JUDY, US, 2019. Starring René Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Whitrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Bella Ramsey, Andy Nyman, Darci Shaw, Richard Cordery. Directed by Rupert Goold. 120 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language)
Once upon a time there was a Minnesota teenager called Frances Gumm. She was taken on by Louis B Mayer at MGM and was transformed into Judy Garland, star of The Wizard of Oz. She became a star of stars. But, after many successful movies, including her Oscar nomination for the memorable A Star is Born (1954), she went into decline even though she continued to do concerts around the world which cemented her popularity as a singer, a memorable singer.
This portrait of Judy Garland takes place during the last year of her life, down-and-out in Los Angeles, feted in London, marrying (briefly) for the fifth time, dying in 1969.
In many ways, this outline seems grim and glum. And it is… except…
Some years ago, Judy Davis portrayed Judy Garland in Me and My Shadow. Now it is the turn of René Zellweger, experienced actress, singer in Chicago, off-screen for some years. In her return to the screen, she powerfully inhabits the personality and character of Judy Garland, recognisable mannerisms and style, dramatising the erratic conflicts, performing the songs, belting out some of the numbers in Judy Garland style.
With the initial release of Judy, many of the reviewers and audiences proclaimed Oscar-worthy. Once you see René Zellweger on screen and hear her, you realise that this performance is one of depth, versatility, great talent, Oscar-worthy.
At the opening, Judy is in her mid-40s, travelling with her son and daughter, Lorna and Joe Luft, from her second husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). She is in debt, ousted from hotels, taking refuge with Luft, her children tired of moving around all the time and wanting to settle down, settle with him. She encounters a charming young man, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) who will come to London, offer her dreams of debt-less happiness, but shatter her dreams even as she marries him.
She has been popular in London and an invitation from entrepreneur Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) is an offer that can save the day. The focus of the film is on the London concerts, her moods, the needs for drugs to sleep and calm her, her drinking, pickiness about small details of comfort, reluctant to go on stage but… Once she is there, feels the rapport from the audience, there is no holding back. This film offers a selection from her repertoire, including the Trolley song, Come on Get Happy, some sad ballads, and, appropriately and dramatically for the culmination, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
But, all is not well. While there is a pleasing scene of pathos where two gay fans take her home and she cooks a meal, there are some mockers in the Talk of the Town audience and, twice, she really loses it. She apologises to Delfont, wants a second go but even collapses on stage. However, audience sympathy is drawn to her, even though we know she can be so irritating, when she goes back, meets the audience again, sings, weeps – and they sing with her.
Mention should be made of Jessie Buckley’s performance as Rosalind, given the impossible task of assisting Judy, trying to get her to the stage on time.
What is shocking, especially in the current consciousness of bullying and sexual harassment are the flashbacks to Louis B Mayer, his tyranny over the teenage singer, 18 hours work a day, harridan chaperone, her continually being told off, her being fed pills to keep her going, a slave to MGM. The consequences are to be seen in her life decline, her being a victim of the star system.
Universal Released October 24th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.