JUDY: Zellweger Wonderfully Captures A Fading Star

My Verdict | ★★★☆☆

‘There’s no place like home’

This iconic phrase kept coming back to me as I watched Judy, Rupert Goold’s biopic of Hollywood legend Judy Garland (adapted from Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow by Goold and Tom Edge). Between her childhood and the final few months of her life which Judy depicts, the most enduring impression that the film left on me is that the star never had a home.

Judy begins with The Wizard of Oz, of course. In the shadows of the movie’s sets, a young Frances Gumm (Darci Shaw) is perversely moulded by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) into child-star ‘Judy Garland’. The beloved classic film and the studio who created it are revealed to be a cruel experience and an exploitative regime. The past that Judy flashes intermittently back to is utterly drained of nostalgia. It is a trap of hard light, lurid colours and fake emotional attachments.

Thirty years later and despite her international stardom, Judy (Renee Zellweger) is heavily medicated, restless and unable to provide for her family. In order to settle her considerable debts and keep ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) from taking complete custody of her children, she begrudgingly takes the opportunity to revive her career in London’s West End. However, the mother must leave her children behind in Los Angeles. A turbulent tour takes the star from giddy highs to crushing lows in a search to build (and return to) some semblance of home.

I must admit that beside her performance as Dorothy Gale, I didn’t know much about Garland’s life. However, the few details I was familiar with are all here: her enthralling stage presence; the traumatic dietary regime in her childhood career; and her status as an adored icon in the gay community. In the film’s compacted depiction of her final year, Judy is presented as self-sabotaging and without agency. Her world is one in which others hop aboard her talent and ride it to their own success or until it fades out. Behind the curtain, the star herself is riddled with drugs and self-doubt even after the applause. Goold returns consistently to a stricken sad tone. It even tips into the depressingly bleak considering certain details of Judy’s showbiz upbringing (heavily alluding to child abuse).

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Zellweger’s central performance hovers between the affecting and affected. Goold’s clinging (even cloying) focus and the actor’s overly expressive face has the potential to less a search for Judy, than a search for another Oscar nomination.

Except the musical numbers- they burst forward with vitality and joy. Judy at her peak, for the most part. The London premiere is a genuinely tantalising experience, turning around awkward doubt of Judy’s success to an uproarious opening performance. Zellweger’s Judy wins the audience over, both on-screen and off. While the actor never entirely impersonates Garland’s singular singing voice, she certainly gets across her spirit- her desire to please, her witty asides and the desperate on-stage tantrums. In the moments that Judy embraces the spotlight, Zellweger is truly a marvel to watch.

It is a central performance that hovers between the affecting and affected. Goold’s clinging (even cloying) focus and Zellweger’s expressive face has the potential to be less a search to find Judy than to find another Oscar nomination (every wrinkled pout or her prominent front-teeth lip-biting is dramatically prominent). However, on the whole, I found Zellweger convincing for the intimacy, intensity and warmth she gives the role. It is a detailed performance (though nearly a performance of details- crumpled posture, scratchy voice) of a woman trying to be sincere and strong while lost and vulnerable.

Zellweger is aptly supported by Jessie Buckley’s brisk manager. Soon Buckley’s looks of exasperation become looks of concern, reiterated in the cross-cutting between them, suggesting this was the first person who cared for the person behind the talent. A deeply touching (though fictional) scene between Judy and two gay ‘allies’ (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) with whom she invites herself out with one evening bypasses sycophancy for a mutual (if different) recognition of pain in their lives.

Yes, Judy makes you root for her while reaching for the tissues. It all ends on rather predictable note, an inevitable swan-song looping the film’s conclusion with its sordid beginnings, though this did feel earned. It’s a moot point to mention awards as, after all, Hollywood will always want to celebrate one of its own. No doubt, Zellweger will get nominated.

Despite the accolades that might be awarded to it, Judy remains in my mind as tribute that is unexpectedly bittersweet.