Film Review: Renée Zellweger Shines As ‘Judy’ In Well-Intentioned Biopic
Judy has the best intentions. By putting the end of Judy Garland’s life under a microscope, director Rupert Goold aims to humanize the legend and highlight the devastating trauma heaped upon her by a lifetime in the studio system. And he almost achieves it thanks to his cast. Renée Zellweger embodies the titular character with such ferocity that an Oscar nomination is a mere formality. In her hands, Judy is simultaneously brilliant and burned out. She still has the magic in her, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to conjure. The film is less successful, however, when it revisits Judy’s childhood and tries to tackle her status as a gay icon.
Goold’s biopic begins with a down-on-her-luck Judy ferrying her children from a nightclub performance to a hotel in the middle of the night. It turns out that she’s broke, and now homeless. The only option is ex-husband Sidney Luft (a suitably slimy Rufus Sewell), who begrudgingly takes the kids off her hands. The seemingly washed-up star ends up on daughter Liza Minnelli’s doorstep. It’s here that she meets future husband Mickey Deans (an equally slimy Finn Wittrock) at a party and realizes that she’s going to have to earn some coin to get her children back.
The answer, it turns out, is London. While Judy is unemployable in America thanks to her erratic behavior and addiction issues, she’s still a superstar in the UK. So, she heads to the British capital in the winter of 1968 for a five-week sold-out run at The Talk of the Town. This part of the film is fascinating. Our heroine is utterly exhausted and disinterested (rehearsal is no longer in her vocabulary). She’s also waging a losing battle with insomnia and chronic loneliness. However, when the lights go on, Judy’s still got it. Even if she has to be pushed on stage.
This is where the emotional depth and staggering detail of Renée’s performance is most apparent. The Jerry Maguire star does a miraculous job of capturing not only the superstar’s hunched posture and wide-eyed terror, but also the rush of euphoria that comes from connecting with an audience. Renée’s Judy is deeply human, frayed and fantastic. The fact that she also manages to mimic Judy’s iconic tone when singing is beyond impressive. You sense that disaster could strike at any time, but, for now at least, Ms. Garland is allowed another mini-triumph.
Unfortunately, the film begins to unravel somewhat with flashbacks to Judy’s days in the MGM machine. The intention is to show where her addiction issues stem from (she was force fed pills from childhood), but the scenes lack all nuance. Louis B. Mayer, in particular, is presented as a virtual cartoon villain that lecherously creeps around the set with the sole intent of terrorizing his biggest star. The thing is, we don’t need the backstory. Renée’s performance and chilling allusions to her “glory days” suffice even for the uninitiated.
The film is similarly clumsy when it tries to address Judy’s status as a gay icon. It does this by manufacturing a friendship with a pair gay fans, who not only invite her over for dinner but also save her on stage by initiating a sing-along. It’s saccharine at best, and, again, wholly unnecessary. Judy is the ultimate gay icon because she was a survivor, who conveyed struggle, fear and obstinate hope through every gravelly note. We love the Wizard Of Oz star because she endured. Not because she shared an omelette with a same sex couple in the ’60s.
Having said that, the film’s structural issues and storytelling fumbles can’t derail the power of Renée’s performance. When the actress is onscreen, she’s electric and riveting. Goold’s film also does an admirable job of introducing Judy’s classic hits to a whole new audience and showcasing a period of her life often overlooked by pop culture historians and fans alike. All in all, Judy is an entertaining and affecting viewing experience. It’s just a shame that it’s good instead of great. After all, great is what Judy deserved.