In the opening scene of “Judy,” a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) is preparing for her audition for what would become her most iconic movie role: that of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” She is scolded by the head of MGM Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery) that she’s not as pretty as the other girls, but reminded that her voice is her savior — if she doesn’t want to end up an ordinary housewife. So begins this dark musical biopic about the beloved, legendary performer. If you’re searching for a cheerful, romanticized tale, you won’t find it here.
The film follows Garland’s (Renée Zellweger) last months in the winter of 1968 as she arrives in London to perform a five week limited engagement to her adoring British fans. Now a fading star, Judy can’t adjust to her now-budget lifestyle. She’s a victim of the Hollywood establishment, one that sunk its claws into a trusting young girl and never let go. The story is told in several flashbacks to her early days on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” where she was pumped full of drugs at a young age at the hands of studio workers. Judy was given pills that would make her refuse to eat so she’d stay skinny for her roles, and more pills to make her sleep through the night. It was a vicious cycle that she continued for the rest of her tragically short life.
Zellweger goes all-in on her performance of a drunk and broke Garland, embracing her mannerisms and posture to create a near mirror image. She’s very good here, and she may prove to be the one to beat come awards season. This is also the type of movie old, stuffy, Oscar establishment voters absolutely adore, which makes it the frontrunner for the Academy Awards this year too. It checks every box off the list of elements they just cannot resist. One: it’s about a cherished entertainment industry figure. Two: it features a very committed, very showy performance from an actor who’s over 40. Three: the lead actor performs all of the songs herself. Four: it features an homage and impersonation over an original character performance.
Judy Garland is not a particularly likeable person, but this film takes an unsympathetic character and makes her sympathetic. I’ve not seen a movie quite like this one, in that it truly made me feel what it is like to be in her shoes. I could actually relate to her here, as the film beautifully expresses what it’s like when you open the door to the dark side of celebrity. Judy was treated as a product and not a real person by those in control of her life and career, and the film peels back the layers to reveal the sad, gloomy aspects of those unfortunate byproducts of superstardom.
Zellweger creates a fragile, graceful balance between Judy’s onstage persona versus reality, a struggle that conveys what happens to a person’s soul when they become so detached from an audience of adoring fans that nothing seems to make life worth living. Garland had many bouts of unprofessionalism, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse that led to a poor reputation in Hollywood circles, causing her to rack up multiple divorces and eventually be ousted from the “phony show business” by “the bastards who run it.”
This is another story of fame that was ruined and cut short by addiction, but the film also explores what happens when the applause no longer satisfies, and how a famous person can struggle with finding very little joy doing the only thing she’s ever really done. Two of the most memorable scenes provide the perfect expression of these feelings; one when Judy hops on stage and goes through the motions of her song and dance routine with a dead look in her eyes, and another beautiful and poignant scene where Judy goes to a fan’s flat in London and finally gets a dose of the human connection she so desperately craves. It’s bits like this that really make the movie feel profound and meaningful.
It’s a shame there weren’t more heartfelt scenes like these. The bulk of the movie is a little too over the top and emotionally manipulative, like when a miserable Judy sings the upbeat “Get Happy” with tears in her eyes. This isn’t clever, it’s annoying and unnecessary to beat your audience over the head so overtly. The end scene that’s scored to a stage performance of “Over the Rainbow” veers into eye-rolling territory too, and almost completely turned me off from the rest of the movie.
“Judy” will likely please fans as long as they aren’t expecting a feel-good movie about one of the world’s greatest entertainers.