“I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.” – Judy Garland
Sing Hallelujah, c’mon get happy! Renée Zellweger breathtakingly captures Judy Garland’s beautiful and vulnerable essence in the new film “Judy.”
The tragedies in Garland’s whirlwind life have been well documented. “Judy” certainly reminds us of her lifelong struggles through flashbacks and a look at what sadly became some of her final public appearances before her death in 1969. But Zellweger also conveys what Mickey Rooney said about his sometime co-star and longtime friend many years ago: “Judy Garland was a different type of entertainer. She was a dancer, a singer, and an incurable romantic.”
After a flashback to the not-so-dreamy days of “The Wizard of Oz” when a decidedly creepy Louis B. Mayer (rendered quite calmly and menacingly by Richard Cordery) inappropriately interacts with a teenage Judy (deftly played with a mix of girlish joy and sorrow by Darci Shaw), we see the middle-aged Garland and her two children by ex-husband Sid Luft getting coldly evicted from a Los Angeles hotel; the bills are on the rise and Garland’s earning power is on the wane.
She gets an apparent but heart-searing lifeline: leave her youngest children with Luft (Rufus Sewell, who’s made a career of making unlikable characters very compelling) while jetting to London for a five-week sell-out run at the Talk of the Town nightclub run by legendary London impresario Bernard (later Baron of Stepney) Delfont (the great Michael Gambon making the most of a sadly underwritten role).
The gig seems promising, and the smart, sensible but sensitive Rosalyn Wilder (a solid performance from Jessie Buckley) is assigned by Delfont to insure that Garland doesn’t go too far astray during the run. This professional upswing is coupled with another chance at love courtesy of Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, a strong presence despite a role that’s written basically as a rogue-on-the-make caricature), who’s destined to become her fifth husband. But the challenges that have hounded her life and show business career (45 of her 47 years, incidentally) are never far from the spotlight (and sometimes in it)…
Perhaps screenwriter Tom Edge (basing his work on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter) and director Rupert Goold felt the ’30s flashbacks were essential exposition for the ’60s sequences; not everyone who comes to see “Judy” will know that backstory. But those flashbacks aren’t necessary given the words and actions of Garland and others in the 1968-69 scenes, resulting in a film where the pacing drags when we return to the MGM sound-stages of yesteryear. The film really moves, in pacing and emotion, when we see Zellweger struggling not just to perform but to survive; her poignant interaction with two super-fans (Dan and Stan, unfortunately named in rhyming fashion but sweetly played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) is quite touching.
The musical numbers (no prize for guessing which one comes as the film concludes, but music director and arranger Matt Dunkley deserves a warm smile for his work throughout) are where Zellweger ultimately shines brightest. That’s not surprising when one recalls her Best Actress nomination for playing Roxie Hart in 2002’s “Chicago,” though here she has to pull off playing a still-consummate performer who was far from her vocal best by that time (for an example of that, watch and listen to this video of Garland on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1968.) For a taste of how Zellweger sounds, the film’s soundtrack is out on Friday as well.
(Zellweger’s transformation into Garland isn’t just about her acting and singing chops, though. Kudos should definitely go to hair and makeup designer Jeremy Woodhead and costume designer Jany Temime for their wonderful assists to her and other actors in this picture.)
My not-so-bold prediction is that Zellweger will get an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9 to go with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she won as Ruby Thewes in 2003’s “Cold Mountain.” I realize much may happen to sway Oscar voters in another direction between now and then, as Garland herself learned when she lost to Grace Kelly (an in-depth look at that here), but biopic star turns (especially for Best Actor) are certainly regular grist for the Academy’s mill.
“My mother was a phoenix who always expected to rise from the ashes of her latest disaster,” her daughter Lorna Luft once said. “She loved being Judy Garland.” Luft won’t be watching it, as she told “Good Morning Britain” in a TV interview, and apparently neither will Liza Minnelli (Goold gave his response to Minnelli’s statements about the movie in a recent interview). That’s certainly understandable – they, along with Joey Luft, love and protect the memory of their mother, which is of course to their credit.
“Judy” is an uneven effort, but we can savor a beautiful homage to Garland from Zellweger. Despite her tragic death at age 47, the ultimate, positive legacy of Garland’s great artistry and humanity inspires us to think the rainbow is never completely out of reach while our hearts have hope.
“Judy” opens in Nashville on Friday (Sept. 27) at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 and Franklin’s AMC Dine-In Thoroughbred 20. It’s rated PG-13 by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) of the Motion Picture Association (MPA) for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking. Click here for more info and tickets to showings at those theaters and others elsewhere.