Here’s all you need to know about Judy: Renée Zellweger was born to play this role. A more powerhouse characterization of one of America’s most beloved entertainers, there was not. There will be times when your senses will cross up and you’ll lose track of who you’re watching – an actor playing Judy Garland or Garland herself. The rest of the movie matches the whirlwind that is Garland’s life as a mother, performer, and weary soul yearning for rest. Judy is a solo performance-driven piece backed by an able house band, but they come in and out of her life as each scene shifts, highlighting another facet of Garland’s life: impermanence. The five husbands, the kids who don’t live with her, stage after stage, show after show, manager after manager, pill after pill, drink after drink – nothing stays in her life very long.
Garland, as played by Zellweger, is a lost soul foundering amid those who want her for her looks, talent, or love. The film’s structure shuttles us back and forth between her days as a 16-year-old (played by Darci Shaw) on the set of The Wizard of Oz and her last months as she performs at Talk of the Town in London in 1969, with the majority of the film’s running time spent in the latter era. Both timeframes show us a woman without control of her autonomy, beholden to the schedules of her handlers, developing and maintaining addictions to pills and alcohol, and ultimately used to the point of exhaustion. Her youth, embodied touchingly and fragilely by Shaw, is depicted as being corrupted at the hands of a slimy, fat-cat studio head and a handler who gives her pills for everything – hunger, sleep, wakefulness. She is insulted, touched inappropriately, treated like a piece of meat, and threatened with dismissal if she doesn’t comply. These scenes parallel her as a 47-year-old adult, which Zellweger bounces us through with enigmatic energy and purpose.
The crux of Zellweger’s portrayal involves Garland not knowing a moment’s peace or happiness. We see her smile, but it’s always a put-on, masking deeper emotional yearnings and anguish which boil right under the veneer she presents to the public. Not even when she meets Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), the man who was to become her fifth husband, are we put at ease. We never feel at home with the both of them, as they’re both angling for something they can never have: each other’s true self. Deans, like all of us, has fallen in love with the woman we saw in the movies, not the one who suffers from insomnia and insecurity almost 24/7. Garland, constantly in a state of perpetual motion and agitation, only sees Mickey as a source of self-assurance and a possible way back to her family, rather than someone who’ll allow her to drop her guard and relax.
The only two times we see Garland truly happy and in her element are when she’s enjoying adulation from the crowd, which in itself is an addiction; she can’t stop herself from being seen and heard, even at the expense of others or her own reputation. The first moment strikes us during an intimate scene – more intimate than those shown with her kids or Deans – where she shares a meal with two fans. It’s a wonderful, wistful sequence where Garland gets to know people outside her circle and how much she’s affected them, but she also gives back by just listening and being with these two men. The second is right before she goes onstage, the only place where we see her devoid of her nervous tics and harried nature, both of which Zellweger nails with utter perfection and drops the moment she turns it on for the crowd.
Based on the musical End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, Judy almost postulates that its subject was never her own person, adding more heaviness to her tragic end (described only in a text postscript). Her many addictions – the stage, the crowd, alcohol, drugs – turned her into a machine, one capable only of catering to the personal and professional demands of those around her. Whether it’s being towered over and cowed into submission as a teen by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) or gently being led by her new handler Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) as an adult, her personal time is at a premium even to herself. And instead of filling it with genuine interaction or solitude, the contents of the bottles she consumes – be it drink or drugs – are shown to be the only dependable friends she has.
Saying “Renée Zellweger captures the essence and humanity of Judy Garland like lightning in a bottle” doesn’t even begin to describe the transformation she undergoes. She becomes Garland, her hunched posture giving her a protective shell and her crinkled eyes peering at the world as if scrutinizing everybody and every situation for even the remotest hint that she’s going to be screwed over. Not even around her children does she straighten out and open her eyes; she saves that for when she’s truly comfortable and becoming something more than her body could contain. Zellweger delivers one of cinema’s most incredible, indelible performances, with the rest of Judy yielding to both Zellweger and Garland’s devastating power.