Renee Zellweger tries for Oscar gold portraying Judy Garland in a boring “biopic.”
Let me get one thing clear. The “critics” and others who have declared that “Renee Zellweger becomes Judy Garland” in the new, and boring, “biopic” Judy have obviously never seen the real Judy Garland perform in anything – at all. There’s no other explanation. Zellweger doesn’t “become” Judy Garland – at all. To say so is a misleading lie. Zellweger plays a drug-addicted singer at the end of her life, but that singer sure isn’t Judy Garland no matter how hard Zellweger tries (and try she does!). Don’t get me wrong, Zellweger does have some good scenes, just not as Judy Garland.
Judy begins immediately with a flashback to Judy Garland as a teenager on the set of The Wizard of Oz. MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer is giving her “advice” while walking on a poorly rendered representation of the Oz sets. Who knew the Kansas farm set, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, and the poppy field were all one set? Oh right, they weren’t. I overheard someone behind me whisper to a friend, “they couldn’t use CGI?” I don’t know if that person was referencing the weird inaccuracy of the setting or if they were commenting on the low budget, TV-movie-of-the-70s, look of the set. Inexplicably, “Miss Gulch” rides by on her bicycle, on the Yellow Brick Road, while Garland and Mayer are walking and talking. That’s not a great start.
“Mr. Mayer” (as many called him back in the heyday of MGM) proceeds to tell young Garland, blandly played by Darci Shaw, how ordinary she is and that the only thing that sets her apart is her voice. She just wants some time to enjoy normal teenager things but that’s not possible for MGM’s budding new star. This scene is meant to let the audience know that Garland never had a life of her own and was only loved for her voice, which is pounded home throughout the rest of the film.
Renee Zellweger appears as Judy Garland, performing with her two youngest children, Lorna, and Joey Luft. At a very late post-performance hour Garland (and kids) attempts to check in to her favorite New York City hotel but is turned down due to unpaid bills. She gets angry, fast, and unable to pay, marches out with kids in tow. In the cab, which she apparently does have the money for (a joke about paying more for the cab than what the hotel cost is made later), she immediately downs some pills, to which Lorna (played by Isabella Ramsay) asks her not to fall asleep. “These are the other ones” is Garland’s reply, indicating that she’s taking uppers rather than downers. Garland takes the kids to ex-husband Sid Luft’s home in Brentwood. This is conflated, as Luft did not live in New York and Brentwood is an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles. But, a little dramatic license is to be expected in any “biopic” and the sequence effectively sets up Garland’s homeless dilemma, her very real love for her children, and her relationship with Sid Luft – who is effectively played by Rufus Sewell. He reappears later in the storyline and is one of the better portrayals.
Note: I use the word “biopic” in quotes because Judy isn’t really a “biopic” but more a portrayal of a drug-addicted performer during one short time period at the end of her life.
Garland then goes to a party at which her first child, the adult (and oddly overweight) Liza Minnelli (played by Gemma-Leah Devereux), is also a guest. It’s at this party, we’re shown, where Garland meets the man who would become her fifth (and last) husband/manager, Mickey Deans (played by Finn Wittrock sporting an odd Bronx-ish accent). He hitches his star to her wagon and she hitches her need for stability to him. From there Garland gets an offer to appear at The Talk of the Town in faraway London. The dilemma is that Garland can’t take her two youngest children with her but with no other choice she’s forced to leave them behind with Luft. She’s now shown as utterly alone.
Garland goes to London and meets up with her Talk of the Town pianist and personal assistant hired by the venue’s management, the real-life Rosalyn Wilder played by Jessie Buckley. I wasn’t there, but from what I’m told by people who were there when the events portrayed took place, Wilder’s role is greatly exaggerated in this film. She also comes off as very unfeeling and cold. She’s kind of a bitch. I took this as the filmmakers’ attempt to correlate her character to a similar female harridan who’s shown in the MGM flashbacks bossing the young Garland around in a similar unfeeling and quite mean manner. I was never sure if this unnamed flashback character was supposed to be Garland’s mother or just some mean studio-assigned assistant whose sole purpose in life is to ensure the young Garland doesn’t eat, doesn’t play around, takes her pills to wake up and then takes her pills to get to sleep. The pills have a solid supporting role in this film. Wilder inexplicably becomes nice at the end of the film. I guess that by that point she’s no longer responsible for getting Garland on stage every night so she’s a happy camper.
