Hollywood is no exception when it comes to the history of great trauma producing great art.Unfortunately for Judy Garland, children were far from immune to the predatory behaviors and systemic injustices of early show business. As poignantly displayed in Rupert Goold's new movie, Judy, Garland was a tragic victim of maltreatment despite her many successes throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In the film, Garland (played by Renée Zellweger in a career-high performance) arrives in London in 1968 for a string of sold-out shows at the nightclub The Talk of the Town. Garland is a haggard and unhealthy mother of three whose behavior and unpredictability have put her on an unspoken blacklist back in the States. It's only because she's strapped for cash and increasingly desperate that she accepts the headlining gig in the UK, leaving her kids behind to profit from the European market still pining for more Judy.
From Zellweger's very first scenes, we see the depths of Garland's diminishing mental and physical health, as the actress struggles with pill addiction, depression, alcoholism, and insomnia. But rather than harping on Garland's downfalls, Judy focuses on the cause of her dysfunction, flashing back periodically to her childhood, which, by today's standards, was fraught with undeniable child abuse.
Judy Trailer #2 (2019) | Movieclips Trailers youtu.be
Garland was only 16 when she was cast as Dorothy Gale in the classic film The Wizard of Oz. The unsuspecting teenager was pumped full of uppers and downers by her mother to control her mood, sleep, energy and ultimately ensure that she'd deliver a dazzling performance. We see a young Judy struggling to hold onto her youth, acting out in protest of the abusive manipulation of her mother, film producers, and handlers. We see them starve her, dangling promises of money and stardom in front of her face while verbally abusing her. They stage photo shoots at burger joints to make her look like the kid she desperately wants to be, but she's cruelly forbidden from eating in order to keep her weight stable (she's given even more pills to suppress her hunger).
Knowing the legend's heartbreaking tale and its fatal conclusion makes it all the more shocking to witness on the big screen. By the time young Judy is reprimanded by Louis B. Mayer, producer and co-founder of MGM, Zellweger is in the thick of depression and self-sabotage, with each night becoming a question of whether or not Garland can continue performing. Zellweger gives an excellent performance, fully embodying the singer's quirks, twisting and stretching her limbs to match Garland's bendy physicality on stage. She nails Garland's signature facial twitches, gait, and cadence. Though her singing does differ in octave compared to Garland's lowered register during that time, Zellweger still sounds angelic, even if blips of Renée break through.
Goold filmed the musical performances live, with Zellweger singing in front of a live band: a decision that paid off, as the authenticity is heard, seen, and felt on screen. The actress wraps herself in the blanket of Garland's sadness, turning heel in the film's climax to deliver a showstopping scene that transforms Garland's trauma into a triumph, reminding us exactly why Garland touched so many of her fans. Audience members are forced to simultaneously mourn and laud the tragedy of Judy Garland, who was a storm of emotions and charisma, on stage and off.
Judy serves up a revelatory performance that not only uncovers the depths of Zellweger's abilities but offers a peek behind the curtain of who Garland was, what drove her, and how she became so tortured and distrusting. With her joy and childlike innocence smothered by bureaucracy and constant stressors, Garland sought love from the only place it was readily accessible to her: the stage. Her audience was key to her survival; their applause kept her from breaking even earlier than she did. By contextualizing Garland's childhood, Judy allows Zellweger to deliver a beautiful testament to an icon who left us far too soon.