Judy

Judy (movie)

Making a movie or any document of the life of Judy Garland must be a very tricky project. First of all, Garland—the great film, recording, and concert star from the mid 20th century—is still well known through her some 36 major films and hundreds of recordings. So, any motion picture about her is up against her actual legacy. Secondly, her 46 years of life were so loaded with events, legend, and stylistic eras, it would be impossible to present a truthful assessment of her life in the running length of a theatrical motion picture. Add to that the millions of people who have their own vision of who Judy Garland was and how

she came across, and any filmmaker is up against a wall of objective opinion before they even start production.

 

Fortunately, in the new film Judy, the creative artists have made some wise decisions. They focus only on one part of Garland’s life. This is, of course, the most heart-wrenching segment: Her final year while she was performing live at the London cabaret Talk of The Town.

 

Judy is based on a recent West End and Broadway play, The End of the Rainbow, but this film is very different from that three-character melodrama. Unlike the play (which starred the brilliant, but very broad, British actress Tracy

Bennett), Judy tries to explore the inner workings of Garland’s mind. This is also no small task. Her emotional state must have been quite frayed at that point in her life, and no doubt complex.

 

But this is where Judy is at its best. The film has a quiet and steady intensity, and avoids anything camp or two-dimensional. Whether this was the idea of the screenwriter Tom Edge or the director Rupert Goold, the approach is totally in tune with Renee Zellweger’s performance. All three are totally aligned, and the tone of the motion picture is consistent and even.

 

Right from the top, we are privy to Garland’s love and concern for her children. As suggested here, she simply wanted to be a good mother and find a home where she and her children could live. This clear and admirable “I want” is believable and gives the movie a through-line of intent most bio-pics do not have. It also gives the viewer great empathy for the central character, who was one of the most colorful yet difficult entertainers of all time.

Judy (movie)

Judy also takes the time to give us glimpses into her Hollywood MGM past and provides some excellent insight into why and how Judy Garland might have become what and who she was by 1968-69. All of this care in the storytelling allows Ms. Zellweger to give a touching and very truthful performance.

 

Renee Zellweger and Judy Garland may not seem like a perfect match at first thought, but when Zellweger takes on the challenge, the results are surprising and satisfying. She gives a much more in-depth character portrayal than she has henceforth delivered in her film career. In order to rise to the occasion, Zellweger exhibits that she did her homework and has honed her craft over the years. And, indeed, there must have been a lot of homework for her to do.

 

Your first thought might be, “Well, can she sing as well as Judy Garland?” But that isn’t the point of the film as defined by the director and writer. Ms. Zellweger doesn’t really try to imitate Garland’s voice. She simply uses her own musicality and lets Garland’s emotional inner-workings take over.

 

In this way, Judy makes a very different bio-pic from other incarnations (most notably the 2001 mini-series Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, in which Judi Davis used actual Garland vocal tracks}. In this telling of the Garland legend, the filmmakers’ decision to look into what might have been going on inside her mind (and heart) the last year of her life is what makes this a compelling drama more than a musical bio-pic. On the whole, they and Ms. Zellweger are wonderfully successful.

 

The film also addresses the fact that this very talented and intelligent woman was taken advantage of by many of the men in her life. Early flashbacks dramatize how Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM in the 1930s and ‘40s, manipulated and overtly threatened Garland to “behave” and subordinate herself to the business at hand (namely, making dozens of spectacular and high-grossing film musicals for MGM). By all accounts, Mayer subjected Garland {and many of his other stars} to cruel manipulation.

 

Going forward, we see how one of Garland’s ex-husbands took unfair advantage of her dire financial situation. Right to the end, Garland is subjected to psychological abuse from men, from her sweet but advantage-seeking fifth husband and finally from her London promoter.

 

All of this adds a very real and tragic element to the film. How could the “Greatest Entertainer of the 20th Century” be so abused by the people and the business for which she made many millions of dollars? Where was their appreciation for her enormous talents? By underlining these insidious acts, the film acquires a profundity of Shakespearean proportions.

 

Unlike other, broader depictions of Garland’s life, though, Judy has a subtle and luxurious graciousness, which in itself gives us a glimpse into the nobility and determination of Judy Garland. The film also captures her sardonic wit, and some of her zinger one-liners are tremendous fun. In fact, the film achieves a wonderful balance between entertainment and tragedy. The invention of two gay fans who befriend Judy, bring her home for a midnight snack, and later help her sing “Over the Rainbow” in concert is quite funny, charming, and ultimately touching. (For the record, in one of her last concerts, fans did actually help her finish “Over the Rainbow” when her voice faltered from exhaustion.)

 

Beyond the actual story, it must be noted that what Ms. Zellweger lacks in vocal identity with Judy Garland she more than makes up for in a near-perfect visualization. And this is beyond the excellent hair and makeup. Her movements throughout exactly mirror Garland’s—not just when singing but more impressively in conversational gestures, posture, and simply walking. This might have been even harder to achieve than the vocal impersonations.

 

It’s likely that any film about Judy Garland can’t please all of the people all the time, but this effort deserves attention, repeat viewing, and praise for its exceptional effort. And for Zellweger, an Oscar is well deserved. In part, it’s the Academy Award that Garland should have won decades ago.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

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