Garland is so nervous about her opening at The Talk of the Town and upset about being alone without her kids, she gets wasted and can’t go on. It takes Wilder and a makeup girl to get her in decent shape (coffee, of course) to literally push her out on the stage and perform. I didn’t look at my watch so as not to distract the people in the theater next to me but by this point, the film had run on for a good half an hour, maybe a little more. This was meant to build excitement and anticipation of Zellweger doing her best Judy Garland impersonation. It didn’t succeed. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, it’s quite boring. That’s not a word that’s usually used for anything in relation to the real Judy Garland.
From there, the film becomes a series of sequences that show Garland alternating from loneliness to desperation to showing up at The Talk of the Town too messed up to perform (but she’s allowed to go on stage anyway) and not being too messed up to perform. Inbetween those sequences we get a few more MGM flashbacks (apparently everything happened to Garland around the time she turned 16). There are hints of unrequited love for Mickey Rooney that apparently are meant to show how this fictional Garland was unlucky with men all her life. An appearance on a British talk show goes bad (the look and costume she’s wearing are copied from her real-life 1968 appearance on the Mike Douglas Show in the U.S.) due to her cranky unpredictability, which is another theme of the film.
Mickey Deans surprises Garland by showing up in London which brings her temporary stability. She quickly marries him. After failing to get a chain of Judy Garland movie theaters off the ground, he and Garland argue and he disappears. Sid Luft reappears, visiting London to get Garland to give up full custody of their two children. This enrages Garland so she gets wasted again and has another bad night at The Talk of the Town. In the end, her engagement at the venue is completed and she is alone with nowhere to go. She convinces Wilder to let her watch Lonnie Donegan (played by John Dagleish) perform at The Talk of the Town from backstage. Naturally, she convinces Donegan to let her go out on stage where she proceeds to sing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and finally, “Over the Rainbow.” Fade to black.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only person bored. In the showing I was at, several people left long before the end of the film. That surprised me. On the way out I overheard one person tell his friend that he liked Zellweger but not the film. Another person told their friend that the film “wasn’t very good.” And that’s one of the biggest issues with the film. It’s just not very good and again, and regardless of whatever one thinks of Zellweger’s impersonation, it’s boring.
It takes a great star to play a great star, as they say. At this, Judy fails. One’s enjoyment of the film depends on one’s knowledge of (and exposure to) the real Judy Garland’s life and, more importantly, her voice. I imagine that most Judy Garland fans will not enjoy the film while those who know nothing about Judy Garland will. That’s a shame. They won’t hear the real Judy Garland’s voice coming at them from the theater’s speakers (which is a glorious experience) so they are robbed of those “little jabs of pleasure” that one gets when hearing the real thing. Instead, they get a non-singer trying but ultimately failing to emulate those jabs of pleasure. There are no jabs of pleasure from Renee Zellweger.
When it was announced that a film of Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow” was in the works I was surprised. The play, in spite of getting a Tony nomination for Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland, was maligned for it’s very fictional and sensationalist take on a short few months in Judy Garland’s life (having Judy crawl across a floor barking like a dog begging for pills didn’t help). It’s an odd choice for the basis of a big-screen “biopic” about one of the biggest legends (and biggest talents) of the entertainment world in the 20th century. Thankfully, and this is one of Judy’s few plusses, the play’s ridiculous sensationalism is gone and it’s opened up to include some more context and background.
