Judy Garland in 1939, the year she starred in The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland and fifth husband Mickey Deans in London, 1968
Great Britain (118 mi) 2019 d: Rupert Goold Official site
In a long-established Hollywood tradition, actors are largely rewarded for playing well-known or popular figures, where a long line of Best Actor awards have been given to George C. Scott as General Patton, Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, F. Murray Abraham as Mozart’s rival, Salieri, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whittaker as Idi Amin, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Colin Firth as King George VI, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. The same can be said in the Best Actress category, where there have been similar occurrences, like Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, and Olivia Colman as Anne, Queen of England. All indications at this early stage of the year is that Renée Zellweger (after taking a 5-year sabbatical from acting) will be a shoo-in for her portrayal of the legendary Judy Garland, which is particularly controversial as the Garland family was defiantly against this project from getting off the ground, though it’s an intelligent adaptation written by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, revisiting the hectic final year of her life when she was forced to do a 5-week tour in London to earn money, in what were sold-out shows, but she was going through a particularly tumultuous time in her life, separated from her children, going through the things stars have to endure as their star is fading, but in Garland’s case it’s particularly compelling, as she was a child star in the MGM studios run by a ruthlessly autocratic studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) who not only touched her inappropriately but had her on a strictly enforced, daily regimented diet at age 16, including pills to keep her awake for the grueling 18-hour days of shooting as well as pills to help her sleep, which started a pattern of lifelong addiction which is quite apparent near the end of her life. As if to emphasize this point, the film has flashback sequences when she was preparing for her role as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), with Darci Shaw as young Judy, still innocent, yet brimming with life, though completely frustrated by her blatant mistreatment, as she is eventually run into the ground from exhaustion and overwork until they have no further use for her after exploiting her stardom for hundreds of millions of dollars, only to end up throwing her away as damaged goods. Bookending her career at the beginning and the end is a fateful portrayal filled with tragic overtones.
Part of Zellweger’s appeal, of course, lies in the immense adoration for Judy Garland, who has come to define the term “show business,” with an accent on business, as she was an exploited commodity, yet she always put on a show, a supremely gifted artist at the top of her craft, personified by her spellbinding performance in A Star Is Born (1954), where she was not rewarded with an Oscar that everyone in Hollywood expected her to receive, tragically awarded instead to Grace Kelly in the utterly forgettable film THE COUNTRY GIRL, with Groucho Marx afterwards calling it “the greatest robbery since the Brinks.” This has come to define the tragedy of her life, as she was never recognized by the very industry that created her, that turned her into a star, beloved around the world, but not in Hollywood, apparently, even though no one could match her voice, pouring her heart and soul into anything she did, becoming an iconic figure simply in how she managed to survive, against all odds, with her talent and wit intact, but troubled by inner demons that followed her throughout her entire life. One of the interesting things about Judy Garland is how she simply jumped from being an innocent teenage heartthrob to a full-grown woman, sailing past young adulthood, as if aging decades overnight, much of it after developing a studio reputation for being difficult on the set, late, even unreliable, where they tarnished her reputation, intentionally lowering her market value if she switched to a different studio, basically ruining her career, as she was blackballed by the industry, rarely working again in films. So she had to reinvent her career through television and musical concerts, becoming a hit in Las Vegas singing with the Rat Pack before giving an unforgettable, career-defining performance at Carnegie Hall, releasing a two-record album afterwards that won Grammys for album of the year (the first female winner) and best female vocal of the year, becoming chummy with the Kennedys during their brief hiatus in Camelot, taking an early stand in support of the Civil Rights movement and was a huge advocate for human rights, embraced by the gay community as an icon, easily identifying with how she changed her image from an adorable young girl to a bombastic figure of towering strength, identifying with the trajectory of her career, filled with personal struggles, yet also unafraid to wear pants onstage while performing, where her vocalizations were so personal, as if she was speaking directly to each person in the audience. It’s that personal relationship to Judy Garland that endures, something she created with her embattled career, earning our collective admiration and respect, as she is a once in a lifetime figure, a one and only, as there is no one else like her. What’s unique about this film is that it pays tribute to a star, even one that is falling, but she’s still a star.
One can find no fault in Zellweger’s ability to immerse herself in the legendary persona of Garland, using many of the same gestures and facial expressions, and does her own singing, but simply can’t match the vocal range, as who can? Yet she does provide the personal intimacy of what she’s going through emotionally, even when performing the songs. While Hollywood tends to go ga-ga in rewarding iconic portrayals of real people, which is more about rewarding itself as an industry, which is something Hollywood loves to do, and occasionally Zellweger appears completely out of place as the real thing, yet she beautifully captures the sense of moment-to-moment desperation that she found herself in, continually feeling cornered and broke, yet refusing to surrender, like most of the scenes with her ex-husband Sydney Luft (Rufus Sewell) as they were going through an acrimonious divorce. Easily the best scenes are something of a surprise, as she runs into a gay couple waiting for her outside the stage door one night, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira), who attend every one of her shows in London. Having nothing better to do, she decides to have dinner with them, but every restaurant in the city is closed at such a late hour, so they invite her up to their apartment for an omelet that goes woefully wrong (hint: don’t add cream), which of course devastates Stan, who just wanted to create something special. Retreating for drinks and a game of cards, their bond is sealed over a quietly downbeat version of “Get Happy” at the piano when Dan breaks down recalling how humiliated he was when imprisoned for homosexuality, which was the British law until 1967, yet this is arguably the most poignant moment of the entire film, as her compassion symbolizes what she represents and why she is so universally adored. The rest of the film is fairly conventional, living out of an upscale hotel room, where time alone tends to wear on her, especially missing her children, where she works late hours and then can’t sleep, leaving her filled with a restless anxiety that never goes away, that actually feeds into her performance, as something underneath has been the driving force her entire life, always told she wasn’t pretty enough, that she was never good enough, becoming overly critical of her own work, filled with self-doubts, never really believing in herself, always a bit terrified before a performance, but it drove her to work extra hard, becoming a volcanic force of nature when she hit the stage, suddenly transformed into a show business icon, like a surreal extension of herself. Yet in the twilight of her career, she was so afraid of disappointing an audience, especially when she wasn’t so sure she could hit those notes anymore. In the film she’s given a personal assistant, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, a stand-out), whose job is to get her ready each day for the daily regimen of scheduled events, including interviews and appearances, invariably leading to a cocktail or two and a mouthful of pills, so that by the time of her performance she’s unable to perform, yet they throw her out there anyway with disastrous results. These are cringeworthy moments the Garland family would probably prefer were omitted from the film, yet despite a few embarrassing turns, including an impromptu wedding with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, her fifth husband, basically to kill the time) that ends disastrously as well, the film will rise or fall on those set pieces singing those fabulous numbers we’re all so familiar with. Zellweger doesn’t disappoint, as she is consumed by the role, bringing the needed dramatic intensity, even in the quiet moments, deftly balancing the good with the bad. Nothing can replace the true legend, but as far as Hollywood goes, it’s a beautifully configured film, drawn from exquisite material that is tinged with a touch of sadness, leaving viewers with the L. Frank Baum quote that set the wheels of her career in motion, perhaps finally getting her just due, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”