anything to complain about in the way she belts out the songs.
Until Mickey turns up unannounced, Garland is the sole responsibility of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), a young assistant whose British rigidity has to find ways of coping with a performer always on the brink of disaster. For Garland the only moment when she feels relaxed seems to be an evening spent with a middle-aged gay couple who are diehard fans and idolators. This scene could so easily have lapsed into high camp, but director, Rupert Goold, makes it clear that homosexuals carried plenty of scars into the swinging sixties.
As an Englishman Goold understands the nuances of Englishness better than the brassiness of Hollywood. One can feel the awkwardness and embarrassment of Garland’s London minders when she becomes hard to control. Ms. Wilder often has to summon her courage to drag the reluctant singer out of the hotel room after a melt-down.
Judy is a tragedy, and like all tragedies it has an air of inevitability. We always know where the story is heading even if we can lose ourselves in a vibrant performance, or the odd happy moment. Zellweger inhabits the character so comprehensively it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role. This may be because she has had her own share of unpleasant experiences in the spotlight. Zellweger’s career got off to a brilliant start but from 2010 -16 she took a break from acting after appearing in a sucession of dud movies. At fifty she is just the right age to understand what it means to be viewed as a faded starlet.
Zellweger injects a surprising degree of sparkle and wit into this portrait of a doomed celebrity. We know Garland is in terminal decline but there is always a rope to hold onto. Whether it be the singing and stagecraft that kick in instinctively, or the love she feels for her children, Judy is often down but never out. Appropriately enough the movie ends before Garland’s death, with a flourish that plays on our heartstrings. No prizes for guessing the song pulled out for that sad-but-poignant farewell performance.
Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Tom Edge, after a play by Peter Quilter
Starring Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Michael Gambon
UK, rated M, 118 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 October, 2019