by Laura Venning
Forming a subgenre of sad starlets turning up in incredulous Brits’ living rooms along with Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and My Week with Marilyn, Rupert Goold’s Judy follows Judy Garland’s five-week run of sellout concerts in London in the last few months before her death. Like Liverpool and Marilyn, Judy seems to primarily exist as a vehicle for an established actress to try to bag a few trophies come awards season. But unlike its predecessors, in which Gloria Grahame and Marilyn Monroe are framed entirely via an unlikely romance with a normie who can’t believe his luck, Judy lets its leading lady stand alone.
The film opens with the wide-eyed, sixteen year old Judy (the excellent Darci Shaw) on the set of The Wizard of Oz. She is walked along the Yellow Brick Road by the imposing, infamous MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who reminds her of the deal she’s made with the devil. In exchange for fame and fortune every aspect of her life is now controlled by the studio: what she eats, who she’s friends with, and even when her birthday is. The scene isn’t subtle, and yet it’s a stark reminder of how much stars of the supposed Golden Age of Hollywood were imprisoned by their contracts, and how many of Garland’s gleaming smiles might’ve been grimaces.
In 1969 with her glory days long behind her and two young children to support, Judy (Reneé Zewellger) is struggling to earn enough money in the U.S. to pay off her debts. Threatened with a custody battle by third husband Sid Luft (a menacing Rufus Sewell), Judy is welcomed back to London where she had enjoyed success in the 1950s and early 1960s. But her ongoing drug and alcohol addiction has left her physically and mentally fragile, and she begins to crack under the strain of performing.
Whether or not an actor needs to look and sound like the famous figure they’re playing is a contentious topic, and Zewellger certainly neither looks nor sounds much like Garland when she belts out The Trolley Song or Over the Rainbow. She doesn’t have Garland’s large round eyes, nor her powerful, brassy tone. And yet she does manage to evoke Garland’s deep-rooted melancholy, often masked by her self-deprecating wit. Asked by a doctor if she takes anything for depression, she responds with a resigned smile “Four husbands. Didn’t work.” She’s totally convincing as a woman who’s spent most of her short life disguising her trauma behind a winning smile. Flashbacks to the studio forcing her to take pills to make her lose weight and stay alert through hours upon hours of shooting, and a suggestion of sexual abuse at the hands of Louis B. Mayer are sobering.
The film itself seems at once to try to distance itself from other Oscar bait biopics, yet also falls into some of its traps. On the one hand, there is a notable absence of several of Garland’s greatest hits: no The Man Who Got Away from A Star is Born or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me in St. Louis, and Goold resists the temptation to recreate scenes from The Wizard of Oz. On the other, Zewellger seems hampered by some haphazard camerawork and a sometimes clichéd script. Her beautifully fractured performance in the final scene is undercut by a honkingly on-the-nose stab at poignancy that shouldn’t have made it beyond the first draft. And yet Judy Garland, the icon of shattered innocence still adored by millions, and Judy Garland, the once living, breathing woman, both feel present here. Judy is certainly flawed, but, mainly thanks to Zewellger, it’s ultimately affecting as an achingly sad story of a woman chewed up and spat out by the merciless Hollywood machine.
Judy is out in cinemas now!