1 Hr., 58 Mins.
Judy October 21, 2019
enée Zellweger doesn’t look like Judy Garland and doesn’t sound like her either. But Diana Ross didn’t look or sound like Billie Holiday yet played the latter fairly magnificently in the otherwise subpar Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Same went for Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2006). The point I'm trying to make here is that for the
biopic — among the most often frustrating and also easiest to fuck up of genres — it’s often the lead performance that really matters the most in the long run. If the actor pretending to be someone else, regardless of their likeness or the tune of their voice, gets at least what we suspect is part of the person of interest's core right, the impression can be major.
Make an impression on us Zellweger does. But thankfully she’s not the sole good thing about her movie. Judy, the biographical drama in which Zellweger plays Garland, is fortunately not a dramatically perverted and overlong debacle in the way Lady Sings the Blues was; it’s probably one of the better celebrity biopics I’ve seen. (Which isn't that high a compliment.) It’s an emotionally compelling and decisively empathetic movie founded on a killer lead performance I really liked. Some have critiqued Zellweger’s performance as faultily derivative. I say it’s one of the best of the year, though since I don't know how much of this movie is true, which means I enjoyed it above all else as a drama, not as much a clearing of the record, my perceptions are undoubtedly murkier for the devotees in the audience.
Judy is set in 1969, in the months before Garland died of a drug overdose. As the film opens, Garland is in both financial and personal destitution. She’s deeply in debt; in an early scene, she returns to her hotel after an evening concert and finds out that staff has given her unit to someone else, and put her stuff in storage. She has long been divorced from Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), who’s now reached a point where he’s thinking it’d be a better idea if their children stayed with him full time. She’s homeless, basically. Her substance abuse has reached its apogee.
It’s suggested, early in the movie, that because of her reputation for tempestuousness, paired alongside her music’s growing datedness, there is no way that Garland can continue consistently surviving in the U.S. market. In need of some money — she has no chance of winning a custody battle without enough cash to so much as afford a hotel room — few other options remain besides an offered concert residency in Britain. Judy dramatizes the series of shows that ensue; all are stationed at the Talk of the Town music hall.
Flashbacks help chop up the 1969 action, which is stamped by Garland’s ill-advised marriage to the much-younger wannabe businessman Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). We rewind to Garland’s early days — in which she’s played by Darci Shaw — at MGM, where she’s verbally abused by studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and begins, through force, what will turn into a lifelong dependency on amphetamines and sleeping pills.
The feature does an effective job concisely connecting how much of Garland’s terminal state is rooted in her childhood traumas. And it poignantly dramatizes the last few months of Garland’s life. It’s true that sometimes screenwriter Tom Edge preferences the lurching forward of fate to specific emotional beats, but Zellweger’s performance is so no-holds-barred — it’s as if she’s purging her emotional palette for us, like her body was being exorcised of a demon — that I was quickly emotionally rapt. It wasn’t so much the narrative execution that mattered to me but the believability with which Zellweger encapsulated Garland’s fragility and famed flairs of live genius in spite of it all. Zellweger’s singing is tissue-thin compared to Garland’s life-confirming, throaty warble, but the conviction is there and so is the physicality. So the effect it has on us is, in essence, the same.
Zellweger soars especially when doing her Garland mimeographing on the reimagined Talk of the Town stage. But Judy does have a couple of bonafide-great sequences that don't have anything to do with the live shows. In one of them, a gay couple meets Garland as she’s departing the arena, and, to their surprise, she asks them out to dinner. Nothing’s open — it’s past midnight — so they head back to their apartment and eat some omelets that get fucked up by nerves. The sequence is affected and, with some distance, out of place in the film. It's canned. But I didn’t mind: It's stirring, and it’s a well-conceived scene-length reminder of how much Garland means to scores of people.
In another, Garland tearfully talks on the phone, in a booth, with her teenage daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey), who’s quietly decided back home with her brother, Joey, that it’d be nice to stay with Dad, mostly because moving around is a particularly hard thing to bear as a kid. The scene’s dialogue is terse, but it elegantly conveys a sad mutual understanding. Garland knows that to give her ex full custody is probably the right thing to do but understandably finds the unsaid truth difficult to stomach. You almost sense, just from Ramsey’s expressive performance, that she preternaturally knows exactly how her screen mother’s mind is working and sympathizes with her. It’s as if she, in this case, were actually the parent commiserating with their child who's recently gotten themselves into trouble.
Another movie was made this year about an underdog entertainer with a comparable radical empathy. It was the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019). Invoking the latter movie is maybe a misguided stretch, I know. Little about Ronstadt and Garland’s lives, and the way they’ve been brought to the screen, are similar. (For starters, the biggest tribulation highlighted in Ronstadt’s movie, besides her 2012 Parkinson’s diagnosis, is her artistic underratedness, not a profoundly tragic personal life.) But the features are in line in that they again remind us of and then subliminally praise wunderkind artists who were appreciated but not nearly enough in their heyday. They also inherently wonder how cultural perceptions of them have changed with time thoughtfully. They’re both hagiographic, but in a way that doesn’t bother us. The mode of lifting-up is becoming and ultimately emotionally rewarding. I was moved, frequently, during Judy. If it isn’t one of the year’s better movies (I don’t think it is), it at least includes one of its finest performances. Zellweger triumphs. B