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Judy (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 19, 2020


JUDY (2019)

Starring Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery, Bella Ramsey, Arthur McBain, John Dagleish, Gemma-Leah Devereux, David Rubin, Gaia Weiss, Fenella Woolgar, Philippe Spall, Phil Dunster and Diana Alexandra Pocol.

Screenplay by Tom Edge.

Directed by Rupert Goold.

Distributed by Roadside Attractions. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.

There is a reason that Judy Garland is still such an icon fifty years after her death.

She was beautiful, talented and a complete wreck personally. She sang about love and yet left behind the shattered messes of five marriages. She was America’s sweetheart in wholesome entertainment like The Wizard of Oz and the Andy Hardy films, but she was a black-out drunk and addicted to prescription drugs.

She was one of the biggest stars in the world, and yet she couldn’t pay her bills. Her persona was brassy, funny and confident, but she was a depressive and immensely unsure of herself. She seemed full of life, but she attempted suicide at least twice (and that’s not even counting accidental overdoses). Her career hit the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Judy takes a look at one of the lows, with occasional flashbacks to arguably her career highpoint. In fact, the action of Judy happens about six months before her much too young death, at 47, of an accidental drug overdose. At that point her career was on life support. Her once crystal-clear voice had been damaged (but not ruined) when doctors had to perform a tracheotomy on her to save her life during one of the suicide attempts.

She was playing shows in small theaters in small towns for small paydays of like $150.00 a night. She (and her young children) were living in hotels or with anyone who would take them in. She was in the middle of an ugly custody battle with her fourth husband, Sidney Luft, over their daughter Lorna and son Joey. She was going to parties for her daughter Liza Minnelli, who was starting to get the kind of buzz that Judy once had.

She was considered “difficult” and therefore basically blackballed in movies, TV and most of the big nightclubs.

At that point, Judy was thrown a lifeline, a five-week run of shows at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub at a very tidy sum of money. She didn’t particularly want to go to London, but she saw this as the opportunity that would help her get back on her feet again.

Most of Judy revolves around this brief London residency, though there are extended flashbacks to Judy as a young girl working on The Wizard of Oz, where it shows that the yellow brick road was not as bright as you might imagine. An overbearing studio boss and stage mother sowed the seeds of Judy’s addictions and mental instability with their hard-and-fast insistence in perfection and total cooperation and capitulation as an actress and a young girl, smothering her youthful exuberance with drugs, browbeating and threats.

By this point in her career, Garland was a complete mess, but she could still be an electrifying entertainer – so long as she was relatively sober, which was far from being a given. More than once in the stand, Judy came out stoned out of her mind, arguing with audience members and sometimes collapsing on stage. (According to this film, Lonnie Donegan of Skiffle Group fame seemed to be on call at every show, hanging out backstage in case Judy crashed and burned. I suppose he was probably the opening act, but that is never explained.)

Still, when she was sober, she was a star, but also friendly, lonely and needy enough that she would follow a couple of gay superfans (who had just recently come out of the closet because homosexuality had just been decriminalized in England) home for a late night snack. She was a complete diva to her pretty, much younger British assistant, and yet they eventually came to respect each other and even find a kind of friendship.

Renee Zellweger sings all the songs here. As an actress, she nails Garland. She gets her voice, her mannerisms, her insecurities, her love of the spotlight. Some people have questioned whether Zellweger’s vocals would do Garland justice. And while Zellweger’s voice would probably not be quite strong enough to handle Judy in her prime, at this late date in her career with Judy’s vocal abilities somewhat compromised by hard living, Zellweger’s singing is more than adequate.

It is sad to see such an iconic actress and singer in such dire straits, but it is definitely a dramatic part of Garland’s tragic life. And even though she had hit hard times,

Zellweger’s stony determination still shows why the woman became a huge star and a legend, despite her many demons.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: September 27, 2019.

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