Helen Tope reviews Judy Garland’s biopic Judy, showing in our cinema from Friday 1 November to Thursday 7 November.
After a brief hiatus, it seems that biopics are back. Following on from Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, theatre director Rupert Goold brings us the story of Judy Garland.
Adapted from the Peter Quilter play, End of the Rainbow, the film focuses on the final months of Garland’s life. The Judy of the Carnegie Hall concerts is now a fading memory. It is 1968, and Garland is desperate for cash. Gambling what is left of her reputation, she signs up to appear in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub.
Charged with getting her on stage, PA Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) has the formidable job of handling the fragile star. The best of Garland, it is assumed, has been swallowed up by her reliance on drink and drugs. It is clear, as Garland faces a jaded London audience, that she needs to give them something they will never forget.
The problem recent biopics have faced is how to tell a story we already know. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malik elevates a 3 star film by sheer force of will. Recreating the Live Aid concert, note for note, Bohemian Rhapsody ensures you’re having too good a time to care how the film ends.
Judy shows us the star, not at their height, but struggling to resurface. The film has the difficulty of making Renée Zellweger believable as the entertainer, without losing the emotional depth needed to piece Garland together.
Zellweger proves herself to be inspired casting, as she treads the line between the woman hanging by a thread, and the star still putting on a hell of a show. We see Garland at her lowest ebb; working her last-chance, last-ditch attempt at keeping afloat. Garland’s fall from grace is made all the more extraordinary when contrasted with flashback scenes to Judy on the cusp of worldwide fame. Filming The Wizard of Oz, we know what the impact of this role will be. To see Judy a few decades later, unable to pay her bills, scratching around for a living, is a dizzying prospect. We know that Judy’s star will prosper following her death in 1969. The film reminds us that, just months before, Garland was in danger of being forgotten altogether.
The iconography of Garland virtually eclipses her film career; Goold here forensically examines the gap between image and reality. We see the younger Judy sitting in a classic American diner with co-star Mickey Rooney. They are on a pretend date, with eager paparazzi clicking away as Rooney and Garland make small talk. Garland toys with her milkshake. Her handler, on orders of Louis B Mayer, is keeping an eye on Garland’s intake. A sip of the milkshake is allowed, to keep up appearances. Mickey tucks heartily into a burger and fries.
In exploring Garland’s treatment under the Hollywood system, Goold encourages a feminist reading of Judy, but the cruelty meted out goes beyond even that. Mayer sees the potential of Garland; the extraordinary voice of the girl next door. But in his management of her, she becomes a source to be manipulated, pushed and pulled into place. The sophisticated use of medication puts Garland squarely under the studio’s control. She doesn’t eat, barely sleeps. But another pill can give her the energy to plough through another day on set.
As we know, this early introduction to drug abuse does Garland no favours whatsoever. Fast forward to the winter of 1968, and Garland is self-medicating, supplementing pills with booze. Her rare moments of lucidity are dogged with lapses in judgement. Meeting her fifth husband at her daughter’s house party, Garland struggles to settle down with Mickey Deans. He loves the idea of Judy, not the reality. The truth brings happiness to neither.
It is Zellweger’s performance that drives the film from domestic drama to A-list glamour. Brittle, exhausted, but not quite done, what Zellweger understands is the spark – the defiant spark – that keeps Garland going. Born Ethel Gumm, Garland’s early initiation into life on stage has made her resilient. Returning to the stage in her forties, this is Garland on terra firma. She may have been nearly broken by the system, but no-one works it better.
Reading an audience, Garland switches her mood, dialling it up or pulling back when required. Performing in a smaller, more intimate space, Garland’s confessional style produces magic. Zellweger clearly has fun with the musical numbers, singing as herself, but digging down into the emotion of the songs with a determination that is emphatically Judy.
In a smart move, Judy steps away from the notion that to be a successful biopic, the actor must absorb themselves into the role. Here, Zellweger co-exists with Garland, side by side. The voice may not sound exactly like the original, but the tenderness and longing makes us feel in the same way. It is in the final scenes that we see Zellweger and Garland at their best. Taking to the stage one last time, Zellweger nails Garland’s ability to tap into the pain, and just makes it sing.