Oscar-winner Renée Zellweger is breathtaking as iconic Hollywood movie star Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s biopic “Judy,” based on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow.”
The performance overshadows the film written by Tom Edge, which focuses on the period three decades after “The Wizard of Oz” and six months before her tragic death. The supporting cast includes a very good Jessie Buckley (“Wild Rose”), who unfortunately doesn’t get to sing in the film, and Finn Wittrock (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) as Garland’s fifth and final husband Mickey Deans.
The film opens in 1968 with Garland, now in her mid-40s and still glamorous, going from gig to gig performing small shows, sometimes with her two young kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), in order to make ends meet.
The trio has been living in one hotel after another, but when the money runs out, Garland is forced to leave her kids with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) who wants custody of the children.
Garland may have been the “greatest performer of all time,” but in the film, she refers to herself as a mother who “just wants what everybody wants.” She loves her two children and hates being apart from them, but she’s forced to do just that in order to provide for the family.
The driving force behind Edge’s script is Garland’s commitment to her kids. When she’s offered a five-week engagement at London’s The Talk of the Town nightclub by theater impresario Bernard Delfont (“Harry Potter’s” Michael Gambon), she takes the gig seeing it as a way make enough money to purchase a home and secure their future.
Goold incorporates flashback sequences to paint a portrait of a superstar who never had the freedom to be herself. Garland was used and abused by the men in her life including MGM co-founder and producer Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the Harvey Weinstein of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who kept Garland on a tight leash by constantly reminding her that she was fat, ugly and lucky to be working in movies.
Newcomer Darci Shaw is commendable as the young starlet who is seen taking in Mayer’s advice while strolling down the famed Yellow Brick Road on the “Wizard of Oz” set and later rebelling against the studio head by chomping down on a hamburger (she was under a strict diet) while out on a date with a young Mickey Rooney.
It’s easy to see how Garland developed an eating disorder after viewing the flashback sequences. Her dependency on pills and alcohol took over her life, but temporarily lessened when she met husband No. 5, a younger Mickey Deans. He filled Garland with hope and joy, but ultimately let her down like all the other men in her life. Wittrock is great opposite Zellweger. The two have an undeniable chemistry that feels natural.
In what should lead to an Oscar nomination, Zellweger is sensational as Garland undergoing a transformation so in-depth, at times the resemblance is uncanny.
In 2002, she sang and danced her way into our hearts and into an Oscar nomination as chorus dancer Roxie Hart in the big-screen adaptation of “Chicago.” Seventeen years later, her voice has matured to the point where she emulates Garland’s tone perfectly – belting out classics like “The Trolley Song” and the iconic “Over the Rainbow.” When Zellweger sings, she commands your attention, leading to some of the film’s best moments.
While this was a very somber period in Garland’s life, Goold manages to keep the audience in high spirits by showing Garland’s determination to remain positive no matter how many obstacles she encountered. Her sense of humor comes shining through in Zellweger’s portrayal, as does her need to be the best mother possible.
“Judy” is not the traditional biopic that America’s sweetheart deserves, but Zellweger’s performance is one that I feel Garland would have embraced.