“JUDY”: Diva in decline

Rene Zellweger as Judy Garland

My rating: B (Opens wide on Sept. 27) 118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Published September 26, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

One of the biggest thrills in moviegoing is seeing a familiar performer sink so completely into a character that you forget who  you’re watching.

That’s the case with Rene Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in “Judy.”  Bet she’s already cleared space on the mantel for another Oscar.

Scripted by Tom Edge and directed by Ruper Goold, “Judy” is a film whose flaws are more than compensated for by a monumental performance.

Set in 1969, the last year of Garland’s life, when she was persona non grata in Hollywood and had to travel to London to get a nightclub gig, the film has some rough spots, particularly in its depiction of a once-great talent circling the drain. It’s pretty depressing stuff.

But Zellweger’s portrayal lifts the entire enterprise. She not only looks like the 47-year-old, drug-worn Garland, but she channels the star’s eccentric body language. And she sings Garland’s songs — not as well as Garland did, but enough to wow moviegoers. (It helps that by this time in her career Garland’s power was more in her unique delivery than vocal strength.)

We meet Judy and her two young children returning to L.A. from a tour playing clubs in the South. It’s not a happy homecoming — they’re evicted from their hotel for back rent, and Judy’s ex, agent Sid Luft (Rupert Sewell) says that while he’ll take in the kids, he’s also going to sue for custody.

The only way to get enough cash to make her case in court is for Judy to take a gig in London, performing at a club run by a no-nonsense promoter (Michael Gambon); wise to his star’s reputation for temperamental meltdowns, he assigns a handler (“Wild Roses’” Jessie Buckley) to coax, cajole and physically push the quaking singer out onto the stage.

Rene Zellweger, Finn Wittrock

If in private life she is a sad, self-deprecating wraith (“I used to have ambition. I found it gave me the most terrible headache.”), once in the spotlight Judy taps into some sort of sense-memory reservoir of stardom and transforms herself. On a good night, she can for two hours transcend her demons.

Based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow,” “Judy” details our heroine’s late-in-life romance with a hustler (Finn Wittrock) half her age who has big plans for his paramour but lacks the skill to pull any of them off. Judy’s brief dream of a resurgent career and a fulfilled personal life comes crashing down.

Much of “Judy” is terribly glum. Happily, the film makes hay of the star’s relationship with two gay men (Andy Nyman,   Daniel Cerqueira) who absolutely adore this woman and, once they’ve shaken off their star-struck chills, provide a much-needed refuge in their shabby London flat.

The film’s biggest misstep (and mine is a minority view) is devoting  considerable screen time to flashbacks of Judy’s teenage years in Hollywood. In these scenes we see the young, insecure and desperately overworked performer (played by Darci Shaw ) being manipulated by M-G-M boss L.B. Mayer into a regimen of speed pills in the morning, barbituates at night and a love life dictated by studio publicists.

While essentially factual, these digressions feel contrived and forced…I’d have preferred that the screenplay found a way for the grown Judy to explain her past.

“Judy” suffers from third-act letdown –for about 20 minutes things are so grim I found myself squirming — but Zellweger’s recreation of Judy’s act sends us off with admiration for a unique talent and a trouper who at her best left daily misery behind and took her audience over the rainbow.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

Posted in

Leave a Comment

Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.