Zellwegger channels Garland on her last stretch of Yellow Brick Road
Starring Renée Zellweger & Finn Wittrock
Directed by Rupert Goold
Before Cher, before Madonna, before Gaga, Rihanna or Beyoncé—before any of those other female superstars so famous they only needed one name, there was Judy.
That’s Judy Garland, the actress and singer who starred in more than two dozen movies—including an Oscar-nominated performance in a 1954 version of A Star Is Born—and became the first female to receive a Grammy (in 1961) for Album of the Year.
And of course, she appeared at age 17 in the role that would make her famous forever, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, performing the song that would become her signature, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
An entertainment icon of Hollywood’s golden age, Garland (who died 50 years ago this year at the age of 47) was famous—and sometimes infamous—for weathering a stormy personal life and turbulent, chaotic career, marked by soaring highs and rock-bottom lows. She bore the scars of emotional and psychological abuse dating back to her childhood.
Judy starts, briefly, at the beginning—on the set of The Wizard of Oz—but zooms ahead quickly three decades later as Garland pulls into what will be the final stretch of her Yellow Brick Road.
If you only know her from The Wizard of Oz, prepare to see Judy in a totally different light and from a completely different perspective. And if you only know Renée Zellweger from Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Chicago or Cold Mountain (for which she won an Oscar)—well, prepare to be wowed.
In a bravura performance that includes doing her own singing, Zellweger morphs into late-stage Garland in the twilight of her career, at a time when the glow of the Hollywood spotlight had long ago faded on the one-time MGM Studios starlet.
Broke, without a place to call home, her personal life in shambles after four failed marriages, Judy’s body is a rail-thin bundle of frayed nerves from a lifetime of showbiz stress, drugs and alcohol. She takes an extended gig at a posh nightclub in London, hoping it will give her enough quick cash that she can return stateside and wrest back her two young kids from the temporary custody of ex-husband No. 3, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle).
The British fans are passionate and welcoming, but the critics are ready to pounce, and there’s another husband-to-be waiting in the wings—Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, from American Horror Story), a handsome schemer-dreamer who sweeps Judy off her feet, at least for a while.
Her grown daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux, who played Lady Fitzgerald in TV’s The Tudors), is wary of her Judy’s latest suitor, and her youngest, Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), has grown weary of her long absences—and erratic parenting.
You don’t have to know how it all ends to know it’s not all going to end well.
Judy is based on a Broadway and West End (London) stage play called End of the Rainbow, and British director Rupert Goold, whose background is mostly in theater, presses down hard on the play’s cautionary theme about the high price and the dark underside of fame, and specifically how it both created and destroyed one of the biggest, brightest stars of the 1940s and ’50s. Flashbacks show how young Judy (played by British newcomer Darci Shaw) was driven to exhaustion by her studio handlers, given diet pills, sleeping pills, uppers and downers, forbidden to eat when she was hungry, and constantly reminded of her shortcomings. We wince as we watch studio honcho Louis B. Mayer tell her she’s ugly and plain, that there are thousands of other young girls who could take her place, and that her mother doesn’t care anything about her—then he gropes her.
It’s no wonder Judy grew up to love the stage and the spotlight—applause from an audience was a sign that someone out there, at least, loved her. It’s no wonder she grew up with a gigantic, hollow emptiness inside that no amount of pills or booze—or husbands—could fill. And it’s no wonder, by the time we catch up with her in the winter of 1968, she’s a colossal train wreck headed off the tracks—again.
Zellweger owns the movie, top to bottom, start to finish, in a performance that’s already getting heavy—and deserved—Oscar buzz. Never campy or flashy or a caricature, it taps into the messy matrix of Garland’s spunk, sass, sadness, brokenness, desperation, defeat, pride, heartache, humor, hurt, hope, flair, fatigue and frailty at one of the lowest times of her life. It’s in the way she moves, the way she purses her lips into a twisted, forlorn smile, the way she squints her dark eyes—eyes that suggest they’ve already seen so much, too much.
It may be hard for younger audiences to understand, but Judy was a superstar whose fame spread around the world long before internet, before cable television. An “outcast” from Hollywood (who was eventually fired from MGM when she failed to report for work, almost ending her movie career), she found an unlikely, underground alliance with another group of outliers, the gay and queer community, to which the movie gives a nod in one of its warmest scenes. When Judy meets a pair of male superfans after one of her London shows, she ends up spending an evening with them at their home—and learns about their bittersweet story.
Later, at another show, those same two fans lead the audience in rising to their feet to join their voices in singing her most famous song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” when Judy’s own voice falters.
Life certainly wasn’t “happy little bluebirds,” as the song goes, for Garland, who died six months after her London concerts. But Judy shows us a falling star going down in one final blaze of semi-glory, far from home, surrounded by fans, warmed by the glow of the comforting words of a familiar song about a faraway fantasy place where “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
All of her dreams, alas, didn’t come true. But Judy and Renée take us over the rainbow in a compassionate, compelling 50th anniversary tribute to the final chapter of one of Hollywood’s most tragic figures of yesteryear, rekindling the nearly myth-sized memory of an entertainer whose life’s work will live forever.
In theaters Sept. 27, 2019