“A is for effort,” as the saying goes, but as a work of cinema or a truly affecting biopic, director Rupert Goold’s JUDY doesn’t quite make the grade. The production values are strong, star Renee Zellweger gives it her all, and the story of Judy Garland is an inherently compelling one, but this take on her life comes up short. It simply doesn’t go deep enough and fails to truly illuminate her backstory, her talent, or what made her the icon that she was and still remains today, 50 years after her tragic death by an accidental barbiturate overdose.
Goold’s missteps start with using screenwriter Tom Edges’ adaption of the controversial 2012 stage production END OF THE RAINBOW by Peter Quilter. The play told the story of the final weeks of Judy Garland’s life in London when she was performing at the famed nightclub The Talk of the Town. The work had as many fans as it did distractors, and genuine Judy aficionados were more inclined to be wholly outraged by its overemphasis on her drug use and the host of inaccuracies and other liberties taken with Garland’s biography in it. Granted, a play or a film can take license with genuine history, but in both the play and this screenplay, there are too many instances of it that seem like cheap shots and they end up seriously marring the telling.
The film also skimps on a lot of basic back story that would help in one’s viewing. Few of us are Garland aficionados and yet so much of this film assumes we all know oodles about her checkered history as a child star, the battles she had with men and money, and the star’s steep career decline in the last decade of her life. JUDY just plops us down into the middle of all of it, eschewing proper exposition in favor of bite-sized, and inflammatory introductory bits. Maybe the movie ROCKETMAN approached Elton John’s life with too much of a primer take, but at least it gave the audience a proper sense of that superstar’s life starting with his childhood. JUDY doesn’t, favoring shock value over context from the very start.
Right off the bat, the film starts out with a vicious monologue by MGM mogul L.B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) as he dresses down a young Judy (Darci Shaw) on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ. By his tone, we’re supposed to gather she’s been stalling the production and making trouble. The film was plagued by oodles of production problems, but the way Mayer insults her looks, talent, and level of professionalism, you’d think Garland was the Wicked Witch herself. It doesn’t help that Shaw looks to be about 11 when Garland was 17 at the time and a rather womanly 17 at that. It also hurts that Shaw looks nothing like Garland, or Zellweger for that matter, and projects nothing of Judy’s essence. This misguided scene starts off the movie on a horrendously ugly note, going out of its way to play “dramatically,” but instead it comes off more like tabloid hysteria.
From there, we’re introduced to the adult Garland as she performs in a cheap club with her two children, earning a measly 150 bucks for her song and dance. Zellweger’s physical transformation is impressive, and she captures Garland’s blend of heart-on-her-sleeve earnestness mixed with a superstar’s haughtiness. Even so, the script undercuts her by short-changing the explanation of why she’s struggling to find work, what ruined her finances or any salient details about the relationship she has with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). He’s portrayed here as a sinister gangster-type, little more, even though that’s far too simplistic a take on the complex man whom she was married to for 13 years, served as her manager, and produced her lauded remake of A STAR IS BORN.
The film fails to flesh out such details properly, missing an opportunity to set the record straight and illuminate Garland’s financial troubles due to her corrupt agents Freddie Fields and David Begelman. They not only mismanaged her money, they even embezzled her personal funds. The script also plays fast and loose with Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), Judy and Sid’s daughter. Ramsey is a petite actress, yet she’s made up and photographed in JUDY to look even younger, coming off like a child of maybe 12. In actuality, Luft was 16 during the film’s time period of 1969, and very aware of all that was going on around her.
JUDY is more successful when the story moves to Garland’s five-week run at the London cabaret later that year. There, the film takes an uptick, showcasing her command on stage, and balancing good moments with bad in the portrayal of her backstage machinations. Zellweger is particularly effective in the scenes with Garland’s handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, wonderful in a tricky role) as she struggles to handle the pressures of being a headliner there. The scenes between the two women crackle with suspense and feeling as Wilder both plays confidante and nanny to her charge and her many moods.
Less successful is how the film presents Garland’s fifth and final husband Mickey Deans. As played by Finn Wittrock, he’s a handsome scoundrel and little else. Even when he and Judy are playing happy newlyweds, Wittrock is directed to leer out from under his brows and it makes him too easy of a bad guy. Same with Sewell, who comes to visit London and reads each of his lines as if he was directed to hiss them. It’s clear Goold is siding with Judy against these two men, but it begs the question why she’d ever marry such two-dimensional villains.
Zellweger insisted on doing her own singing, and she’s got a good voice, but she cannot convey Garland’s command or timbre wholly onstage. One of the things that made Garland such a star was that even though she was only 4’11”, her voice made her seem ten feet tall. Even with her health issues, Garland’s contralto remained clear and bold. The film showcases musical numbers onstage a half dozen times and despite Zellweger’s best efforts, it would’ve helped the audience understand Judy’s prowess better if the Oscar-winning actress had chosen to lip-synch instead.
That’s what Judy Davis did in the 2001 ABC miniseries JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS, and it helped to make for a more accurate performance. Davis won an Emmy for her efforts, as did ingenue Tammy Blanchard for rendering the young Garland so vividly as well, but both were wise enough to not attempt Garland’s distinct singing voice. Of course, that production also had six hours to tell the tale and came off fuller than JUDY, a mere 118 minutes. Still, the film should’ve managed its narrative better, spending less time on the songs that don’t quite resonate as they should, and more on getting the facts and nuance right.
Ironically, for all of the missed opportunities to present the actual history of Garland, et al. more accurately, the film works best in its one completely fictional scene. Garland befriends a gay couple who have frequented her show numerous times, joining them for a late supper at their flat. There, she bonds with them, especially Dan (a splendid Andy Nyman) as he talks about the difficulties of living as someone whom society diminishes. Judy all too readily relates because she too has been belittled in so many ways, starting with Mayer and the demands of Hollywood way back when. This film makes a valiant attempt at showing the human side of the superstar, but despite courageous work by Zellweger, the story simply misses too much of Judy.