Movie review: Judy
Director Rupert Goold turns Judy Garland’s final act into a passion play that focuses on suffering and female martyrdom. It’s a sad descent redeemed by Renée Zellweger’s unfamiliar face and fleeting hints at humour.
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Running time: 1 hr 58 mins
#TIFF19, Opening wide September 27
By Katherine Monk
It’s hard to watch wanton self-destruction. It’s even harder when you know how it ends, and you can’t do anything to stop it. Yet, we love stories of tragic women. Practically every culture we know embraces them, glorifies them, and sucks up every scrap of martyrdom with a strange lust for suffering.
Hail Mary. Full of grace. And now, Hail Judy. Full of pharmaceuticals. Propelled by perpetual sorrow, the archetype carries on in Rupert Goold’s lavish take on Judy Garland’s finale. A biopic that bookends her meteoric rise on the set of the Wizard of Oz with her whistling plummet just 30 years later, Judy could be seen as this year’s A Star is Born — only in reverse.
Hail Mary. Full of grace. And now, Hail Judy. Full of pharmaceuticals. Propelled by perpetual sorrow, the archetype carries on in Rupert Goold’s lavish take on Judy Garland’s finale.
Goold shows us the young Judy (Darci Shaw) standing before the yellow brick road in costume. It’s a complete recreation of the iconic set, only with Louis B. Mayer looming behind the plywood, ready to remind Judy of her fat ankles, her two-bit Vaudeville life as Frances Gumm, and her one shot at stardom that she can’t afford to screw up.
We move in close, look into her wide hazel eyes framed by a smooth freckled face, then fast-forward to the late ‘60s, where the famed Judy Garland (now Renee Zellweger) is performing at a small Los Angeles club with her kids, Joey and Lorna. It’s not a matter of moulding the next generation. Garland can’t afford childcare and she can’t afford her apartment. She needs to make some money, and the only promoter willing to book her is in Europe.
From here, Goold moves back and forth, from the arc of the beginning, to the sputtering end as Garland embarks on her final tour with a run at London’s Talk of the Town. We don’t get the in-between years when Garland was enjoying a grown-up career and being a young mother to Liza. This movie is concerned with the perpetual sorrow, so it offers a parade of suffering, interspersed with hints of selfless compassion and the odd, and far too rare, moment of humour.
Goold admits his dark obsession in the press materials as he explains what attracted him to Peter Quilter’s original stage play, “End of the Rainbow,” and Tom Edge’s film adaptation: “I felt there was an opportunity …to avoid the pitfalls of the linear ‘then this happened next’ biopic. The film could become a sort of passion play about the tragic end but ultimate apotheosis of a kind of secular saint. Both an origins story but also a final redemption.”
No wonder the movie has the palette of a Renaissance crucifixion scene. Poor Judy is forced to walk her own Via Dolorosa before our very eyes as she leaves her children, struggles with insomnia, and fails to keep a schedule. Just about everything that happens is sad, and finally, tragic. Yet, it’s hard not to keep watching this Technicolor-inspired auto-da-fé. We’re programmed to.
No wonder the movie has the palette of a Renaissance crucifixion scene. Poor Judy is forced to walk her own Via Dolorosa before our very eyes as she leaves her children, struggles with insomnia, and fails to keep a schedule.
That’s what’s so truly interesting about this whole movie. From the moment it premiered at Telluride, then picked up Oscar buzz for Zellweger in Venice, Judy has acquired an aura of glamour and piqued public curiosity. We’re interested in seeing it, even though we’re more than familiar with the major plot points of Garland’s well-recorded life.
Part of the allure has to do with Zellweger in the title role. The ingenue of the late ‘90s is now nearing 50, playing the same age as Garland. Perhaps, the same way we wonder if child stars can make the transition to adult lead, we wonder if sex symbols can make the careful step to mature icon. There’s always a risk of humiliation, and as the era of reality TV continues to prove, the scent of celebrity carrion is too great to pass over.
To great relief, as well as added sorrow, Zellweger is truly mesmerizing. She does disappear into the role, as other critics have already noted, but I don’t actually know what Zellweger really looks like any more. Since her plastic surgery, the features that made her famous — that sparkling blue squint and easy dimples — have been rearranged in an unfamiliar way.
Zellweger is truly mesmerizing. She does disappear into the role, as other critics have already noted, but I don’t actually know what Zellweger really looks like any more.
Yet, this strange new face, and everything hollow in Hollywood that it represents, captures the essence of Judy Garland’s whole existence. She was manufactured by Mayer as a studio product, designed to please the American masses with pigtailed innocence and assumed vulnerability, but so entirely rearranged as a person, her only way to assert any sense of self was through performance.
Zellweger gets this, and becomes the film’s salvation. She throws herself into the limelight with a drag queen’s teetering strut and a crepe-lipped pucker, then lets it rip. The fact she does all her own singing is admirable, but it’s not a huge plus for the movie. Garland’s tone was so unique, and her delivery so iconic, that we begin to crave it. The spectre of her voice haunts the whole movie, because in the end, it was the only thing that gave her any value.
Which brings up the other part of the picture, and how it demands our constant gaze by reaffirming an understood, collective narrative about female martyrs.
“…Martyrdom gives women access to political participation”
According to academic Shannon Dunn, “martyrdom gives women access to political participation” yet their contributions are met with ambivalence. Their stories simply “tend to reinforce strict gender roles for women.” Nonetheless, female martyrs engage in “truth-producing actions” before facing fatal punishment. For a brief time, they can break all the rules for a higher purpose, but they will suffer for it — and in the process — entertain us all. Hail Judy.
Main image: Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland, with Bella Ramsey and Llewin Lloyd as her children Lorna and Joey Luft. Courtesy of Entertainment One.
THE EX-PRESS, September 28, 2019