Photo | BBC Films
The reason Renée Zellweger is nominated for Best Actress as Judy Garland in “Judy” in most major awards this year — while the movie itself is not nominated for Best Picture — is obvious: There is not much to the film besides her. Portraying the final few years of Garland’s painfully shortened life, Zellweger shows us a tremendously accomplished woman who is still terribly frail and vulnerable, and brings to life her triumphs as a performer and the great toll these glories took.
When the film begins, a leery young Garland is strolling down the yellow brick road with the domineering studio head Louis B. Mayer as he lays out her future for her: She can either be an average nobody, or a star. To be a star, it is going to take major sacrifices, primarily caloric. Poor Garland just wants to be a kid and, later, just wants to be a mother to her own kids, but everyone who recognizes her incredible talent sees her as a cash cow and milks her accordingly. The other thing that keeps her performing, as one character says late in the film, is that “I don’t think she can help herself.”
By the late 1960s, Garland was in dire financial straits, moving her two young children from one hotel to another, lugging all of their possessions in suitcases. Compelled to take the only job offer she can get so she can eventually keep custody of her children, Garland reluctantly leaves them with their father and heads to London for a sold-out nightclub gig. When the trembling Zellweger finally turns on full Garland to perform onstage, it is electrifying. Zellweger really captures Garland’s physicality performing, and sings all the songs herself.
In addition to turning in a great performance, the choice of Zellweger for this role added another layer of meaning, as this film represents something of a comeback for Zellweger herself, who was a major ingénue and star years ago but then seemingly disappeared. (She won an Oscar in 2003 for “Cold Mountain.”) When I watched her playing poor Garland, still scared in her 50s to eat a slice of birthday cake and still popping the pills they forced on her as a kid, I remembered the furor over Zellweger’s supposedly shocking new appearance after a longish absence from the public eye. This role seems like a particularly meaningful way for Zellweger to make her comeback.
The flashbacks of Garland as a child amply explain the drug addiction she maintains as an adult and, of course, it is infuriating to see the level of control they put her under, because they wanted her to be thinner. The emotion is easy to feel, even when the structure of the film itself is a little dull and straightforward.
Individual scenes and characters are great, like the two gay guys she meets in London after one of her shows, huge fans who find themselves weeping with emotion as she sings “Get Happy” of all things, right in their kitchen. And while Zellweger’s outsized stage scenes are terrific, both the triumphs and the disasters, she is even more heartbreaking as an obviously loving and beloved mother to her two young kids. There is an early scene where you see her turn on her creativity, spirit and charm to cheer them up right before she takes the trip she does not want to take to London, and I have thought about that more than any of the louder parts of the film.
The overall effect of “Judy” is not terribly memorable, but Garland herself is. As a biopic, it is not extraordinary and it verges on cheesy more than once, but watch it to see what all the fuss over Zellweger is about. Of course, if you just like a juicy true Hollywood story, “Judy” has plenty of painful, behind-the-scenes details for you to dissect, and I for one will feel guilty every time I watch “The Wizard of Oz” from now on.
“Judy” is currently available to rent.
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