What is our fascination with Judy Garland? Is it that we can empathise with or identify as Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz? Maybe it’s the tragedy and early death of such an iconic figure. Coming to this film, I knew a little of her sad life, picked up from cultural references mostly. I was most familiar with her voice; from her untouchable “Over the Rainbow” to my personal go-to favourite “The Man That Got Away” from 1954’s A Star Is Born.
Renee Zellweger (Oscar winner for Cold Mountain, 2003) stars as Judy Garland and her performance will likely put her in line for her fourth Oscar nomination. The film basically covers the last year of Judy's life in a similar vein to last year’s Stan & Ollie. Director Rupert Goold is working from a script by Tom Edge adapted from Peter Quilter's stage play, "End of the Rainbow". There is no Lollipop Guild here. Instead, the harsh realities of Judy's life are explored.
The film opens with Judy and her kids, Joe and Lorna, performing on stage and then being unceremoniously denied a room at a nearby luxury hotel. She ends up at her ex-husband Sid Luft's (Rufus Sewell) home, which after some bickering, is where the kids stay.
With no other real prospective gigs, Judy accepts an offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to perform at his Talk of the Town theatre in London (again, echoes of Stan & Ollie). Most of the film covers her time in London, and the challenges for all involved. She's 46 years old in the winter of 1968, and though her voice no longer carries the sublime purity of those early years, Judy still has incredible stage presence and an ability to connect with the audience. The challenges occur for her assigned assistant Rosalyn Wilder (played here by our own Jessie Buckley), as well as Judy herself. She misses her kids and is battling loneliness and an addiction to pills - causing her to rarely eat or sleep. When her "friend" (and fifth husband) Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) shows up, Judy's attitude perks up, but her already questionable dependability falters.
Flashbacks to Judy's teenage years at MGM are used to portray how the studio and industry took control of her body, soul and career. Watching studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) bully young Judy (played by newcomer Darci Shaw) by pretending to be a father figure while keeping her weight in line with a diet of cigarettes, diet pills, and soup, is painful. These scenes, including those with young Judy's frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, help us understand why she was in such a state by the time she hit London.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy Garland first hit the stage at age 2, and never experienced a "normal" childhood or traditional relationship. Despite her immense talent, she was never able to find peace with the pressures of performing. Years of abuse led to an early death, six months after the events in this film. Judy never backs away from the tragic story, but also allows one of the brightest stars of an era to shine through. For those who only know Judy as that homesick girl from Kansas, or maybe also as the rosy-cheeked youngster on the Trolley in Meet Me In St.Louis (directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli), there is likely a shock factor in seeing the broken icon in middle age. The film also deals with that always-present bond she had with her audience, especially with the gay community - although a certain sequence of the film seems quite improbable.
For a film like this to work (it was not sanctioned by Judy's daughter Liza Minnelli), it all rides on the lead performance. Renee Zellweger beautifully captures both the tragic essence and the stunning talent of the late 1960's Judy Garland, an iconic and revered entertainment figure. The film allows us to understand the lifelong mistreatment and heartbreak of this woman, as well as the strength and joy she received while performing live. Balancing the "early" Judy with the "later" Judy was a brilliant way of bringing her life full circle.
I have a few gripes about the film. Firstly, it plays more like a documentary-drama than a fully fledged motion picture. Rupert Goold, who directed, has previously worked in television and Judy would seem more at home on TV. It never felt like a cinematic experience. I also felt like I was always watching Renee Zellweger playing Judy Garland. I could not see beyond the performance, unlike Messrs Coogan and Reilly in Stan & Ollie. Their performance was not an impersonation per se. I felt Zellweger’s was an impersonation. Then there are the inaccuracies including the ages of her children, the fleeting glimpse of her daughter Liza and her unresolved relationship with Mickey Deans which ended abruptly in the film.
It’s a two-star film but Zellweger elevates it to three.