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Zellweger is Over the Rainbow

Renee Zellweger
Renee Zellweger
Roadside Attractions
 118 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByRupert Goold
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley

Hollywood is full of tragic stories of actors and actresses brought down by drugs, alcohol, abusive relations, mismanaged finances, or some combination thereof, but, perhaps, none are as poignant and tragic as the life story of Judy Garland. It's not that she was the best singer (although she was very, very good) or the best actress (although she was very, very good) or had the worst life (although her story checked off all the boxes above). I think the real reason has to do with the song with which she is most associated, "Over the Rainbow," probably the greatest movie song ever. Hearing the young Garland sing "Rainbow" evokes feelings of wistful melancholy that eerily mirror the actress's entire career. It's no surprise, then, that the finale of Judy, a film about the actress' last performing days, has actress Renee Zellweger doing a memorable version of the song. Thanks to Zellweger's searingly honest performance, Judy manages to put an enormously sad but fitting exclamation point on Garland's life.


Judy is based on the award-winning play, End of the Rainbow, which is billed as a musical drama. That means that play audiences got to hear "Garland" sing a number of her best-known tunes in their entirety. In opening up the play, Judy does that one better. Most of the film takes place in London, early in 1969. Garland is broke (she gets booted out of the hotel where she's staying in the middle of the night in the film's opening scene) and considered nearly unemployable in the United States due to her drinking, drug use, and temperamental behavior. Her manager gets her a gig in London, performing nightly at the Talk of the Town club. Once in London, Judy gets an assistant, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), who really serves as Judy's handler, trying to keep her sober and focused enough to perform. 


While in London, Judy also gets a new husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a nightclub owner she met in the States shortly before coming to England. The considerably younger Deans follows her and comes up with schemes that he thinks will make her the money she needs to regain custody of her children (Judy was in a custody dispute with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell)). Naturally, those schemes come to naught, and eventually, Judy crashes in a spectacular on-stage flameout that results in her being heckled off the stage.


While many of the events in the movie parallel those in the play (and in Judy Garland's life), screenwriter Tom Edge makes three critical changes, each of them an improvement over the original material. First, he intercuts flashback scenes of the young Judy Garland (played here by Darci Shaw) being cruelly manipulated by MGM studio head Louis Mayer (a creepy Richard Cordery). While the young Garland wants the life of an average teenager (she begs Mickey Rooney for a french fry while they are out on a studio-arranged publicity date), Mayer keeps her pumped full of stimulants and appetite suppressants to ensure she stays focused. The film also intimates that Mayer abused the young actress as well, hardly a recipe for a stable character. 


Throughout Judy, the older Garland is still being tugged and manipulated by everyone she meets, with one exception. Actually, two exceptions. One night, outside the theater, she meets two gay fans and strikes up a conversation with them, eventually resulting in her going to their flat for late-night dinner. She bonds with them during that sequence in a way that eludes her the rest of the movie, perhaps because she identifies with their own anguish (homosexuality was criminal in England at the time), while they, on the other hand, want nothing more from her than a kind word. This sequence, which, unfortunately, has a maudlin follow-up at the end of the film, illustrates both why Garland became such a gay icon (a status that has extended to her daughter Liza Minnelli) and the inner nature of the actress, beyond the glitz, booze, and drugs.


Any discussion of Judy will doubtless begin with Renee Zellweger, who delivers what is clearly an Oscar-caliber performance here. She does her own singing as Garland, and, while her voice won't be confused with Garland's, she is very talented and, moreover, has Garland's mannerisms down pat. The third way in which Judy opened up the play to its advantage was in the elaborate staging of the musical numbers. The Toast of the Town was a Vegas-style show club, meaning that the lead performer had a full orchestra and a chorus line of dancers. Zellweger does several songs with the orchestra and chorus line. When they work, while Garland is sober and together enough to perform, the showmanship is dazzling, and, moreover, the way Garland feeds off the energy from those surrounding her. But, more importantly, when they don't work, and the audience turns on Garland, Zellweger captures the hurt and the way Garland lashes out as a defensive mechanism. 


Musical biographies are in fashion right now, with Rami Malek having an Oscar on his mantel to show for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury last year. But Zellweger doesn't just do a good Garland impression here. Instead, she captures the essence of the actress in scene after scene. At times, the Garland story veers into standard Hollywood territory (no more so than a poorly thought out "happy" final moment before the inevitable title describing Garland's death only weeks later). It's telling that the few 1960s scenes in which Garland isn't present are by far the weakest in the movie. Mickey Deans's disastrous sales pitch to a group of businessmen in which he proposes a business venture centered on Garland predictably goes nowhere, both in the script and with the audience. There's just a lot of melodramatic plot maneuvering that, although mostly accurate in real life, doesn't come across all that well on the screen.


In the end, watching Judy is like watching some of the star's own movies. When Garland was on camera, singing "Over the Rainbow" or "The Man That Got Away," the effect was mesmerizing, even in some of her lesser movies. Similarly, Renee Zellweger commands the screen here, and since she's onscreen for most of the film, the result is an effective mix of music and tragedy. Add to that well-made flashback scenes that serve as compelling counterpoints to the later ones, and Judy is precisely the type of film that Judy Garland herself would have excelled in during the 1950s. Art does more than imitate life here; it enhances a classically tragic life.    

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In this clip, Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) tells ex-husband Sid Luft (Rupert Sowell) of her intention to get custody of her children back.

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Judy (2019) on IMDb