Judy Garland is the latest in a long line of 20th-century celebrities to receive the biopic treatment. However, instead of focusing on her career’s tempestuous beginnings, meteoric rise, and subsequent fall, the new film Judy homes in on the end of the titular icon’s stage life. It’s not a choice that writer Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold made specifically for this film: They’re trying to make the best of playwright Peter Quiller’s source material, End of the Rainbow, a musical drama that evolved from the writer’s earlier play Last Song of the Nightingale, which concerns a fictitious, past-her-prime diva. This torturous pedigree — from roman à clef play to biopic play to cinematic feature — results in a film that not only fails to hit the high notes but proves incapable of carrying even a simple tune.
Judy acts as if it’s a cut above the rest in choosing to focus solely on the final year of Garland’s life, but it can’t resist resorting to frequent, cartoonish flashbacks of a young Garland (Darci Shaw) and her troubled upbringing in the studio system. One such scene opens the film, establishing her toxic relationship with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) — the last M in MGM — before jumping to 1968. Now alcoholic and prescription-dependent, Garland (Renée Zellweger) performs in small venues with her two youngest children, Lorna and Joey (Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd) for very low pay. Upon arriving at the hotel they call home, the trio learns that they’ve been booted for skipping rent one too many times. (The measly $150 Garland received for their latest song-and-dance routine won’t cover their bill.) Left with no other options, Garland returns Lorna and Joey to their father and crashes in the home of her eldest child — none other than Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), a rising star whose late 1960s career mirrors that of her mother from a decades earlier.
Here she meets Mickey Deans (Fin Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur who gives her the kind of positive, no-strings-attached attention she’s been longing for. Their flirtatious night together leaves Garland starry-eyed and confident enough to find a gig that will allow her to finally get a grip on her life and secure the funds to pay off her debts and get her kids back. Begrudgingly, she realizes that this means returning to London — a city that adores her, to be sure, although the tour will take her away from Lorna and Joey for at least a year. Upon arriving in the UK, theater owner Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) and Garland’s overseas assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) quickly realize that the all-American actress is much more difficult than she seems on the silver screen. It’s hard work wrangling her big personality (and dangerous habits), but the trio — and eventually Deans — find a way to make it work to their collective profit.
Still, despite her seemingly stable footing and willingness to get better, Garland’s self-destruction seems inevitable – no thanks to some ham-fisted creative decisions by Goold and Edge. Not since Bradley Cooper’s performance in A Star Is Born (2018) has a character’s vice been treated with such a heavy hand. (Ironic, given that Garland herself starred in George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born.) If the viewer misses the flashback in which a teenage Garland is fed pills to quash her appetite while dining with a youthful Mickey Rooney, fret not — there are plenty of other scenes that underline her addictions. Each one is less subtle than the last, the worst of them being a pill-popping montage that juxtaposes Garland’s past and present to the tune of “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). It’s as if Edge wants to bludgeon the audience with foreshadowing at every opportunity. Seeing Garland’s harrowing struggle being reduced to something so carelessly trivial is awfully hard to stomach
Renée Zellweger’s six-year acting hiatus has made Judysomething of a Hollywood event. Taking a break between 2010 and 2016, the actor thereafter remained relatively under-the-radar – this is likely the first time that mainstream audiences will have seen her onscreen since Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016).The film’s disavowal by the real-life Minelli and Lorna Luft and the media buzz surrounding Zellweger over the past several years have coalesced as a shared weight on Judy’s shoulders. As a result, the actor’s performance has the potential to make or break the entire affair. Regrettably, after witnessing Zellweger’s peculiar, farcical Garland impression, audiences will find themselves siding with Minelli and Luft’s hard stance. The material Zellweger is working with is both overwhelmingly pedestrian and comically gauche, made all the worse by the her exaggeration of Garland’s subtly theatrical personality and the decision to have the actor sing rather than using recordings of Garland. The final product is far more worthy of Saturday Night Live than the Academy Awards.
Garland is one of the all-time greatest performers of the 20th century. Her filmography is unmatched, her talents are exceedingly rare by today’s standards, and her personal life is about as tragic as it gets. The studio system of the Classical era was a nightmare for young women like Garland, with studio heads cutting throats and severing ties left and right in search of the Next Big Thing, with no regard for the starlets they chewed up and spit out. There’s enormous potential for a revelatory feature film that could tackle these heavy themes. Judy isn’t it. Goold and Edge obviously mean well — their project carries itself like a would-be Best Picture winner, never squandering an opportunity to give Zellweger a line tailor-made for an awards highlight reel — but it’s hard to understate just how badly they’ve bungled it. Perhaps, in an alternate timeline, Zellweger could have done something exceptional in a more faithful adaptation of Quiller’s original play. “You won’t forget me, will you?” Garland asks her London audience. “Promise you won’t?” She will always be remembered, flaws and all, but that doesn’t mean this uninspired film deserves the same.