It was then announced the Renee Zellweger would play Judy Garland and would do her own singing. I was more than surprised. Zellweger sings passably in Chicago thanks to some help from modern technology but she has nowhere near the talent, whether in her voice or in her limited acting abilities, of a star of the stature of Judy Garland. The alleged reasons for having Zellweger sing for herself were that there were no good sounding recordings from the period portrayed (late 1968 and early 1969), but Garland fans know that’s not true (example, the great “Swan Songs” 3-CD set). If we have the technology to make Zellweger sound decent in Chicago, then we have the technology to clean up older recordings. I believe the decision was actually due to copyrights and the push to get Zellweger an Oscar nomination. Regardless, Zellweger is not a musical talent and not up to the task. Having a great singer like Judy Garland portrayed by a non-musical actress is a bad choice. Would a film about Barbra Streisand not use her voice? The filmmakers also stressed that Zellweger wasn’t trying to sound like Judy Garland but rather, she was going for an attempt at capturing the essence of Judy Garland at this time in her life when her voice was froggy more often than not. In other words, “she doesn’t have to sound like Judy because Judy didn’t sound like Judy at that time.” Wrong again. And lazy. The fact that Judy fails miserably in this respect makes it all the more regrettable. Even at this late stage of her life Judy Garland was able to muster that special magic and give audiences that unique Garland sound in spite of a sometimes froggy and raspy voice.
Full transparency. I have never been a Zellweger fan, long before this project ever came along. As I’ve noted, I thought she was just OK in Chicago. I find her acting “talent” to be average at best. To me, she’s of the Meg Ryan or Cameron Diaz ilk. She’s cute, she’s pleasant, and she enjoys a career that is based on luck rather than real talent. Also, that squeaky whine in her voice hits my nerves in the wrong way. Judy Garland did not have a squeaky weak and whiny voice, nor was she squinty in the eyes. So Zellweger had a big hurdle to jump as far as I’m concerned (not that she cares about me, of course!). A truly successful portrayal of Judy Garland on screen takes a talent of the caliber of Meryl Streep.
It’s in the musical numbers that the film falters the most. Zellweger’s average vocals might make those who know nothing of Judy Garland wonder what the big deal was about her. Why are these people making such a fuss over this woman who’s got such an average voice? In the context of the film, this “Judy Garland” comes off as less the voice of the century at the end of her life and more a drug-addicted mess who, at times, has flashes of humanity and humor. The on-stage scenes that are supposed to show Garland’s electric effect on audiences (and mutual love) don’t work. They are simply not convincing no matter how hard Zellweger tries and she does try very hard at times.
Zellweger’s attempts at belting sound like moaning. She just can’t do it. She can half yell/half moan. It’s particularly painful in an ear slaying rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” that comes toward the end of the film. Zellweger’s lack of real musical training is so obvious. At times her lip-syncing is off. She also lacks the understanding of how to hold a microphone to make it look like she’s singing into it rather than it just being a “Judy prop.” I’m surprised the filmmakers didn’t give her some better lessons at that. Again, lazy. Other people have raved about this “belting” but considering what passes for musical talent these days, I’m not surprised.
Zellweger tries, sort of, to emulate Garland’s unique style by copying some of Garland’s hand and arm gestures. Sometimes she doesn’t. It’s very inconsistent. Sadly, much like the vocals, Garland’s singular and electric stage presence are nowhere to be found in spite of the stilted gestures and poses on stage. If the filmmakers and Zellweger had been able to create a good facsimile of the Garland stage presence that would have helped and might (just might) have overcome some of those vocal deficiencies. But no, we get someone who’s really no better than your average local cabaret performer. This is just another reminder of why the real Judy Garland was and still is so beloved. It’s also a reminder that the person playing Judy Garland does not have a musical background. I know I addressed that already but I can’t stress that enough. If anyone had a completely natural, God-given genius musical talent it was Judy Garland. Zellweger can’t even lipsync to her own recordings convincingly.
