The big moment in Judy arrives not unlike a crescendo. That’s when Judy Garland — as played with gusto by Renee Zellweger — sits on the edge of a stage and introduces a “song about hope.” The orchestra behind her begins playing a few familiar notes and Garland launches into a melancholic rendition “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The scene could have been bombastic cheese. But placed near the end of the film, it feels earned and especially poignant. Then the realization hits: By golly, Judy has brains, heart and courage.
Indeed, what could have been a predictable yawn of a true story about a gifted performer that couldn’t tame her own demons instead feels fresh and intimate. We always knew Garland was desperate for her audiences to forget their troubles and get happy yet who realized this need-to-please came at her own expense. Credit Zellweger, who gives Garland a sympathetic human touch. While the actress may not be an ideal physical match of a wary and weary Garland circa 1969 (despite her impressive hair and makeup team), she captures her essence. She’s quick-witted, emotionally fragile and warm and remorseful. And when she opens her mouth to sing those torch ballads, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing.
Before Judy’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Zellweger (who received a medal for career achievement) told the crowd that the part appealed to her because she was “always curious” about Garland’s twilight. It’s a fascinating chapter to be sure; still, director Rupert Goold (True Story) also smartly flashes back to a young Judy in the throes of her Wizard of Oz-era teen heyday. And in many ways, her story mirrors the ones we’ve seen in countless other music-themed biopics. Her parents are cold, distant figures in absentia. She reaches the pinnacle of fame too soon and becomes addicted to the limelight. She becomes hooked on pills and drinks alcohol like it’s tap water. Her romances are a disaster. It’s not a matter of if she’ll fall, but when and how far.
The key difference here is Hollywood flat-out destroyed her before she learned how to destroy herself. She was pushed onto the stage for the first time at the tender age of 2. The sinister MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Corder) was ostensibly the Harvey Weinstein of the 1930s and 1940s. He emotionally and physically bullied a young Judy (Darci Shaw), forbidding her from putting on weight, plying her with pills and pressuring her to be beautiful. She’s not even allowed to eat cake on her 16th birthday, a small scene that will pay off in Judy’s third act.
By the time Garland is in her mid-forties in the late 1960s, she’s a professional has-been. Hippie teens want to hear the Beatles, not pay to see the former Dorothy Gale croon her greatest hits. She can’t afford her hotel suite and is so scattered that she can no longer care for her two youngest kids, Lorna and Joey Luft. (Alas, teen daughter Liza Minnelli is relegated to a quickie appearance.) Her only option is to go to London and perform a series of concerts. It’s not exactly the five-tiered Carnegie Hall, but the gig will pay the bills. Popping both uppers and downers, there’s actual uncertainty in whether she can pull herself together and make it to the venue on opening night.
There’s also a measure of suspense in hearing Zellweger flex her vocal chops. We don’t hear her sing until the 45-minute mark, a shrewd decision on Goold’s part. It takes a few extra beats to adjust to the sight of the onetime Bridget Jones portraying the iconic entertainer. (The actress can’t quite shake her Texas drawl; Garland, nee Frances Gumm, was a native Midwesterner.) When she finally opens her first London show by belting out “By Myself,” it’s a cross between a pleasant surprise and a revelation. Zellweger, a best actress Oscar nominee for 2002’s Chicago, handily pulls off the singing and dancing in the sequined pantsuits yet never overdoes the razzle-dazzle.
So, who was Garland off the stage? Therein lies the true tragedy. Without her family and friends off the payroll, the performer walks ever-so tentatively in her high heels. She can’t leave a room unless she’s fully made-up in false lashes. She impulsively marries the only man who’s nice to her. (Like the four marriages that come before, it doesn’t last.) She’s so desperate for company that she asks two devoted fans waiting by the stage door — a gay couple that see her every night — to have dinner with her. It results in a moving and unexpected musical scene that sublimely illustrates the core of the woman and her film: While Garland may not have loved herself, millions continue to love her and wish her well.
Judy, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, will open in theaters on Sept. 29.