When one looks back at the life of Judy Garland, undoubtedly one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, a bittersweet feeling is sure to arise. With an iconic voice and stage presence, her talents were more than enough to remember her, and yet, unfortunately, they would not be the only thing that attached itself to her legacy. Financial instability and an addiction to alcohol and prescription pills ultimately defined the other half of her life story, in a bitterness that threatened to derail the sweetness of her brilliant career. It is precisely this bitter end that is dramatized in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, an emotional and poignant look back at the star’s last months alive.
When she died at the age of 47, Judy Garland (1922-1969) was a largely broken woman; crippled by addictions, debts, and a series of failed marriages that kept her from her children, she struggled to retain a sense of relevance in a Hollywood that had largely robbed her of her youth, and that now cruelly wanted little to do with her.
And so Judy is not a glamorous film about the girl forever known as Dorothy Gale, but a melancholic portrait of the price of fame and self-destructive behavior. Written by Tom Edge, and based on the stage musical End of the Rainbow, what makes Judy unique is its almost singular focus on the months preceding Garland’s death; where films like Ray, Walk The Line, or such recent titles like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody covered a wider spectrum of their subjects lives, this movie’s narrative strength is indeed anchored around its sensitive, yet frank depiction of the rueful end of Garland’s existence, both professionally and personally.
Desperate for a new source of income, Garland agrees to a five-week performance engagement in London, where audiences still seem to be clamoring to see her. But despite the promise of a fresh start, her personal demons continue to chase her. Scenes of the icon sleep-deprived, locked in her washroom popping pills, or totally dazed and drunk on stage, are not easy to accept when juxtaposed with the idyllic image of innocence most associated with her; but the film does not attempt to judge Garland, but rather to form a compassionate, yet truthful snapshot of where she ended up.
The message here seems to be that even the purest and most beautiful of souls have the potential to be corrupted by self-inflicted vice and the actions of others. A mix of a lack of personal responsibility and a lifelong exploitation by producers when she was young, left deep emotional scars on Judy Garland, from which she never really recovered. Indeed the film also effectively showcases through a series of flashbacks, how a 16-year-old Garland was rigidly controlled and criticized by men like Louis B. Mayer of MGM and essentially deprived of a normal youth. We are most definitely asked as viewers at what cost all this fame was worth, and if it was indeed this lifestyle that made Judy Garland but also killed her.
Into the role of a defeated Garland, steps Renee Zellweger, who like the film itself, interprets her in a most compassionate and frank manner; expressive and exuberant on the one hand, while tearful, guilt-ridden and sickly on the other, this embodiment of the singer further adds to the tragic air of the movie. Though always thin and small in stature at only four foot eleven, Garland’s addictions exacerbated these features to an almost wretched degree. Zellweger here is not playing the peak Judy Garland, but a hunched over, gaunt person, filled with insecurities and regrets, desperate for one last attempt at a comeback.
And yet in spite of these obvious barriers, when she does get on that stage and under those lights, the show-woman and the voice that lived deep inside comes bursting out, reminding us once more of just how tragic this whole situation was. The public loved her, but she failed to adequately love herself. Renee Zellweger impressively captures this frail and insecure Judy Garland, performing her own singing and convincingly adopting the mannerisms and speech inflections of the late star; in watching her performance thoughts may spring to mind of Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, especially in the scenes depicting the end of Piaf’s life. Like Cotillard’s Piaf, Zellweger’s Garland is certainly a fragile and ill ridden shell, but one that comes alive most brilliantly when performing for the public. It’s a captivating and emotional performance that shows a clear reverence for its protagonist, all the while not covering up the ugly truth.
While the second half of the film begins to drag towards the end, Judy as a whole is never dull and simultaneously celebrates and mourns the memory of Judy Garland. By spotlighting a most unglamorous period of a life that on the surface was seemingly glamorous, the movie not only embraces Judy Garland (and perhaps metaphorically other similar stars) but in a way also reprimands her and others who all contributed to her abuse. Anchored around a stellar performance from Renee Zellweger, director Rupert Goold has helmed a movie that functions as a biographical remembrance, but perhaps more so as an urgent call to love oneself and cherish the bright talents that manifest themselves. While Judy Garland was absolutely cherished in her lifetime (the film’s final scene exhibiting just that), there were still many dark spots that would regretfully lead to her ignominious and premature exit. Judy examines these dark spots with sympathy and truth creating a bittersweet portrait of a Hollywood icon that will not soon leave our hearts and minds.