Film & Television

In ‘Judy,’ Zellweger’s Performance is Dazzling, Heartbreaking, and Oscar-Worthy

When Judy Garland died, I was only seven years old. She was already on my radar, though; CBS’s annual showing of The Wizard of Oz was a treasured family affair. But while I may have thrilled to watch the Wicked Witch of the East (not to mention her flying monkeys) pursue Dorothy Gale, I didn’t know anything about the demons that plagued the grown woman who had once portrayed her. Alcoholism, barbiturates, anorexia, insomnia, anxiety, depression. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations, people who had actually watched the star grow up and grow old before her time, must have been shocked.

The dazzling new movie Judy — directed by Rupert Goold, with a script by Tom Edge adapted from the stage play End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter — chronicles several weeks in the star’s life six months prior to her death by accidental overdose. It is at once a celebration of an iconic star’s courageous last stand and a cautionary tale about a brilliantly talented young girl whose childhood was stolen by an industry that eventually abandoned her. In today’s vernacular, we would say that Garland suffered from lifelong PTSD.

When the film opens, the year is 1968, and to say that Garland is struggling is a gross understatement. She plays small local venues, trotting out her two youngest children, Lorna and Joey Luft (Liza Minnelli is already grown and busy with her own career), and getting paid a pittance. Branded as “unreliable and uninsurable,” she can’t get any other work. She is emaciated and essentially homeless, having been evicted from her most recent hotel. “The room has been released,” the manager informs her tersely. With nowhere else to turn, she brings her children to their father, who — given Garland’s poverty and nomadic life — is eager to sue for custody. Allegedly, Luft lost most of Garland’s money gambling, yet he somehow has the home and security that elude her.

She is offered five-weeks in London at the elegant cabaret theatre “Talk of the Town.” Her reputation in England isn’t yet tarnished. The engagement promises to pay handsomely, and she hopes to earn enough to buy a proper home and regain custody of her children. Her son in particular is upset that she’ll be away for Christmas. Here and elsewhere, Garland’s love for and commitment to her family are wholly believable. “In order to be with my children,” she ironically observes, “I have to be away from my children.” (Later, a selfless phone call to her daughter will drive you to a tear or two and a moment of sheer admiration.)

Things in England don’t go exactly as planned. She is assigned an “assistant,” or more aptly, a handler, a woman who is capable and precise in the way that only a Brit can be. Frustrated at first by Garland’s petulant behavior, not to mention her excessive drinking and drug use, she’s eventually won over. Garland has heart, and even when she’s a human train wreck, hiding in the bathroom of her spacious hotel suite minutes before she needs to be onstage, she somehow manages to deliver for her audience. That is, she does until she doesn’t.

Throughout the film, flashbacks to 1938 present a very young Judy getting the break of a lifetime but paying dearly for it. She’s expected to give the studio her all, and they ply her with pills to keep her awake, followed by pills to help her sleep. She’s forbidden to eat lest she become too fat to be their Dorothy. Every aspect of her life, from a soda shop “date” with Mickey Rooney to a phony birthday party alongside a “prop pool,” is staged for the Hollywood press machine. Louis B. Mayer employs manipulative psychology, praising her one moment and threatening her the next. She is no one without him, he implies as he insults her mother and father. And he’s quick to remind her that she made a deal. (Although the scenes stop short of sexual assault, it’s difficult to watch them today and not think of Harvey Weinstein.) 

Goold is working with a tremendous supporting cast. Finn Wittrock, whose handsome looks are always tinged with a self-interested slimeyness, plays Mickey Deans, Garland’s much younger fifth husband. Rufus Sewell, a BBC regular, is ex-husband producer Sid Luft. Jessie Buckley has nice moments as Garland’s London assistant. The Luft children, played by Lewin Lloyd and Bella Ramsey (who is particularly fine), having watched their beloved mother struggle, are sad and wise beyond their years. Michael Gambon, as the London promoter, is appropriately outraged by Garland’s consistent inconsistencies. In the flashbacks, newcomer Darci Shaw is poignant and vulnerable as teen Judy. And Richard Cordery, as L.B. Mayer, is a convincing and chilling emotional abuser.

 

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