Let’s get this out of the way first: there’s one mention of Minnesota in the new Judy Garland biopic, and it’s not very positive. In fact, it’s essentially a threat.
In a scene set around the time Judy Garland was shooting The Wizard of Oz, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) is reminding the young girl born Frances Gumm exactly where she came from: Grand Rapids, Minnesota. If she doesn’t do exactly what he says, Mayer implies, she’ll find herself right back there. Wouldn’t she rather be extraordinary?
She says yes, of course. Director Rupert Goold’s film, adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, centers on a woman who said yes to a lot of things, including the drugs her handlers used to keep her up when they wanted her to be up and put her down when they needed her down. A “date” with Mickey Rooney plays out like a date on The Bachelor, with cameras everywhere and food she can’t eat.
The scenes depicting Garland’s youth are a small but important part of Judy, which centers on a series of shows she performed in London in 1969, less than a year before her death. While Darci Shaw is sympathetic and absorbing as the young Judy, the movie belongs to Renée Zellweger in what’s already being hailed as a career-defining performance.
The film finds Garland struggling to stay on her feet. She’s a living legend, but everyone in show business knows she’s less than reliable — and a touring schedule would take her away from the two children she had with ex-husband Sidney Luft. All she wants, she says, is a stable life with her children, but she doesn’t even have her own home. They still love her in London, though, so she agrees to a series of shows that will refuel her bank account and allow her to fight for custody.
Judy is elegantly constructed in the way it draws a line backward from the end of Garland’s professional life to the beginning, bringing it full circle in a climactic scene that inspired audible crying among attendees at a press screening I saw — and when the critics are crying, you know you’ve nailed it.
Judy, the movie suggests, was a woman who paid a steep price for fame, but did so willingly. She couldn’t say no to her fans, and a quiet central section that has Garland befriending a gay couple suggests that those fans saw her sacrifice and responded to it as a model of finding beauty and transcendence amid pain and struggle. Her struggle was not theirs, but that didn’t matter: she saw them, and vice-versa.
Shot with a sort of regal intimacy by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, Zellweger plays the kind of diva we haven’t seen before on screen — at least, not since Judy herself. She swaggers, but her pain’s always right out there for all to see. Her meltdowns are honest, and so are her triumphs. That doesn’t make her easy to work with for colleagues like her minder and her band leader, and yet even as her personal struggles and substance abuse threaten to derail the residency, both stick with her.
It’s a big performance with a poignancy that lies in Zellweger’s ability to embrace the small moments: the self-doubts, the loving fun with her kids, the happy stage-door meetings with her adoring fans. She repeatedly flashes a laugh-smile that serves various functions, ranging from genuine amusement to a desperate invitation for her listeners to interpret her behavior in the best possible light.
Over the course of the narrative she marries the charismatic Mickey (Finn Wittrock), a man a dozen years her junior, and he starts talking about a big deal that can guarantee Judy’s financial security for life. We wince because we think we know how this song goes…but it turns out he’s not a selfish grifter, he just might not be husband material, and it’s unclear whether anyone could ever have been. Essentially raised in captivity, the movie argues, Judy Garland never learned how to take real control of her own life, even when she most desperately needed to; she was always looking for her next Louis B. Mayer.
(Though the movie presents Mayer as an unmistakably Mephistophelian figure, it doesn’t detail the sexual and emotional abuse that Garland and her peers said he subjected them to. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Mayer was frequently cited as a similar figure from Hollywood history; the fact that Garland lived before the #MeToo era is a tragic, unspoken truth the new film acknowledges.)
There is, of course, music, and it’s thrilling: all the more so because it feels like a triumph every time. By the end of her career, audiences couldn’t be sure if Garland could or would perform as scheduled…but when she did, she sang her heart out. Before social media, before unfiltered stories and Notes app screencaps, Judy Garland put herself out there as far as she could go.
When she was young, Judy Garland was only allowed to be a perfect angel. When she grew up, she owned her imperfections and became a goddess. Not bad for a little girl from Grand Rapids.
Judy opens Friday, Sept. 27 at the Uptown Theatre.