Now on Hulu, Judy put another Oscar on Renee Zellweger’s mantle for her portrayal of Hollywood legend Judy Garland. Set a few months prior to Garland’s death in 1969, the movie uses hit Broadway musical End of the Rainbow as a springboard for Zellweger’s tour-de-force, which we hope will distract us from the fact that we’re watching yet another awards-courting movie-biz biopic.
The Gist: The story begins with a subtly surreal scene: Young Judy (Darci Shaw) and studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordrey) walk along the famous yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz. He grooms her for a life of fame, fortune and greatness beyond most people’s dreams — and a lifetime of manipulation and abuse. Cut to 1968. Adult Judy (Zellweger) gussies up children Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd) for a tiny-club mother-and-children song-and-dance show. She takes her payment, $150 cash in an envelope, and the kids back to the hotel where they’ve been living, and they’re turned out. The account is in arrears. She drops them off with their father, Sid (Rufus Sewell), they quarrel, and Judy leaves to meet her adult daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) for a late-night party. There, she meets Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), and they hit it off, staying up all night drinking and talking.
Flash back to the ’30s. Young Judy sits in a diner booth with Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry). She wants to eat a hamburger but is berated before she can take a bite. It’s soon revealed that the diner isn’t real — it’s a movie set. Her stern female handler gives her two pills. Back to the ’60s: Judy has an offer on the table for a residency at a London nightclub. She’s reluctant. She wouldn’t be able to see her kids for weeks, including Christmas. But it seems like her last chance. She accepts, flies over, meets her assistant Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson), refuses to rehearse, can’t sleep, wanders the hotel halls, gets jittery, tosses and turns, takes some pills, drinks some booze, takes more pills, tries to sing a little, makes some creaky sobbing noises, is late for her own show, gets scooped up and made up by Rosalyn, wobbles on stage with a dazed look in her eye, slurs a witty introduction and knocks ’em absolutely dead.
She looks stoned and possessed as she sings “By Myself.” As if her voice is emerging from a deep, dark part of herself. She’s lonely and isolated, physically and emotionally, in London. Not all of her shows will go this well. You probably know that. She’s marvelous one night and a trainwreck the next. She shocks two fans, a gay couple, at the club back door late after a show by asking them if they’d have dinner with her. Back on the Ozset, the elephantine Mayer intimidates her for being insubordinate, says her voice comes from here and touches her breast. Mickey surprise-visits her in London on a whim, and she’s up. They’re in love. They come up with a career plan for her, but everything seems so very fragile. They fight and she’s down, and down go the pills and the booze, and more pills. You already know that this won’t end well, Judy’s life. But maybe at least the movie will?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Judy is a classic example of a celebrity biopic where the main performance is the art and everything else is merely fine: Ray, La Vie en Rose, Jackie, etc.
Performance Worth Watching: The trademark Zellweger Squint is in full effect, for better or worse. The reason she took the Oscar, I surmise, is for the singing; her musical performances are stunning.
Memorable Dialogue: Sid says he wants custody of Lorna and Joey for the school year.
“Over my dead body,” Judy says.
“No one would be surprised, believe me,” Sid retorts.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Yeah, Judy is Oscar bait, but it’s pretty good Oscar bait. The overstylized flashbacks work pretty well, breaking up the film’s boilerplate structure with some lightly fantastical visual tricks, and establishing the origin of Judy’s substance use disorder. You’ll sympathize. You’ll a light #MeToo sting. You’ll wish she had lived at a time when we better understood drug abuse, and had treatments for it, and didn’t stigmatize people for it as much. Judy Garland was chewed up and spit out by a grotesque and exploitative business; she was corrupted so early, her destiny was to crash and burn, and you could make a case that it was pretty much set up to be that way.
So the heart of the film is compelling, its emotions hard-earned. You’ll wish Buckley had more to do, but she makes the most of a character rendered slight (watch Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and HBO’s Chernobyl to witness the arc of a star on the rise). Of course, this is Zellweger’s party, and she doesn’t lose her grip on the heart of the story, even when her physical affectations border on overwrought and distracting. She coasts on the brilliance of her “By Myself” and “Over the Rainbow” performances, which are truly worth the price of admission. Would I go so far as to say they’re transcendent? Yes, and unexpectedly so.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Judy is extraordinary in its most crucial scenes, making it stand ever so slightly above the standard movie-star bio.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Judy’ on Amazon Prime and Hulu, a Biopic in Which Renee Zellweger Sometimes Seems Possessed by Judy Garland The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Decider.