Few entertainers have nuzzled themselves into the American psyche like Judy Garland. But the beloved star was also a drug addict, alcoholic, and spent the majority of her adult life battling an eating disorder and depression. The eponymous biopic currently in theaters focuses on her last set of performances, six months before she died of an accidental overdose.
Loosely based on the play “End of the Rainbow,” Judy depicts a Garland most of the public won’t recognize. In 1968, the Wizard of Oz actress is 46 years old and her career and personal life were in shambles. She was in severe debt and struggled to hold down jobs because, by then, her demons had developed a reputation of their own. An opening scene depicts Garland making a public appearance for a mere $150, for which she is paid in cash, in a paper envelope — like a caterer.
Broke and with virtually no other prospects, Judy is forced to book an extended engagement at a popular nightclub in London. This five-week residency is backdrop for Judy.
Renee Zellweger plays the down-on-her-luck star of stage and screen. Admittedly, she’s a bizarre choice, but the aughts rom-com queen is fully up to the task. The way she inhabits Garland’s frail-beyond-her-years physicality is impressive enough, but even more so is how Zellweger captures the late icon’s inner anguish. Wildly insecure and admittedly desperate to be loved, Garland in her later years exuded a palpable vulnerability that, though sometimes disturbing, made her a completely disarming performer. While a fantastic vehicle for its modern star, Judy ultimately feels hollow without its subject’s singular voice.
This is particularly problematic as the film is built around a concert series, thereby relying on the payoff that comes when the audience sees that despite her life being nearly extinguished, Garland’s star was not. Zellweger reportedly trained extensively with a vocal coach, and though her efforts are admirable, her renditions of Judy classics (which are subsequently American songbook classics) like “Trolley Song” feel stilted. This derails all the considerable work the script and Zellweger have done to paint Garland’s portrait so vividly. She may nail Judy’s mannerisms and speaking voice, but when she attempts the singer’s signature vibrato during the performance scenes — of which there are many — the impersonation begins to show, and Zellweger almost looks like a drag queen.
Nonetheless, she is the film’s greatest asset, and when the frame isn’t focused on her, the movie falters. At times, the filmmakers impose their modern sensibilities, such as conjuring
up a fictionalized gay couple, obsessed with Judy to the degree that they pay to see her perform several times a week. Plausible enough, Garland was and remains a queer icon. One night after the show, the lonely star asks them to dinner. Nothing’s open, so they take her back to their place where the threesome shares a night of song and booze, culminating in Garland calling them her “allies.” It’s a fantasy and a heavy-handed one, at that.
Then there are the flashbacks to Garland’s MGM days, depicting how the Hollywood film studio routinely diminished her confidence by insisting she was both not a natural beauty and too fat. This all really happened. By the time she was 19, Garland was already addicted to prescription meds, thanks to studio caretakers force-feeding her amphetamines to work long hours and then barbiturates to come down afterwards. Granted, this is crucial context for the viewer, but scenes which depict studio head Louis. B Mayer wagging his grubby fingers feel gratuitous and try too hard to evoke Harvey Weinstein comparisons.
You needn’t look this hard for Garland’s trauma; towards the end of her life, it’s on her face in every interview, her timbre in every performance — which is why the absence of the real Judy’s voice feels so significant.
The biopic, while imperfect, still has moments which captures the late star’s magic. In one scene, a doctor examines Garland’s health, asking her she’s taking anything for depression.
“Four husbands,” she quips, “didn’t work.”
“And you are underweight.”
“You’re flirting with me now,” she mimes, tragically.
A consummate performer until the end, it does us no good to gloss over her demons. Judy succeeds in showing a modern audience a much forgotten part of its subject’s legacy. Liza Minnelli may not want to see the film (she, like her mother, would grow up to wrestle with substance abuse), but I’d argue the collective public should confront what our expectations do to the person beneath the celebrity. When Judy Garland sung, “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why, can’t I?” it meant something very different than when Dorothy Gale sung it. Don’t you forget it.
Judy directed by Rubert Goold is currently showing in movie theaters nationwide.
Jacob Seferian is a Texas-bred journalist living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @disco__bitch. That's disco, two underscores, bitch.