The Wizard of Oz made Judy Garland’s Dorothy a figure of American perseverance. One wag even suggested that her song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” become the new national anthem, replacing impractical politics with nationwide dreaming. But Garland’s life was more complicated than political snark, and a bio-pic must provide that complexity.
When Judy, the new bio-pic about the late movie and music legend, is most promising, it’s because the filmmakers refuse pretentiousness. It’s set in 1968, the last year of Garland’s life, when her film and TV options had vanished, and she was living a rootless, vagabond life, dragging her two youngest children around Los Angeles. Garland grasped a month-long stint at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub (an early, downscale version of today’s lucrative Las Vegas residencies) as a lifeline. She was afraid to resume her fabled live-performance career but needed financial stability to take care of her children. “I’m a mother. I’m only Judy Garland one hour a night.”
When the film doesn’t show promise, it’s because director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge depart from the simplicity of its source (an apparently self-reflective stage play by Peter Quilter). The filmmakers check off familiar gossip, cross-cutting Sixties Judy (played by Renée Zellweger) with Thirties Judy. The latter (played by Darci Shaw) shows the teenage wunderkind during the production of The Wizard of Oz as MGM boss Louis B. Mayer combined employment threats with physical intimidation; she suffered insensitive studio underlings who plied the overworked, malnourished teen with drugs. These Wizard of Oz scenes pretend a knowingness that Quentin Tarantino deliberately avoided in the Sharon Tate scenes of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Our cynical view of cultural history goes beyond Goold’s Yellow Brick Road irony, which is all the more reason to want a more sophisticated appreciation of Garland’s ongoing crises. While trying for realism, this movie needs the courage of Terence Davies–style minimalism, by which simply imagining Garland’s early misfortunes would make it possible to sympathize without being gruesome, grotesque, or decadent.
Throughout the opening scenes, Garland wears a brocade pantsuit from Valley of the Dolls (her last Hollywood job, in which she was replaced by Susan Hayward) that refers to insider knowledge yet provides a fascinating context of ambition and debacle.
Judy avoids the camp irony of Garland the drag-queen icon. Her infamous involvement with the young American opportunist Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) is redeemed by the obvious respect and admiration he shows her. Deans — a smiling, fetching, admiring, and younger love object — made Garland feel revived. This is different from Jamie Bell’s compassionate-stud performance in the Gloria Graham bio-pic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which confronted the androgynous sexual attraction of movie fans.
Goold and Edge balance awareness of Garland’s infamous fall with a view of her humanity. That good “one hour a night” line is followed by an intriguing “The rest of the time, I’m part of a family.” There’s effort to suggest that Garland belonged to a secular, unconventional “family” of compassionate homosexual followers. She accepts a dinner invitation from a male couple damaged by England’s recently revoked sex laws, and together they sing one of Garland’s signature songs, “Get Happy.” She commiserates with touching emphasis: “They hound people in this world.”
Recent political bio-pics don’t provide that kind of sympathy. Judy’s lapidary construction is a setting for Renée Zellweger’s performance, which attempts a precarious tribute. Zellweger leaps over one hurdle after another — the double memories of a young Judy and a decrepit Judy. She wears a mature, upswept bob and in her first Talk of the Town performance, her nervous energy shifts into shocked-hurt poses of wide-eyed desperation. Here’s the sympathy missing from our current media-driven political demonization. In last year’s Vice, the odious Dick Cheney parody congratulated Millennials for their superiority over the past. Zellweger’s sensitivity ensures that only a cruel viewer could ignore Garland’s struggle against common obstacles.
Judy roots its humane lesson in a startling scene that turns a fan’s affinity and identification into a resonant metaphor: Looking for a secure home, Judy and her children Joey and Lorna Luft huddle in Joey’s bedroom wardrobe. This closeted moment — hiding from the world’s pressure — is a perfect metaphor of the subject’s emotional need. Second-best is Zellweger’s nightclub performance of “By Myself.” She can’t match Garland’s voice (who could?), but she makes us focus on Garland’s over-the-rainbow quest for some ideal out there. The force and feeling of Garland’s singing were her power and triumph. Zellweger and her colleagues make us respect that honesty.