What couldn’t Judy Garland do? The singer/dance and Academy Award winning actress starred in two of the greatest films ever made by the age of 22. In The Wizard of Oz, she was as bright as Technicolor, and her Dorothy became an icon of American cinema. Later, she starred in Meet Me in St. Louis, a musical so optimistic it made Missouri look like a place everyone might want to vacation. Judy, the acclaimed new about movie about the legend’s life, is suitably adept and multifaceted. From tender start to flawless finish, it does what every movie in its genre hopes to do- make someone who is a “one of a kind” feel relatable.
In L.A., it’s especially easy to see a celebrity, or someone with fame or riches, and assume they have it all figured out. But no one has it all figured out. That goes for the folks you see walking down the street, and it even goes for a superstar like Judy Garland. She seemed to be on top of the world. From 1939-1961, everyone wanted her beaming charisma and gift for song in their projects.
But Director Rupert Goold isn’t concerned with larger than life persona or the glory days. He’s gutted the formula that made A Star is Born (Garland’s and Gaga’s versions) successful. Instead of a timeline chronicling the glitzy and glamorous, aspirational facets of stardom, Judy mostly focuses on an actresses’ climb to the top and later, her fall to the bottom. We’re a long way from the yellow brick road.
The journey starts at the end. The time is 1969. The place is London. And the story, based on a Peter Quiller theater piece, plays out over the last year of her life. She has two adorable kids. But she’s worried they won’t be hers for long. Money isn’t what it used to be. Her alcoholic ex (Rufus Sewell) is biting at her heels for custody. So, she goes to the only place that treats old stars like her as royalty- England! At first she’s reluctant to perform in Britain. What does she have without her kids? Does she still have it in her mid-40’s?
The buildup to the first performance (45 minutes into the film) is suspenseful and exciting. When she finally belts out “Be Myself,” it’s a weight off all of our shoulders and it’s wonderful. It also gives the actress playing Garland a chance to do some singing of her own, and she’s got the chops.
What you’ve been hearing is true. Renee Zellweger gives a tour de force performance, both on and off the stage. She may be an odd choice. The only thing Zellweger and Garland have in common is a sense that, despite having an excess of talent, the industry almost left them both behind in later phases of their careers. She slips into the role seemlessly- expressive lips, teary eyes, and shoulders so slouched it looks as if her dress could slip off at any moment. Just like Judy. Shout-out to the hair and makeup designers, as well as Jany Temime’s fab costumes which provide a near cloning of Garland’s image.
Although Garland’s comeback tour didn’t go as planned, Zellweger’s couldn’t be going better. The actress has been brilliant before–in Bridget Jones, Chicago, and Jerry Maguire. What’s new here is the award-worthy broadness of the role. With Garland she can be both weary and whimsical, instead of just being one or the other. When she’s overdosing on pills in a hotel, Zellweger shape-shifts into a downer. When she’s trying to keep up her image in public, she’s quite funny. A man introduces her as “the greatest entertainer in the world,” to which she replies, “Frank Sinatra’s here?”
Zellweger, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Cold Mountain back in 2004 and has been nominated two other times, isn’t the only one worthy of an Oscar buzz here. Despite a title that suggests a one-woman-show, Judy is very much a team effort. Tom Edge’s script is particularly noteworthy. The story is old fashion, to be sure, though no less anachronistic than the other biopics playing across the hall. It also benefits by following a similar path to Wizard of Oz. In that seminal picture a scarecrow needed a brain, a tin man needed a heart and a lion needed courage. In this one, the pit stops include: a husband who needs a brain (Finn Wittrock), an agent who needs a heart (Jessie Buckley) and a gay couple who need courage. They all find what they’re looking for in Judy, just as she finds what she’s looking for in them.
The filmmaker is also smart enough to use flashbacks as a means to elicit her endless search for human connection. Yes, it’s an overused device. That doesn’t stop scenes with the Weinstein-like Louis B. Mayor (MGM) from resonating. “In every town there’s a girl prettier than you, thinner than you” he growls at the eight-year- old Judy. He’s controlled her into thinking that the stage is all that matters.
By the end, she comes to terms with what really matters in life. And it’s thrilling to see the icon–the relatable icon–find that resolution. What’s more, to find it on the stage singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Being back with Judy–even if it isn’t the “real” Judy– is like coming back home from a long, exhausting trip. It’s a reminder that there’s no place like home, and no one like Garland.