As a moviegoer, I’ve long struggled with the dismal subgenre of biopic that focuses only on the end of a celebrity’s life. Last year there was Stan & Ollie, which followed the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy as they tried to keep their spirits high during the final tour of their careers. This year we have Rupert Goold’s Judy, a chronicle of the last months of Judy Garland’s life, in which the great singer and actress (played by Renée Zellweger) battled substance abuse and depression in London. The film, anchored by Zellweger’s mesmerizing work, is hardly a failure, but it is something of a slog: a portrayal of someone’s lowest ebb that only hints at her past great heights.
Essentially, Judy is a showcase, relying almost entirely on its central star to hold the audience’s attention for its two-hour running time. It nearly succeeds, but I found myself squirming in my seat, longing for more acknowledgment of Garland’s career, more evidence of her famously acidic sense of humor and commanding stage presence. Instead the biopic is just an extended in memoriam for a person who’s already defined too often by her early death. The movie works well as a eulogy, but there have been plenty of those for Garland over the decades; Judy could’ve been something more.
The film picks up Garland’s story in the late 1960s after her disastrous divorce from the promoter Mark Herron, which, combined with her previous split from the producer Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), left her nearly penniless. Dependent on alcohol and barbiturates, and having never fully recovered from the trauma of her years as a child star (when executives treated her as an overweight “ugly duckling”), Garland moves to London in 1968, hoping to revive her image with a five-week run of shows. Zellweger plays her as a chimney-smoking grouch, too damaged to fully trust anyone, but emotionally unable to survive daily life without the people around her.
In the course of filming the tale of one of Hollywood’s most legendarily tragic figures, Zellweger has talked quite frankly about her own ups and downs in the punishing world of show business. It’s hard not to consider that narrative when watching her in Judy. Here is an actress who was a charming ingenue in Jerry Maguire, a marquee idol in films like Chicago, and an Oscar winner for Cold Mountain, yet who was largely absent from the screen for many years afterward. The personal connection that Zellweger brings to the role is the most compelling part of the film.
The highlight of Zellweger’s performance is the singing, which she does herself. Even in her diminishing years, Garland was a transfixing vocalist; any attempt to mimic that is a steep challenge. Zellweger never particularly impressed me with her musical turn in Chicago, but she does solid work imitating Garland. By 1969, Garland’s nerves were so shot that the very act of appearing before an audience caused her “agonies of stage fright” that were nigh-impossible to overcome. Zellweger embodies that strain in her own herculean efforts to capture Garland’s vocal range.
The other plot interludes in Judy lack this inherent tension, though. There’s only so much suspense that can be generated by Garland repeatedly missing her curtain call, locking her hotel-room door, or getting into spats with agents or producers. A few famous figures in her life show up in cameos, including Luft; her daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux); and her final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a performer she married right before she died. But they all have the same one-note arc of being exasperated with Garland as she vainly strives for stability.
Even if viewers aren’t totally aware that 1969 was the year Garland died, there’s a funereal pall to the entire movie, a sense that Garland is doomed no matter whom she turns to. Only one sequence in Judy really tries to wrestle with her image beyond depicting its deterioration. While looking for dinner late at night, Garland runs into two fans, an older gay couple; they happily bring her to their house and cook for her, telling her about her iconic status in their community. Though this encounter was likely invented for the film, it allows Zellweger to imbue her character with humanity. Unfortunately, for most of Judy’s running time, she can’t escape Garland’s sad shadow. The film brings to life the public’s memory of a faded star, rather than a more personal reality.