Renée Zellweger delivers as Judy Garland, even as the script succumbs to the usual bio-pic pitfalls
by Andrew Alexander
September 18, 2019
Featured image: Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy.
Did you ever wonder if Judy Garland took pills? Well, the new film Judy, opening in Atlanta on September 27, will finally put to rest any lingering doubts you may have. When she’s not staggering into and out of dressing rooms, slurring through songs, arguing self-destructively with handlers and loved ones, or ultimately triumphing on the stage against all the odds, we see Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland taking a lot of pills. In flashbacks, a different actress portrays the young Garland, moping and pouting in reaction to difficult, formative experiences, but most significantly: we are made to see that the young Judy started (and continued) taking pills. During a recent press screening, I jotted in my notebook at what must have been swallow number 347: We get it. Pills.
This is to say that the new film Judy is guilty of the cardinal sin of contemporary bio-pics: storytelling by semaphore. Why did Judy Garland have such a devoted gay following? Here, Garland meets and hangs out with two gay fans one late evening after a show, and they explore the issue together. Much to Judy’s credit, she explicates some rather persuasive and sound insights.
In all of this, truly against the odds, Zellweger manages to create a wonderful, compelling, and convincing portrait of Garland. She doesn’t just capture Garland’s mannerisms and personal style, she conveys an embracing warmth, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a sharp intelligence (none of these typically come across in other depictions and legends that have come down to us: Judy as icon, Judy as camp, Judy as tragedy). This is Judy as artist, a vivid and convincingly unsettled mix of swagger and self-doubt, and Judy as human, incapable of finding a resting place between the outrageous adoration and intense isolation of her position. There isn’t much for Zellweger to do or to react to in the traditional sense of “drama,” but we are given an interesting still portrait, a piercing glimpse into an extraordinarily singular and troubled existential condition.
The film is punctuated by musical numbers, all of which I thought were terrible and too long. Zellweger imitates Garland’s singing style just as she imitates her speaking style, and the imitation in both instances can be uncanny. But with the singing, the point of arrival is actually the uncanny valley: differences between the simulacrum and the thing being imitated emerge in the songs as the most salient feature of the imitation, causing discomfort and alarm.
The flashbacks to Garland’s childhood are exceedingly dippy. Zellweger may look and behave like Garland, but the child hired to play the young Garland looks puzzlingly unlike young Judy. And in these scenes, the film over-exaggerates and overdramatizes the trauma of those early years. Being told you’re not pretty, being turned down by Mickey Rooney, being forced to go on a diet by a film studio, these are no doubt difficult experiences, but the film handles them with the utmost somber gravity, as if they’re the stuff of deep trauma and tragedy. Garland’s mother is briefly depicted in a one-sided way as an ambitious, inhuman monster. Special credit is due to costume designer Jany Temime, who captures the beauty and glamor of a too seldom-depicted moment in the late 60s when couture got groovy.
In the end, Zellweger may have simply deserved a better script for her insightful portrait of Judy Garland. Through her eyes, we see Garland as an artist who was always capable of pulling out surprises, someone who–for better and worse–simply worked on a different level than others, an object of our infinite interest, who herself often felt resoundingly empty.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.
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