“Unreliable and uninsurable,” as she calls herself, Judy Garland treks to London in the winter of 1968 on a mission to rescue both her sagging career as well as to avoid losing custody of her young kids. Over the span of five weeks the booze- and pill-addled star proves to be brilliant, captivating, unpredictable and self-sabotaging. In other words, true to form.
So it goes in Judy, a new film tracing an old story with surprising and satisfying jolts of fresh juice and emotions – and, most essentially, a gutsy and glorious star turn by Renée Zellweger as the fabled, ill-fated icon who raises the stakes and elevates everything. Late in the movie, out Sept. 27, the insecure legend entreats: “You won’t forget me, will you?” As if. That goes for Cold Mountain Oscar winner Zellweger’s work here as well.
Directed with grit and gloss by Rupert Goold, who brought style and substance last season on Broadway to the tabloid drama Ink, and written by Tom Edge, the film is drawn from and expands upon End of the Rainbow, a play by Peter Quilter seen on Broadway in 2012. The story traces Garland on stage at the Talk of the Town nightclub and off– just six months before she would fatally OD at age 47.
Threaded throughout the film are flashbacks of the fresh-faced young Judy (Darcy Shaw) getting chewed up by Hollywood, her mother, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer and a team of heartless handlers who essentially terrorized her about her face, weight and future employment. Decades later, trauma remains. Garland's erratic reputation has preceded her to the U.K., where a chaperone (Jessie Buckley) is enlisted to make sure Judy rehearses (good luck with that) and makes it to the nightclub. Will Judy even go on?
She does – and then some. Her first number is “By Myself,” an all-too-fitting anthem. Singing in her own voice, wearing the signature ‘60s looks and wig, Zellweger, plain and simple, dazzles. Doubly so, since the number unfolds as one long, seamless, thrilling scene. And there’s more music where that came from, including “The Trolley Song” and, eventually, indelibly, "Over the Rainbow."
The film doesn’t sidestep soap opera, particularly when it comes to Garland’s love affair with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who promises to fix her failing career, and she is insecure enough to believe him. Booze is gulped. Harsh words rip. Highball glasses smash. The pulp is balanced by stirring tenderness, including a moment involving an older gay couple who open their hearts and home to their idol. Sentimental, sure, but it works.
Through it all, Zellweger’s performance is an over-the-rainbow triumph. She doesn’t imitate but embodies– and the role fits like a glove. Wry and funny, self-aware but haunted, her Judy is all too human.“You must take better care of yourself,” a doctor warns. If only.