Renée Zellweger doesn’t look much like Judy Garland (for one thing, she’s five inches taller than the diminutive star). She doesn’t really sound much like her, either, although she does get to do her own singing in the new movie Judy. But boy, does she sell it. Directed by Rupert Goold, with a screenplay by Tom Edge based on Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow, Judy is far from the best or most original Hollywood biopic you’ll ever see. See it anyway. Zellweger is that good at inhabiting a larger-than-life character who only ever really found her footing when she was onstage, belting her signature songs, demanding (and usually getting) an audience’s devotion. While it’s too soon to place any bets, especially with a Meryl Streep vehicle (The Laundromat) in the running, so far Zellweger’s performance is looking like the one to beat for 2019 Best Actress honors.
The storytelling here is fairly conventional, although the focus on the final year of Garland’s short life is not. We meet her when she’s already down on her luck, unemployed and unemployable in the US, deep in debt and back taxes, getting kicked out of a hotel and desperate not to lose custody of her two younger children to their father, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Judy’s only hope to be able to provide a stable home for Lorna (Bella Ramsey, who played steely little fan favorite Lady Mormont in Game of Thrones) and Joey is to accept an offer of a five-week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. That gig serves as a microcosm of the highs and lows of the singer’s career, alternating moments when the enraptured audience is eating out of her hand with others when they’re chucking their dinner rolls at her because she showed up late, sloshed, stumbling and verbally abusive.
Wrapped up in this whirlwind is an account of Garland’s ill-advised last marriage, to the much-younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). The timing of their courtship is compressed for narrative convenience, but it serves to illustrate the star’s personal charm, her sense of entitlement, her impulsiveness, her hunger for approval and her obliviousness, despite long exposure, to opportunists wanting to hitch their wagons to her star. Having such men in her life – managers who became her husbands and vice versa – accounted for a great deal of her persistent financial troubles.
But most of her misfortune she brought upon herself, as this depiction makes clear. Persistent substance abuse – alcohol and amphetamines and the barbiturates that eventually killed her – is what made her so unreliable a performer that, by the late ’60s, no one wanted to take a chance on hiring her anymore, whether to make a movie musical or show up to sing at a concert hall. We see plenty of that side of her in Judy, as her assigned British assistant Rosalyn (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley) tags after her, repeatedly dragging her out of bed, into a gown and a cab and onto the stage.
The barely-held-together last year of her life, per this script, was the culmination of decades of anxiety attacks, chronic insomnia, anorexia, all of which the star tried to self-medicate. Flashbacks to her teenage years as a virtual prisoner of MGM pinpoint the beginnings of her addictions: the diet pills doled out regularly by studio honchos and handlers, including her own pushy stage mom (Natasha Powell), who insisted that she keep losing weight to play young characters like Dorothy Gale. It’s also heavily implied that the young actress was being sexually abused by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). Darci Shaw, who actually resembles Judy much more than Zellweger does, puts in a creditable performance as the star’s younger self.
It’s a persuasive explanation for how an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who might’ve taken enough control of her own fate and fortune to become a powerbroker herself, instead went down the path of becoming a needy, compulsive people-pleaser. That drive, we are shown, was Garland’s brilliance as well as her undoing. Judy kicks into high gear every time Zellweger steps out onstage and does her transformation – transfiguration, even – from panicky self-doubt to consummate showperson.
The actress makes the connection between Garland and her audience feel visceral and real. Their love, we see, is her ultimate addiction. And we, the audience-once-removed, simply cannot refuse her. The climactic scene in which her body and her voice crumple halfway through “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” only to be uplifted by her fans, is corny as hell. But I dare you not to get a little teary. Renée Zellweger’s commitment to her character makes it all work.