“Judy” Movie Review


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     One of the biggest challenges in producing a biopic based on the life of an iconic movie star is the fine line filmmakers will encounter between interpretation and impression.  Do we want to see an actor simply mimic the various characteristics of the person?  Or do we want the actor to bring forth something that goes far beyond what we think we know and present a side of the person we didn’t know existed?  There’s also the question of what part of their life should the story explore?  Two films come to mind when analyzing this topic.  “My Week with Marilyn” (2011) chose to look into Marilyn Monroe’s working and romantic relationships on the set of one of her films, allowing Michelle Williams the ability to avoid many of the standard cliches surrounding the actress and instead delve into her tendencies as a person.  “Hitchcock” (2012) went a similar route, as Anthony Hopkins brought the legendary director to life via the relationship with his wife as the two grappled with the difficulties of their marriage while filming “Psycho” in 1959.

     Director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” covers much of the same type of territory, as it chooses to bypass, for the most part, actress Judy Garland’s most famous performance in “The Wizard of Oz”, instead bringing us to the later stages of her life where much of it is falling apart.  Renee Zellweger steps into the shoes of a once rich and famous performer who decades later has fallen into a depressing abyss of money problems, child custody issues, and addiction, making the film less of an entertainment and more of a poignant look at a falling star who wasn’t fortunate enough to have someone there to catch her.  In many of the circumstances, and Judy Garland’s story is no exception, the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle consumes a person to a point where they never realize those around them are there only to be seen, but not for any reason that can be construed as having the actress’s best interests at heart.  It’s a sad spiral downward to witness, and “Judy” captures it perfectly.

     A horrific opening sequence sees a sixteen year old Judy (Darci Shaw) being scolded and demeaned by a creepy overbearing studio executive during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz”.  Similar scenes are utilized throughout the film in flashback as an indication of Judy’s difficult experience within the studio system as a child actor.  Situations that often times gave a strong indication of flat out abuse.  Should we surprised that even in the 1930s, young actresses were only allowed to sip chicken broth and nothing else in order to fit into their costumes?  Fast forward to the late 1960s where Judy now performs in small clubs with her two children in tow.  While on the road, it quickly becomes clear she now lacks financial stability when a hotel turns her and her two kids away, forcing them to seek shelter from her ex husband, Sid (Rufus Sewell).

     With no appetite in Hollywood for her services, the 47 year old decides to travel to London where her popularity still soars, signing for a series of concerts that will potentially put her back on a solid financial track while having the ability to care for her children.  And to this point, Zellweger has portrayed the actress as a depressed soul who still attends all night parties and wakes up the next morning with younger men.  Her trip to London; however, brings forth a different, almost snooty, version where her assigned handlers during the concert tour would likely feel at times as if they are caring for a helpless child.  Her addiction to drugs and alcohol has left her rarely sober, and the fact her children are now thousands of miles away means her spirits remain low.  And yet the expectation is she will perform nightly in front of a packed house of adoring fans.  Obviously, the residency does not go well.

     The screenplay by Tom Edge, based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow”, brings forth a narrative that digs deep into the damage done as a young performer and how those experiences translated into a person who struggles to cope with life’s problems and the realization she is no longer relevant in her late 40s.  In many ways, these are some of the same issues explored by Tarantino in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” where Rick Dalton begins to lose his standing as well after a long and prosperous career.  When you have the kind of talent Judy Garland possessed, and have been honing those skills since a very young age, it becomes all you know.  If the opportunities to showcase that talent suddenly wane, imagine the mental anguish when it becomes apparent you have blown your fortune and can no longer provide for your family.  

     For some, the exploration of these dark times won’t make for the kind of entertainment many will be expecting of a movie about Judy Garland, but Zellweger really shines during the film’s moving and emotional musical numbers that see her performing solo on stage, belting out some of Judy’s best known songs such as “The Trolley Song”, “Zing Went the Strings”, and of course, “Over the Rainbow.”  Put simply, this is the kind of performance Oscar nominations for Best Actress are made of.  And Renee Zellweger is not only assured of that recognition, but she just might win it all.  When you see her on screen, you know this is isn’t an impression.  She is Judy Garland.  

GRADE: B+