Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Making a celebrity biopic must be much tougher than it looks. Sure, it is easy to cast a famous person as another famous person and sell tickets just based on that. However, deciding how to present the subject, what part of their lives to concentrate on and what you want the audience to come away with has to be quite the challenge. The Judy Garland biopic Judy (adapted from the play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter) takes place in 1969, not long before Judy’s death, and is about the struggles she faces on what turned out to be her final performance tour. The emphasis here is on how her upbringing caused her issues she was unable to overcome.
What the movie is unable to overcome is a screenplay that never connects with Judy as anything more than a legend on the downswing. The flashbacks showing the ways she was taken advantage of by MGM head Louis B. Mayer when she was a child star bring a weight the present day section fails to properly pay off. We watch as she drinks, takes pills, sings and self-destructs. It is a sad movie about a woman who never recovered from a traumatic childhood. Judy seems to pity her, but it rarely makes her come alive as a person.
As this story begins, Judy Garland is having difficulty finding work, making it really hard to find a place for her and her children to live. Seeing no other choice, she reluctantly leaves them with their father and goes to London for a series of concerts she believes will pay her enough so she can return to give them the life they deserve. The rest of its 111 minute runtime (not counting the end credits) includes romance, singing and a lot of depression.
It appears one of the main reasons actors flock to portraying real people is in the hopes of garnering awards. Out of the twenty acting nominee spots at this year’s Oscars, half of them were filled by performances based on an actual person (including three of the four winners). I have already seen that degree of hype surrounding Renée Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland.
Though she is good at capturing Garland’s style and mannerisms, she is not acting so much as impersonating. There are no layers to her performance. She does have several moments, especially ones on the stage, where she successfully displays Judy’s pain and need for acceptance. Unfortunately for her, Judy limits her by only seeing the character as a fallen icon. She does exactly what was needed from her here, yet it is pretty clear she could have gone significantly deeper, if only the movie had engaged with Judy more on a personal level.
There are some scenes that effectively show her need to perform mixed with her massive anxieties offstage. Those could have made useful building blocks for an intriguing character study. The flashbacks hint at cause and effect. Zellweger does a good job furthering that idea when she has the opportunity to be subtle. But Judy only explores up to a point. It is a celebration of Judy Garland’s talent as well as the sad last act of a woman who never got to be a girl. Zellweger does her best and the rest of the cast (including Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Jessie Buckley) put in solid work. Disappointingly, Judy, while being very focused on the story it is telling, misses her humanity. Except when she is onstage. For that time, it understands precisely who she was.
2¾ out of 5
Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland
Darci Shaw as Young Judy
Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans
Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder
Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft
Michael Gambon as Bernard Delfont
Directed by Rupert Goold
Screenplay by Tom Edge