Movie Review: “Judy” (2019)

Who was Judy Garland when she was not on stage?

This is the question that Rupert Goold’s new film, written by Tom Edge (based on the play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter), attempts to answer.  By looking at a series of concerts in 1968 London as well as the events leading up to them and a little bit at her young life, “Judy” gives the audience an insight into this woman who gave everything to her career and all too often had nothing left for herself or her family.

The movie is, without a doubt, Renée Zellweger’s, and depending on whether you see the actress’s portrayal as incisive or caricature utterly determines the way you see the work as a whole.  For this critic’s money, Zellweger is pitch perfect (no pun intended).  The performance is a great one because there are definite moments we can see the mask slip and the vulnerable Garland reveal herself; Zellweger gives us Judy Garland’s on stage, perfect persona, the shambles of her off stage one, and the troubles when the two bleed into one another.

But, the movie offers far more than that.  Goold intercuts the late-life Garland with moments of her working on the MGM lot as a teen.  We get to see Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) turn Garland (played at this age by Darci Shaw) from the girl who wants to act and still lead a normal life into his version of a Hollywood star.  Goold makes it quite clear – Mayer’s manipulations of the actress had terribly detrimental results.  His edicts about how she should live and what she could eat and when she could sleep set the stage for the troubles she would have later.   It is horrible to watch and perfectly crafted by Goold.

It is then a complete portrait of a psyche even if it is not a full telling of a life.  Zellweger channels all the hurt and upset and yearning of Judy Garland.  This is a woman who loves the spotlight, who desperately needs the audience, and yet cannot get out of her own way.  She lobs grenades into her own path, perhaps fully aware that they will blow up and destroy things—things she may love—but who simply cannot avoid tossing them out there. Is it out of need to control things Mayer kept out of reach (like Garland’s own birthday party plans) or because she no longer can see that far ahead?  There is a strong inkling that the reason is the former, but it may well be the latter and the movie is better for the debate.

Zellweger, although she does carry the movie, isn’t alone here.  Rufus Sewell appears as Sid Luft, one of Garland’s many ex-husbands and a man with whom she has two kids.  Jessie Buckley is Rosalyn Wilder, Garland’s assistant when she is in London.  Finn Wittrock is Mickey Deans, a man who Garland marries and divorces soon after.  Michael Gambon is Bernard Delfont, the man who hires Garland to sing in London.  Royce Pierreson is Burt Rhodes, her band leader during that stay.

Each and every supporting part is an essential one, offering us the opportunity to see a different facet of Garland’s personality.  Perhaps the most essential are Andy Numand and Daniel Cerqueira’s Dan and Stan, two London fans who love Garland and repeatedly attend her show in the city. It is through them that we see the way the performer affected those in the audience and the way she was affected by them.  There is a craving, a hunger, to her interactions with the two men—and it runs both ways—that is both touching and perhaps a little needy (on her end, not theirs).

Throughout it all, no matter with whom she is interacting or what challenges Garland faces, Zellweger is mesmerizing.  She captures the power of Garland’s performances, the way she could command an audience, and the hurt that seemingly always lay right near the surface. “Judy” is a two hour showcase for both women and as beautiful and heartbreaking as befits its subject.

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photo credit: LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

 

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