Hollywood’s ability to elevate and oppress its stars in equal measure—to treat them as both gods and chattel—is written into the DNA of “Judy,” an effective and efficient primer on Judy Garland’s tortured twilight and the industry machinations that led her there.
“Judy” is adapted from Peter Quilter’s wrenching play “End of the Rainbow,” an uncompromising eavesdrop on the iconic singer’s physical and emotional disintegration on her final London tour in 1969. But director Rupert Goold’s movie is more charitable and dignified toward its subject, which makes his adaptation less indispensable as an unvarnished portrait. But unlike Quilter’s play, which rotated solely between Garland’s hotel room and the concert hall, Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge allow glimpses into Judy’s heyday as a child star.
“Judy” opens on the teenage title character (Darci Shaw), for instance, being recruited by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the mogul brooks no reservations about the life of an underage actor. “It’s your job to give [the] people dreams,” he says, and if that means eschewing the freedoms, the food and the sleep of the “normal” people, so be it. In return, he says, like some rotund Mephistopheles, “you’ll make a million dollars before you’re 20.”
Sumptuous music swells, and the camera cranes upward, revealing the Yellow Brick Road and its path toward those riches. It’s a moment of self-conscious fantasy, a bait and switch that reflects the cruel world in which Garland grew up—micro-managed by studio overseers, denied lunch breaks, plied on pills from age 16. It’s no wonder she would grow up to be a hot mess.
In the dark days of the late ‘60s, her film career having dried up and those millions squandered—her third husband, Sid Luft, was an inveterate gambler—Garland still self-medicated with pills, though “Judy” focuses more on the star’s alcoholism. Immersively portrayed by Renee Zellweger, she arrives in London in a state of financial desperation. Homeless in Hollywood, she’s forced to leave her two youngest children behind in America to headline in a city where she’s still appreciated.
Each of Garland’s performances hangs on a knife’s edge, fully dependent on what Judy has been feeling, and drinking, in the hours prior. Zellweger’s skill lies in not just nailing the self-destructive Oscar-bait crescendos—those unsteady, train-wreck, tomato-dodging concerts—but in lending wit, melancholy and even grace to the troubled star during her everyday grind of life. Her Judy is fond of self-deprecating epigrams, but we quickly discern that she uses humor as a crutch against the maladies metastasizing through her body and mind. The sudden note of sadness she injects into a line like “I don’t have anywhere else to be”—uttered in otherwise enjoyable diversion with Mickey Deans (Finn Whitrock), who would become her third husband—is one of countless astute choices.
Is “Judy” gripping in that gasp-worthy, shrink-into-your-chair, watch-through-your-fingers kind of way? Not really, and certainly not to the extent of its source material when performed well. But in the end, it finally got me, and I welled up almost in spite of myself. Or, rather, Zellweger, got me. A movie may be a collective form of art, and everybody involved in the film did a fine job, but there’s a reason it’s called “Judy.” Zellweger is the picture.
“Judy” opens Friday, Sept. 27 at most area theaters.