“Maybe it will distress a lot of people, but I’ve had an awfully nice life,” Judy Garland said in a 1967 interview Barbara Walters, who responds, “I think it will surprise a lot of people who kind of like to think of you as...” Garland finishes her thought: “...a tragedy.”
It’s in this moment of Judy Garland’s career, as a struggling performer in the final years of her life, that the biopic Judy sets its stage. Played by Renée Zellweger in a performance that ultimately speaks more to Zellweger’s charms than her ability to fully inhabit a persona whose theatrics are as well known as Garland’s, Judy follows the actress during her notorious run of shows at London’s Talk of the Town club. She’s virtually penniless, kicked out of the hotel room she’s been using as a home, and forced to drop off her two youngest children with their father, former manager Sidney Luft.
The scope of Judy, adapted from the play End of the Rainbow, is small; this is not a sprawling, definitive biopic of the star. And there’s the mess to be expected: Garland drinks too much, she pops uppers and downers like candy, and she’s racked with stage fright when it’s time to actually take the stage and sing. But through it all, Zellweger makes her extremely charming. She’s so quippy, the movie is a comedy rather than a serious portrayal of an artist in the darkest last days of her life. “We can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” says her future fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). “Frank Sinatra’s here?” she says, dryly. When she arrives at show rehearsal and wanders around the studio, evading actually singing, clearing her throat with a fake illness, you laugh, not pity her.
A generous read is that the goofy lightness of the film’s script is a way to remind people of Garland’s outlook on her own life, that she was not simply a tragedy but someone who knew how to put on a dazzling show. But as a largely comic performer herself, Zellweger ends up wearing Garland’s eccentricities like a suit that’s just not quite right, her own mannerisms (the pursed lips, the Bridget Jones-anxiety) bubbling up underneath. The movie is saddled with way too many scenes of Zellweger singing Garland’s hits, lip-syncing the kind of canned, overly auto-tuned vocals you hear in these kinds of musical biopics. Zellweger’s singing is capable, but it doesn’t warrant the dramatic, sweeping camera work these scenes entail. She might not capture Garland, but Zellweger captures her over-the-top magnetism as a tireless entertainer.
There’s a totally different pull to the movie’s flashback scenes, which ground Garland’s tics (her eating disorder, her inability to sleep without pills) in context as a former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ingenue. Director Rupert Goold shoots them like a surreal fever dream, as Garland’s actual memories reveal themselves to take place on elaborate film sets, the contours of her real life and her stage life bleeding into one another. In one scene, while on a date with the actor Mickey Rooney, a young Garland is yelled at by a handler who tells her the studio forbids her from eating, one of the extreme diets MGM put her on to keep her thin. The camera pans out to reveal the diner is a movie set, and a bite of hamburger is caught by a crowd of inexplicably placed paparazzi. In other scenes, Louis B. Mayer is depicted as a looming villain always in shadow, telling Garland she’s nothing, intimidatingly reminding her of the deal she made with him as if he’s Satan himself.
What Goold is doing visually in these flashback scenes is way more interesting than how he films Garland’s story in the present, as if there’s art house potential lurking in the corners of Judy, and it’s a shame the whole movie doesn’t carry that feeling. But even as these scenes flicker in and out of the movie, the weight of that early childhood fame carries throughout without turning Garland into a sob story. Judy, for all its flaws, is an earnest snapshot of an artist who has lived their life constantly performing, and the intense highs and lows of being on stage and off it.
Judy hits theaters this Friday, September 20.