Given Judy Garland’s iconic status, it is a challenge for anyone to try to portray her. Yes, she has had her share of impersonators. But In “Judy,” Renée Zellweger steps up to the task and gives an Oscar-potential performance that can rip your heart out. She even does her own impressive singing of Garland’s signature numbers, and she gets into the very soul of Garland in London when she was a mess of booze and pills, financial headaches, personal battles and in a state of total collapse in her late 1960s efforts to fulfill a gig at the nightspot Talk of the Town.
“Judy” is based on “End of the Rainbow,” the powerful 2012 play by Peter Quilter (See Search for my review), and fleshed out into film territory. Zellweger’s performance once again brings to mind an observance I had of Garland in her disintegrated state. As I wrote in my play review, “When I was writing for Cue Magazine in the 1960s, we had a gala at which Garland showed up with her entourage. She was clearly off the wall, literally being held up to enable her to walk. Some jerk approached her and asked why her daughter Liza wasn’t as talented as she was. The stupid question triggered an outburst of profanity by Garland with just about every swear word in the book delivered in the stupor she appeared to be in. I felt so very sad to see this side of Garland first hand.”
“Judy” early on shows the aggressive treatment of the young Judy (Darci Shaw) by hovering MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). She is weaned on pills and dieting in a look at the exploitation that sent her on a destructive road even as she increasingly captivated audiences.
Zellweger as the adult Judy succeeds in conveying her immense and unique talent as well as her persona in the final segment of her life and self-destruction. Jessie Buckley plays Rosalyn Wilder, the young woman assigned to try to steer her through her problems. We see others in Judy’s life—Finn Whittrock as her last husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as earlier husband Sidney Luft, Bella Ramsey as daughter Lorna Luft and Gemma-Leah Devereaux as daughter Liza Minnelli.
The film, directed by Rupert Goold from screenplay by Tom Edge and Quilter, has many elements of typical bio-pics but contains various special touches. A nod to how Judy was appreciated by gay men is reflected in a segment in which in a moment of loneliness she befriends two gay fans, goes back to their apartment and gives them a treat they’ll remember for the rest of their lives when she sings for them.
Best of all in the overview of the film is Zellweger’s astonishing embodiment of Garland in the last stage of her life and Garland as a performer. The film ends in corny fashion in its efforts to hit us emotionally, but when all is said and done this is Zellweger’s moment of triumph in fulfilling the difficult task of bringing a legend to life in a believable and deeply moving performance. An LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions release. Reviewed September 27, 2019.