Hollywood is full of stories of childhood stars going off the rails thanks to the early starts to their careers. The pressure of work and being forced to grow up in the spotlight have caused so many young performers turning to addictive substances to get through their days. These days, it’s the kind of thing that sells awful gossip mags, celeb blogs, and gives everyone a good laugh on social media. Back in the day, young performers were encouraged by film studios to do what they needed to make it. Which is how we get to the story of Judy Garland. According to Garland, she was constantly fed amphetamines so she was able to keep up with the hectic filming schedule. She was also advised to diet constantly and act a certain way. These things, she believed, caused to her lifelong struggle with drugs, alcohol, and dieting. Things that all contributed to her death at the age of 47. It was a premature and tragic end to a wonderful talent. And has been a dream of a role for Renée Zellweger. I still can’t separate Zellweger from her Bridget Jones days, so I wasn’t convinced by all of these people talking about how outstanding she was. I guess I had to check it out.
There’s a moment during the film when, in the middle of a particularly difficult interview, Judy Garland reveals “I’m only Judy Garland for one hour a night. The rest of the time, I’m part of a family.” The real tragedy of the star’s life is that, in her mind, Judy Garland is just another part that she can shed at the end of every day. Unfortunately, for her fans and the people who employ her, Judy Garland is the real deal. From her early career, Garland was forced to always be stage ready. No matter where she was or what she was doing, she always had to act the way people needed her to. With help from the MGM boss Louis B Mayer and her mother, the actor was constantly performing and it left her craving the spotlight.
Judy focuses on the later years of Judy Garland’s life and has been adapted from End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. Riddled with debt and with nowhere to live, the star is forced to agree to a 5-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London in 1969. This means leaving her beloved children with her ex-husband but it is the only way she will be able to try and keep custody. However, being apart from her children and worrying about her ability to perform, Garland succumbs further into drugs and alcohol. Her performances become more erratic and unpredictable.
Judy is a perfectly adequate portrayal of such a difficult time in Garland’s life but it never seemed to push too far into the star’s life. We see flashbacks to her early career and the mental abuse she received from Mayer and her mother. It’s a very interesting story but it seems like a kind of pathetic and trite attempt to explain her issues with drugs. If the film really wanted to explore the psychological effect of that kind of life, it should have done more with these moments. As it is, it’s a basic insight that fails to offer any meaningful connection to her later life. It feels as if the film was too afraid to place any kind of blame on the star herself that it needed to create a fairytale villain complete with a supply of appetite suppressing uppers. It’s all a bit much.
I’m not saying that the film needed to attack Garland but the flashbacks add very little to the narrative. They’re very clumsy, which is a shame because the film flies when Garland is on stage performing. There has been a lot of praise for Zellweger’s performance and you hear the phrase “inhabits the role” being thrown about everywhere. For my part, I found it difficult to separate Zellweger from the character. I felt that there were a lot of times when she was forcing the mannerisms too much. It becomes to affected and it no longer feels natural. There are moments when it just distracts from everything going on around her. It doesn’t quite push into the realms of parody but Zellweger is trying everything she can to prove to people they’re watching Garland.
Although, the moments when Judy is on stage performing are wonderful. Zellweger brings the right energy to the songs. You see her struggle to make her way on stage before suddenly coming to life one the band starts. The genuinely wonderful moments of this film are when we see Judy doing what she does best. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of them. It’s not that Zellweger is terrible in the role, it just feels like it could have been a more complex. This is a problem with the whole film and not just the actor. Judy doesn’t attempt to offer anything new to the story. It provides no new insights or anything fresh. It’s timid and basic. Maybe worried about upsetting the family and her loyal fans? Whatever the reason, Judy is not the biopic that Garland or her fans deserved.