TIFF REVIEW – ‘Judy’ is a heartbreaking look at the troubled final days of a Hollywood legend

Renée! Renée! Renée! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! You’d be hard-pressed to find a better project for an absent Hollywood star to make her triumphant comeback than by tackling the most ambitious role of her career. In a twist of meta-laced irony, it’s a character Renée Zellweger can clearly identify with. Chewed up and spat out by the industry that made her a household name, Zellweger obviously connects with a thing or two about the experiences of the legendary Judy Garland.

In a heartbreaking look at the troubled final days of the Hollywood legend, Judy offers a rather devastating portrait of the decline of a superstar. It’s a tragedy many know well. For those unfamiliar, the biopic will no doubt prove rather shocking. Completely disappearing into the role she was born to play, Zellweger is simply breathtaking in a transcendent and remarkable performance, worthy of every nomination coming her way this awards season.

Not a full-blown biopic in the purest sense, Judy focuses its narrative on two very distinct periods in Garland’s life; one very early in her career and one during its sad conclusion. Opening on the set of The Wizard of Oz, we find a young Judy (Darci Shaw) chatting with MGM head-honcho Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who brutally informs her she’ll never be the prettiest girl in Hollywood. What Judy does have, and the reason she’s nabbed the role of Dorothy Gale, is “that voice.”

In a rather desperate attempt to stretch this film out, director Rupert Goold occasionally jumps to these flashbacks in Garland’s early career on the MGM lot to portray her damaging childhood and how it ultimately ruined her life. She’s followed everywhere by a controlling chaperone who refuses to allow Garland to eat, instead plying the star with appetite suppressants and sleeping pills to keep her in line. She’s berated by Mayer for daring to speak her mind. And her every move is controlled by a gruelling schedule of 15-hour days with barely a moment to herself.

But the real crux of this narrative is focused on 1967, which was to be the final year in the life of Garland (Zellweger). It’s here we find the former star in dire economic straits and in the midst of a custody battle with her latest ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). With her reputation in ruins and barely any offers for work in America, Garland is forced to accept an invitation for a series of concerts at London’s Talk of the Town club.

With her voice far from its glory days and crippled by performance anxiety, a string of sold-out shows is hardly what the performer really needs. But what she does require is money to help regain custody of her two young children and give them a place to call home. So, as they say, the show must go on. Under the watchful eye of assistant-turned-babysitter Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and theatre manager Bernard Delfont (an underused Michael Gambon), Garland’s every move is once again under the microscope.

Reinvigorated by an affair with a much younger man, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) and steadfastly determined to resurrect her dying career, Garland barrels on. But gripped by the alcohol and drug addictions that have plagued her entire life, it’s anyone’s guess if the unreliable star will actually make it to the stage for opening night, let alone survive a five-week run of performances.

The overall film surrounding Zellwegger’s performance ultimately proves rather superfluous. The flashback moments seek to connect the past to the present in such blindingly obvious fashion, it’s essentially spoonfeeding an audience the parallels we can likely already deduce. It’s hardly essential to see Garland fed pills in her youth to understand where her addiction started. This non-linear structure doesn’t give the viewer enough credit to draw their own conclusions, rejecting subtle implications in favour of literal manifestations of Garland’s childhood trauma.

Garland’s shameful treatment by MGM is well known by anyone with a passing knowledge of Hollywood’s golden era. It almost seems pointless to rehash these details again, as if Zellweger’s performance of the damaged star isn’t strong enough to convey the deep-seated pain Garland has been suffering for decades without spelling out precisely where and how it all started. The one intriguing element of these flashbacks are Garland’s gaslighting encounters with Meyer, which border on Weinstein-esque behaviour. But the film stops short of truly portraying the indecency he alleging enacted on the star, which seems like a missed opportunity.

You came to Judy to see Zellweger shine, and, boy, does she dazzle like never before. It’s always a risky move playing such a beloved icon. In the hands of a lesser performer, such a performance could easily fall into kitschy impersonation, particularly with someone as eccentric as Garland. But Zellweger completely embodies the essence of Garland, expertly capturing both her outlandish (and occasionally messy) on-stage persona and her fractured private side. Her every mannerism and movement echoes the legend perfectly. From the pursing of her lips into a dry smile to her hunched posture, Garland is reborn in front of our eyes.

In a physical sense, the resemblance is wildly uncanny, complemented by stunning hair, makeup, and costume design. There are brief moments you would swear you’re looking at Garland herself. Zellweger finds the occasional humour in the role, offering the world a peek at Garland’s penchant for self-deprecation. When a doctor asks the star if she’s ever taken anything for depression, Garland dryly responds, “Four husbands. Didn’t work.” But it’s clear this is merely Garland’s defence mechanism, masking the crippling pain burning within.

There are quieter moments for Zellwegger to further excel in, particularly a charming encounter with two adoring gay British fans who cannot believe their cherished idol is sitting in their living room. Garland was (and still is) undoubtedly a gay icon (it’s long been suggested her death helped spurn the Stonewall riots of 1969) and the sequence, while somewhat heavy-handed, highlights her impact and connection to the community. The scenes between Garland and her two children are also emotionally effective. Whether exaggerated for this film or not, it’s clear Garland desperately longed to be a good mother, despite her misgivings and absences.

But it’s when Garland is on stage that Zellweger’s performance truly comes to life. Performing the vocals herself was a potentially dangerous move, but Zellweger does an exquisite job at recreating Garland’s iconic voice, as slightly damaged as it may be. Each musical moment offers the audience the chance to see what Garland did best, as the ailing legend summons every ounce of energy she has left in her frail body to knock it out of the park. For all the vocal problems late in life, Garland could somehow still occasionally burst alive on stage, and Zellwegger matches that energy flawlessly.

During a rendition of Garland’s standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Zellwegger is simply sensational, but her performance of the lesser-known “By Myself” is on another goosebump-inducing level. As expected, the film concludes with Garland on-stage for one final performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which Zellweger appears to have sung live on set. Garland’s ailing voice is cracked and slightly rough, making the moment that much more tearful. It’s Zellweger’s Oscar moment, even if it’s slightly spoiled by a sickeningly sweet interaction with the audience that’s painfully inauthentic.

It’s a phrase we film critics use far too often, but Zellweger truly gives a tour de force performance in Judy that just may land the actor her second Academy Award. Sure, there’s little else going on in the film but her performance. But when it’s a performance so marvellous and intoxicating, everything else surrounding it simply does not matter. A commanding and brilliant turn, Zellweger is back with a vengeance. It’s safe to say Judy would be proud of her.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery
Director: Rupert Goold
Producers: David Livingstone
Screenplay: Tom Edge
Cinematography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Production Design: Kave Quinn
Music: Gabriel Yared

Editing: Melanie Ann Oliver
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: 10th October 2019 (Australia)