Things are looking bad for Judy Garland at the end of 1968. She doesn’t have Rick Dalton or Cliff Booth around to save her, either. The former film star – now, in her own words, “unreliable and uninsurable” – is six months away from a fatal overdose while struggling through a London nightclub booking. She doesn’t want to be there, but it’s a chance for some quick money after being forced to leave her kids with ex-husband Sid Luft after being thrown out of the hotel suite that she called home.
That’s the tragic showbiz setting of Judy, which adapts a former Broadway production into a touching biopic about the final days of a formerly beloved diva. Renée Zellweger gets the spotlight to herself in the title role, too. She even ditches the plastic surgery for a faded portrayal of the aging MGM star. Zellweger’s take on Judy is all pinched lips and desperate sneers, plus some protruding teeth that went neglected after Judy’s own film career stalled in 1963.
It’s an ugly look for an uglier look at a grueling showbiz disaster that would include Judy making time to marry scheming swinger Mickey Deans. The film crams their three-year relationship into a whirlwind fling, but the general seediness is intact. That includes recreating the real-life incident where the troubled star was pelted with bread rolls after starting one London show an hour late.
There are plenty of other highs and lows as Judy tries to get through the long booking without making a single suicide attempt. Fortunately, the screenplay has a neat trick to liven up the tragedy of showbiz as a life of drudgery. The opening scene of Judy is just one of several flashbacks to her tortured time backstage as a child star. In a cruel twist, however, those scenes are a recurring look back to how studio mogul Louis B. Mayer warns and threatens Judy that her fabulous Hollywood life can be taken away at his whim.
That’s in addition to other reflections on young Judy’s miserable life with a stage mother who kept her popping pills while denying her simple pleasures – all presented in surreal settings that keep Judy’s troubling London adventure from getting bogged down in well-traveled territory.
An adoring gay couple also pop up as huge fans for an extended interlude that could’ve been the most painful part of the film. Instead, Zellweger makes it seem entirely believable that the unlikely trio would end up on a night out – ending with a quiet moment which sums up the most meaningful aspects of pop icons and fervent fandom.
To some fans (and critics), of course, the true drama is where Judy places Zellweger in the Oscar sweepstakes. Things are looking pretty good, actually, with Scarlett Johansson making enough unpopular statements to quit being a sure thing in Marriage Story. Zellweger isn’t facing much competition from underrepresented actresses, either. It’s bad enough that Lupita Nyong’o is getting pushed for Us.
There’s an actual performance to be considered, as well. Bohemian Rhapsody has already proven that a decent celebrity impersonation is sufficient for getting the gold. Zellweger, however, is let loose to create a complex character from an old story. Her take on the fading diva originally appears to be played for laughs as a big-screen Edith Prickley. From there, however, Zellweger has plenty of subtle moments while expanding on Judy’s manic mood swings.
It’s also nice to see the character of Lonnie Donegan showing up to get some love in the multiplexes. Lonnie’s fairly forgotten nowadays. Judy could be pushing its luck with finding an audience that’s excited over the titular lady on the stage, too. Plenty of people won’t even get the importance of a passing reference to Carnegie Hall.
Maybe there should have been a spoiler warning in that opening paragraph – except the final moments of both Judy and Judy are pretty much a foregone conclusion. Zellweger still manages to wipe away decades of creepy celebrity culture to make the predictable end seem like a whole new tragedy. That has to count as one of the great performances of the year.