“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.
That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.
Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.
There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.
This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.
Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.
Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-’60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.
If you can, please consider supporting Slant Magazine.
Since 2001, we’ve brought you uncompromising, candid takes on the world of film, music, television, video games, theater, and more. Independently owned and operated publications like Slant have been hit hard in recent years, but we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or fees.
If you like what we do, please consider subscribing to our Patreon or making a donation.