Movies are a gamble, a high-stakes game of roulette that can make or break studios, filmmakers, and performers. And not just financially. Your insurance firm handles, among other things, coverage in the unlikely event that a director or key cast member is unable to perform their job requirements, causing disruption to the production. That could mean tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. But the emotional cost certain people pay in order to perform is unquantifiable.
In the case of Judy Garland - who earned millions of dollars for MGM at the expense of her sanity, sobriety, and self-worth before she could even vote - being branded “uninsurable” in Hollywood was worse than death. It was purgatory. Never again would the stage and screen legend ascend the red-carpet stairway. Instead, she was stuck reliving her vaudevillian past, schlepping from road gig to demeaning road gig to put gas in the car.
And this is where Judy begins, in the back seat of a cab with Garland and her two youngest children following a family performance. After being turned away from her hotel for failure to pay her bills, she winds up at the front door of her ex-husband, producer Syd Luft. She is broke, homeless, and desperate.
Judy, starring Renee Zellweger in the titular role, covers the last several months of Garland’s life when, during the winter of 1968/69, she signed on for a string of cabaret performances at London’s Talk of the Town theatre. Her behavior is erratic, her singular voice damaged by polyps and years of drug and alcohol abuse, and her stature greatly diminished to everyone but her true fans. It’s a period in her career that few are aware of, and a poignant coda to a life which has since become the quintessential cautionary tale of a former child star.
Zellweger was a safe bet for you, and the production. Her physical transformation into Garland, with hunched posture, cartoonish eyebrows, and frail composure is eerie and also jarring, especially when it’s punctuated by moments of ferocity, be it with hecklers, handlers, or current and former husbands. And though it is a performance tailor-made for awards consideration reels, it never feels as lived in as it should. The choice to have Zellweger sing as Garland rather than lip-synching her songs was a risk that I wanted so desperately to pay off, but instead it shatters the illusion, and with it, our full attention.
Indeed, Judy isn’t trying to do anything new, and yet it still finds moments to soar. The costume and hair & makeup departments do a lot of heavy lifting here with spectacular results. But it is the flashback elements in particular which are neither over-used nor over-wrought. Young Garland is bullied by MGM head Louis B. Mayer for her weight and appearance, her image is designed without her consent to fit the classic girl next door mold, and she is over-worked to the point of exhaustion leading to a lifelong dependence on uppers and downers. MGM owes much of their early success to Garland, and yet she was treated like a commodity and discarded, another victim of the toxic studio system.
These early indignities inform her adult behavior for better or for worse, and Zellweger portrays her as demanding and stubborn as she is generous and funny. Those around her, including Jessie Buckley as her London handler, Michael Gambon as the put-upon theater owner, and Finn Wittrock as Judy’s last husband, are mere collateral damage and given little to do on screen beyond tsk and furrow their brows. Perhaps had this story been told from one of their perspectives (preferably the dazzling Buckley), as seen in films like My Week with Marilyn, and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, we could come at Garland’s story obliquely, uncovering layers and dimensions that could only be revealed by those closest to her. But alas, that’s why you insure real movies, and not fictional rewrites from a critic’s head.
Despite Garland’s physical and spiritual degradation, and knowing the unfortunate end of her story, it’s hard not to root for Judy (or Zellweger, for that matter). This was a born performer with an unforgettable voice who managed to both burn out and fade away, a relic of an era which demanded nothing less from their idols than perfection. Judy may not pay off as spectacularly as Garland’s legacy deserves, but if it inspires new fans to do a deep dive into her films and discography, it will have been well worth the investment.