Judy, the new biographical film about the last days of Judy Garland, makes many right decisions that are small, and one right decision that’s much larger: for its first forty-five minutes, it doesn’t let us hear Garland sing. Therefore, through multiple false starts and teases, we’re left to wonder what’s coming — whether she can still sing, and beyond that, what it’ll sound like when Renee Zellweger opens her mouth. Kind of like how in Jaws we don’t see the shark in the first act.
The result is both worth the wait and absolutely glorious. Judy offers a career-best performance from Renee Zellweger, the best screen treatment of Judy Garland’s life to date, and the first awards bait of the fall to rise to the occasion.
Judy is directed by Rupert Goold, a stage veteran whose only previous film credit was the forgettable James Franco/Jonah Hill drama True Story from 2015. This film, however, is much better, buoyed by an amazing Zellweger performance and a treatment of Garland that appears to get her just right. The story is set in late 1968 and early 1969, when Garland is divorced, broke, addicted, and essentially homeless. Faced with the prospect of losing custody of her two youngest children, she accepts a gig playing a series of concerts in London. Across the pond, she remained beloved, and the promoters appeared more tolerant of her well-earned reputation for unreliability.
Once in London, we see that Garland remains troubled, refusing to rehearse and snapping at everyone around her. Things in London are up and down for Garland, and we’re aware that she will be dead not long after the film’s events. But we do see, especially in that first scene and a few subsequent ones, that Garland still has her singing voice. Most of the time, anyway.
Probably the Judy‘s best scene is when an aging gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) meet Garland outside the theater, and end up inviting her over for dinner. These characters, it’s first implied, are there to represent the legendary love and devotion for Judy Garland held by a certain generation of gay men (it’s where the phrase “friend of Dorothy” originated). But as the sequence goes on, the men’s story takes on an added poignancy.
Amid the 1969 plot unfolding, there are also numerous flashbacks to a younger Judy (played by newcomer Darci Shaw) and her hellish experience making The Wizard of Oz. On that set, she’s bullied (and, it’s implied, molested) by studio boss Louis B. Mayer, denied any semblance of a normal childhood, and also fed pills that would leave her, essentially, addicted for life. The film doesn’t try to be an exhaustive history of the performer’s life, but shows us just enough of her early days — and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Renee Zellweger hasn’t been on screen much in the last decade, save for a better-than-expected second sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary (called Bridget Jones’ Baby) back in 2016. That she made more news for showing up looking unrecognizable on a red carpet in 2014 than for any of her recent acting work makes a lot of the same points about cruel sexism in Hollywood that this movie itself does.
But here, she’s outstanding. Zellweger already sang in 2002’s Chicago, a Best Picture Oscar winner, but her vocal performance is nothing short of amazing. And just as it delays its first deployment of Garland’s voice, the film saves a certain song for the perfect moment. Zellweger’s performance doesn’t leave a lot of room for others, but Rufus Sewell has some decent scenes as ex-husband Sid Luft, while Bella Ramsey (Lady Lyanna Mormont from Game of Thrones!) capably plays Garland’s young daughter, Lorna Luft, while Judy’s older daughter, Liza Minnelli, appears briefly and is played by Gemma-Leah Devereux.
It isn’t always a great idea to make a movie about the last days of a famous person’s life — see Cobb, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, or last year’s Nico, 1988, as films that were made about later and less-interesting periods in the lives of celebrities. But Judy manages to find poignancy in a story about the latter days of Judy Garland’s life. There’s a certain moment at the end of Judy that’s going to be divisive. Some will call it unbearably corny, while others will agree that it’s corny and love it anyway. Count me in the latter camp.
Judy compares favorably with the acclaimed 1990s TV miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, in which Judy Davis played Garland — although that series, based on Lorna Luft’s memoir, was much more exhaustive. There are also echoes of Geoff Ryman’s 1992 novel, WAS, which combined the stories of L. Frank Baum, Judy Garland, the character of Dorothy Gale, and a struggling actor dying of AIDS in 1980s Los Angeles; I’d love to see some creative screenwriter take a stab at adapting that.
Arriving on the 50th anniversary of Garland’s death, Judy is a tour de force for Renee Zellweger, and a must for anyone who appreciates that particular corner of Hollywood history.