The first lady of Hollywood tragedy

Renée Zellwegger is appropriately iconic as the talented, troubled Ms. Garland in Judy.

I was born a full 17 years after Judy Garland died, so obviously I have no first-hand memories of her. Even beyond that, however, I have no real memory of positive depictions of Judy Garland. Even if anyone can agree that she’s the poster child for the perils of fame and the iron grip of the studio system wrecking its performers, Judy Garland has always been a figure of camp in my life — a larger-than-life personality more likely to be the focus of a drag performance or sketch-comedy bit than a loving rendition. That’s not to say that people who love Judy Garland love her for wrong or lesser reasons, but simply that the lines have been blurred. Garland has become more iconic than even your average icon — a symbol of what we miss about Hollywood and what’s so insidiously evil about it. 

Judy Garland wasn’t even dead when the world over considered her a tragic figure, which bodes extremely poorly for any biopic that may deign to explore her life. Biopics are, by design, meant to address a rise and fall — Garland’s life and career, as it turns out, was almost exclusively a fall disguised as a rise. That’s the kind of stuff that leads to extremely overwrought melodrama in most cases, but I’m happy to report that Rupert Goold’s Judy manages to sidestep most of those shameful impulses. Set at the end of Garland’s life, Judy is less a biopic than a kind of living wake, meant to mourn someone while they’re still there to see it. (Well, of course, Garland died 50 years ago, so she wasn’t there to see it, but the Judy in the movie was.)

Broke and essentially between homes, Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) tries to keep her career afloat by doing shows with her children, which is heavily frowned upon by their father Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). Torn between having to make a living to uphold her extravagant lifestyle and being with her children, Garland half-heartedly accepts a well-paid residency in a London theatre. Garland is more popular and less of a laughing stock in England (this is one of the many commonalities between Judy and Stan & Ollie, which similarly depicts an end-of-career run through England), but the actual performances themselves find themselves threatened by Garland’s frail physical state and frailer mental state. A whirlwind marriage with a younger, somewhat meatheaded would-be producer (Finn Wittrock) gives her hope for the future, but every show is a gamble when you’re Judy Garland.

Goold favours a fairly meat-and-potatoes approach to biographical structure. There aren’t really any stylistic flights of fancy, and you better believe that the film keeps the song everyone expects from Garland for the very end. Biopics that focus on a specific part of their subject’s life tend to be richer and more interesting than their head-to-tail brethren, but Judy splits the difference by periodically returning to Garland’s youth as a studio player being driven into the ground by the megalomaniacal spirit of Louis B. Mayer. A teenager plucked out of obscurity by the despotic studio head, Garland spent her entire teens and some of her 20s pilled-up and overworked, her every breath monitored by a studio desperate to preserve her virginal image. Obviously, it’s imperative to understand this early trauma in order to depict her later life, but the nostalgic sheen and seemingly random dispersion of these flashbacks feels more corny than poignant.

Judy is at its best when it focuses on Garland and Garland alone — when the viewer is left alone with her as much as possible. It becomes clear early on that pretty much every aspect of her life is a performance, to some degree, that the aforementioned trauma has left her constantly “on,” regardless of the audience she’s “on” for. What makes Garland such a fascinating tragic figure is the kind of ping-ponging bipolarity of her own self-confidence. She’s as capable of being a magnetic performer than brings the house down as she is to regress to childhood and start throwing shit around. This is where a film like Judy could fall into the aforementioned sketch-show grotesque caricature and where, thankfully, it soars thanks to an incredible performance by Zellweger.

Granted, Zellweger doesn’t exactly visually disappear in the role. Though she’s clearly lost a lot of weight to approximate Garland’s frail state at the time, she still more or less looks like Renée Zellweger, and she also does all of her own singing in the musical sequences. It’s a role that most would qualify as being larger than life, but that’s exactly the nuance that Zellweger chooses to ignore. She manages to ground this person who is absolutely larger than life and who lives nearly every moment as if all eyes were on her. She manages to make Judy Garland relatable and to make her tics feel organic. Almost everything that’s moving and interesting and captivating about Judy stems directly out of Zellweger’s performance. Films like this often feel designed and calibrated to extract the best possible performances out of their leads to the detriment of nearly everything else. Judy is the rare movie that actually delivers on that promise in a satisfactory way.

That having been said, Judy is a phenomenal performance in a movie that’s anything but. It seems the main problem is that it’s a movie that knows its protagonist is at the end of her life — but she doesn’t. It has the quality of an epitaph and the kind of reverent politeness in its structure and the things it chooses to show (including an extended sequence in which Garland spends an evening with a couple of gay fans that is sweet in itself but seems like an inorganic hat tip to Garland’s gay fanbase when taken with the rest of the film). It’s a movie with an incredible living performance at the centre of it that renders nearly everything around it dusty and somewhat museum-y. But what a performance, though!  ■

Judy opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 27. Watch the trailer here: