Directed by Rupert Goold
By 1969, and the occasion of her untimely death from a barbiturate overdose, Judy Garland had been performing for approximately 45 of her 47 years. And by her own accounts, she had been on and off drugs for almost 35 of them.
Signed at age 13 by Louis B. Mayer, the second “M” of MGM, Garland is probably still best known for her performance as Dorothy in 1939’s “The Wizard of OZ,” although her career on film, stage, radio, and television had many other notable highs. Throughout those early years at MGM, and as depicted in “Judy,” she was berated for her appearance, kept from eating well, and given amphetamines to maintain her energy and restrict her appetite, and barbiturates to counteract the amphetamines to help her sleep.
The film takes us back to that period in flashbacks, with the young Judy Garland played by Darci Shaw, and clearly portrayed as a victim of Mayer and MGM. The film’s “present” period, with Garland played by Renée Zellweger, is set in early 1969 when she played a series of shows at London’s Talk of the Town. Headlining such a show might have been a career high for some performers, but for Garland who had made over 30 feature films, won a Juvenile Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Tony Award, multiple Granny Awards, the Cecile B. DeMille Award, hosted her own television variety show, and who had been the highest paid performer in Las Vegas over a decade earlier, it was an act of reluctant desperation and the latest of many comebacks.
“Judy” is similar in content and structure to last year’s “Stan and Ollie,” which similarly depicted Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy late in their shared career, performing in England and struggling with financial problems and diminished acclaim. Both films insert earlier career highpoints, although in “Judy” the earlier period is less a celebration than a harbinger of doom.
Like “Stan and Ollie,” which garnered much attention for the performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles, “Judy” will likely result in Zellweger being cited frequently during this year’s award season. Playing exclusively in the Sacramento area at the Tower Theatre, this will be one of those performances that relatively few see in first release but many talk about later, with Zellweger disappearing into the role.
But also like “Stan and Ollie,” the central performance is better than the overall film, with both projects assuming audiences arrive with prior knowledge and appreciation of their subjects. Each of the films focus on periods of decline, without much in the way of context for the uninitiated, causing their respective titles to seem slightly out of place, especially if meant to somehow capture the essence of a career or the fame that came with it. Neither film is going to help or is likely to captivate a viewer who’s new to the material
That said, in 1969, Garland was still able to captivate an audience and Zellweger delivers both the charm and the struggle necessary to convey the limited period the film depicts. It’s a winner for fans of either actress and for fans of acting in general – and it’s noteworthy that Zellweger also sang the songs herself, live in front of a band.
If Rami Malek can win for lip-syncing through last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as Jamie Foxx did for 2004’s “Ray” (he played piano but didn’t sing), then there’s hope for Zellweger actually singing in “Judy” and for Taron Egerton who similarly tackled the performances of Elton John in “Rocketman” as award season looms. Although Joaquin Phoenix might caution them not to set their hopes too high – having, like Garland herself did for “A Star is Born” (1954), won a Golden Globe but not an Academy Award for channeling Johnny Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line.” But it would be surprising if they’re not at least in the running.