Judy offers an insightful look at the life of an iconic star
No one could have predicted that Renée Zellweger would play Judy Garland to an Oscar in the biographical music drama Judy. While Zellweger wouldn’t be the first or maybe even fifth person you’d expect to play Garland, she delivers a spirited career best performance. Just as versatile as her character, Zellweger makes the transition seem effortless, embracing the part with empathy and understanding.
Having gone through a body transformation for Bridget Jones’s Diary, her physique has been the target of gossip columns that speculate about everything from her losing weight to having plastic surgery. Adopting a gruelling shooting schedule and slimming down to play Garland, Zellweger created a number of touch-points between her and the late singer, actor and dancer.
Her role as Dorothy saw her swept away by her rising fame
Judy Garland is best known for her role as Dorothy Gale in the beloved musical fantasy adventure, The Wizard of Oz. Still used as a valuable storytelling framework for screenwriters and adored for its colourful characters, lively music and memorable storytelling, the film was critically acclaimed, nominated for six Academy Awards in its time. One of these nominations was for Best Original Song, “Over the Rainbow”, which became an instant classic. Young Judy was catapulted into stardom at the age of 16, winning an Academy Juvenile Award.
Before that time, she’d already made a name for herself as a singer and actor contracted to MGM. From a young age the starlet was made to doubt herself, constantly put on diet despite being a healthy weight and given stimulants to help her keep up with her hectic schedule. Often cast as a girl-next-door character by MGM, audiences expected her to sing in each of her performances. On some promotional tours, she had to do up to five shows per day.
Suffering a nervous breakdown during filming, Judy was checked into a psychiatric hospital. Taking prescribed sleeping pills and other medication containing morphine, she eventually developed a drinking problem. Losing roles, her contract, having numerous affairs and trying to take her life on several occasions, the star even received electroshock therapy for depression, all before the age of 27.
Famous on screen, infamous off screen
The biographical music drama Judy focusses on Garland’s later years. Having received Academy Award nominations for A Star is Born and Judgement at Nuremberg, she became the youngest and first female recipient of the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award at the age of 39. Garland’s career spanned 45 years, and while she struggled with the unreasonable physical and mental demands of being a young teenage star, this prestige drama chooses to focus on her five-week residency at a London theatre.
Encapsulating a life that became famous on screen and infamous off screen, Judy offers a snapshot of Garland. Using flashbacks to capture some of the trials she experienced through her career, we get a vivid portrait of the multi-talented star and the demons that tormented her. Using “Over the Rainbow” to book-end her film career, the song speaks to the promise of the young innocent and becomes much more haunting and even political as a retrospective from a woman who struggled with early fame, bent studio systems and substance abuse.
A timely reminder of Hollywood’s double standards
While this paparazzi lifestyle came to characterise Garland’s stormy performance career, her public struggle with double standards and health serve as a timely reminder of what many actors still undergo. As much as her moxie carried her, doing life her way and going against the system had serious contractual, financial, mental and physical repercussions.
Acknowledging this bittersweet undercurrent, this melancholic journey finds Judy trying to honour her obligations and quell self doubt during a stop-start residency.
Judy condenses Garland’s tumultuous life and career into the space of two hours. It’s not trying to serve as a completionist biopic but rather a character portrait and retrospective. Much like Jackie and The Iron Lady, Judy is monumental and iconic thanks to an all-in performance from Zellweger. She’s transformative, unrecognisable thanks to fine make-up detail, throwback styling and accurate wardrobe.
Embodying Garland’s distinctive speech pattern, mannerisms and capturing her vocal performance – it’s easy to see why she won a mantel of accolades, including a Golden Globe and Oscar.
It’s based on a play and set at a London theatre
The celebrity biopic is based on the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. In an inspired attempt to mirror the tainted majesty, tabloid history and dramatic weight, Judy has been adapted to screen by The Crown’s screenwriter, Tom Edge.
As it’s set at London’s Talk of the Town theatre, you get a sense of how it would work on stage. Yet the filmmakers have dodged the usual trappings of theatrical adaptations, giving the stage-to-screen production a sense of space with flashbacks cutting across time.
The film is directed by Rupert Goold, who has a rich history as a theatre director. Having adapted several Shakespearean plays to film, he’s got a knack for tragedy and a deep understanding of the theatre environment. Best known in film for directing the mystery drama True Story starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones, he returns to the pizzazz of Hollywood to help Zellweger earn her second Oscar.
Zellweger’s performance is matched only by the production design
Judy is built on a captivating and immersive lead performance, which is set against authentic and transportive mis-en-scene. The spectacular production design is so finely manicured that it must have helped Zellweger live in the moment without the shadow of illusion. Judy is exemplary in its visual craft and performance, conveying Garland’s humour, frustration, alienation and the stuffiness of her latter-day theatre gig.
While the drama is slow-moving, Judy builds to a powerful and emotional flourish. It’s so focussed on Zellweger’s brilliant performance, her supporting cast pale in comparison and almost fade into the backdrop.
This glitzy yet eminent music biopic, cautionary tale and indictment on Hollywood is essential viewing for Judy Garland and Renée Zellweger fans. Getting a rich and nuanced appreciation of her immense talent and ceaseless troubles, one can start to fathom the triumph and tragedy that was Judy. Crushing the rose-tinted spectacles, this brutally honest portrayal serves as a fitting tribute with a swan song of a musical performance to leave a stirring, indelible and haunting impression of the late, great icon.