Her first song in the film, “By Myself,” is meant to bowl us over. But on the big screen, Zellweger’s odd head jerking movements are distracting. Judy Garland had a nervous energy but it was natural and didn’t look as though she were on the verge of a stroke. When we get to “Over the Rainbow” we know that thankfully it’s the finale. But Garland gets toward the end of the song and can’t finish it. One of the gay men that Garland befriended earlier in the film stands up and starts to sing it. His partner then stands and joins in. One by one the rest of the audience begins to sing. It’s meant to be moving but no, it’s just corny and manipulative. There’s a cut to a close up of Zellweger with a single tear streaming down her face. Judy Garland is where she belongs, in the adoration of her audience. The film ends with an audible boom (aka “mic drop”) for dramatic effect.
I went into the film not expecting a Judy Garland sound-alike. We’ve been told enough over the last several months that Zellweger wasn’t trying to sound like Garland or be like Garland. But yet she was obviously trying. Perhaps the filmmakers realized how dismally she emulated Garland so the official take was that she wasn’t “really” trying to be Garland. At any rate, I had low expectations. It’s a shame that she was actually worse than I anticipated. I had hoped she would be better than my expectations and I would be happily surprised. In spite of it all, I really did want to like the film and to like her in spite of my biases.
Zellweger was much better in the dramatic scenes. She still wasn’t convincing as Judy Garland but at times she showed some pathos. She’s quite good at playing sad and lonely. She pursed her lips too much in the closeups to be convincing as Garland. She had a discernable mustache-type line above her lips. This was probably an attempt by the makeup folks to hide Zellweger’s very full new lips. Speaking of makeup, sometimes her eyes were light brown and other times her eyes were the very dark almost black like the real Garland. That was odd.
The humor fares better. Some good lines show Garland’s famous sense of humor and her ability to joke in the face of hardship. Zellweger is out of character when delivering the lines (the delivery is more Roxie Hart than Judy Garland) but they’re still funny.
There are two scenes during which I think Zellweger is excellent, not really as Judy Garland but just excellent in general. After fighting with Sid Luft, Garland is upset and again gets wasted. She still goes on and her march through the backstage hallway to the stage is filled with emotion. Later she’s in a phone booth talking long-distance to daughter Lorna. It’s very effective. Judy’s very real love for her children is expertly portrayed and is one of the better aspects of the film.
Another highlight is the sequence during which Garland spends time with a local gay couple. She’s told backstage that no one is waiting after the show to meet her. Disappointed, she leaves alone. Outside she meets a gay couple. They ask for her autograph and in chatting, she asks them out to a late dinner. The ensuing sequence is charming and shows them bonding with Garland. There’s also a short bit of dialog that addresses the oppression faced by LGBTQ+ people at that time. Zellweger is best in scenes like this when she’s not trying to “be” Judy Garland.
The costumes are well rendered. They aren’t exact copies of some of the more famous outfits Garland wore but they’re definitely of the period and look like outfits she would have worn. The costumes for the other characters and extras are equally good. The costume designer did a great job. Not so with the makeup but it wasn’t horrible, just inconsistent. Even Lorna’s hair seemed to change color. She was never a platinum blonde but in Judy, she’s first shown with brown then really REALLY dark brown hair.
In the end, Judy is, regardless of whether one thinks Zellweger’s performance is good or bad, a boring and poorly executed film. It’s not a good representation of Judy Garland in the period portrayed or any other period in her life and career.
There is talk of an Oscar nomination for Zellweger. She will most likely get one. The real Judy Garland lost the Best Actress Oscar allegedly by just a few votes for her performance in A Star Is Born. It was (and still is) considered the greatest injustice of all the Best Actress losses. It would be the ultimate Oscar slap in the face to the Garland legacy if someone with a fraction of her talent won that award for a pedestrian portrayal of her.
Judy is the first big-screen biopic about Judy Garland. Considering how much she sacrificed and gave to her audiences, her legend and legacy deserve more. So much more.