If you can imagine seeing a train leave a station with the understanding that it is going to experience an agonizing, slow motion and unavoidable wreck, the movie Judy gives you a gut wrenching, trackside view of such a journey. Along for the ride are various audiences, friends, family, fans and industry parasites that witness the spectacle and ride on the coat tails of Judy Garland’s career, spanning forty-five years, beginning at age two.
Judy Garland became a household name with her performance in the Wizard of Oz in 1939. The film won best song that year, sung by Garland, and was nominated for best picture. But it was a big year for movies. Gone With the Wind took best picture. Both films were directed by Victor Fleming.
This is essentially a one-woman show starring Renee Zellweger. I was unconvinced by previews but must say after seeing the film that I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of channeling the late Garland. The film recounts Judy’s life at a stage during the winter of 1968 when drugs and alcohol had derailed her career in the United States, causing her to leave her children with ex husband Sid Luft while she attempted to pull herself together in England.
As a biopic of a famous figure, Judy is interesting but not outstanding. It’s Zellweger’s portrayal of the fierce and fragile paradox embodied in the tiny (4’ 11”) legendary performer that kicks this movie up a couple of levels and makes it worth seeing. For those old enough to remember, or current fans with audio collections, the fact that Zellweger sang in the film is courageous. Garland’s vocal range and smooth delivery deteriorated over the years, in part due to her chronic smoking habit. The warbling vibrato she became known for is seen by some as a tactic to reach notes as she aged. But she could still belt out songs and thrill her audiences, fueled by a combination of drugs, alcohol, adrenaline, fame and transcendent willpower.
I remember Judy Garland from appearances on the Tonight Show, first with Jack Paar and later with Johnny Carson. (Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me stay up late and watch.) She was one of those late night couch dwellers that oozed charisma and was just quirky enough to be really interesting. Zellweger captures Judy’s mannerisms and jerky stage presence but just can’t approach her vocal talent. That should not be taken as criticism. She did an admirable, believable job. That said, she will probably be nominated for an academy award for this role.
Flashbacks to Garland at sixteen help explain the extent to which she spends her life as a victim of abuse at the hands of parents, producers and a string of husbands. She is never taught, or allowed, to make good choices, suffers from insomnia and is fed pills to sustain her through eighteen hour days. This becomes habitual and carries her through her early career. The abused becomes the abuser.
Zellweger is no stranger to controversy. Her rather strangely changed appearance following a lengthy absence from the limelight had the media speculating about all sorts of unidentified conditions. She claims that she just…aged. So be it.
Even in death, Garland could find no initial peace. Her remains were moved from Manhattan to Hollywood and re-interred at the request of her children in 2017. Her death was ruled an accident resulting from accumulated barbiturates, not a suicide. She was only 47 years old.
The film ends with a final song on stage. Yes, that song. You know the one.
Judy (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13
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