David Hindley / LD Entertainment and roadside attractions
Academy Award voters can rarely resist celebrity performances, judging by some of the stellar turns that have won Oscars in recent years. These are not just performances; they are moving features of mimicry. Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill! Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury!
The new movie Judy is being sold along similar lines: Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland! Judging by the gasping noise that has greeted the film so far, the approach seems to be paying off. What makes Judy unusually captivating to an otherwise standard celebrity biography is that Zellweger is not Judy Garland: Her transformation is impressive, but hardly final. Even with the help of a dark wig and skillful makeup and prosthesis, she does not exactly disappear in the role of beloved singer and actress who captivates the public in films such as Wizard of Oz and Meet me in Saint Louis.
But even if you do not always believe that you are in Garland's presence, Zellweger almost compensates in a raw emotional commitment for what she lacks in authenticity. Her intense short-acting sensation sometimes risks intensifying this sound adaptation of Peter Quilter's stage play, The End of the Rainbow.
Judy starts with one of several flashes of teenage Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz, showing us how the industry creates and destroys it in the same breath. Her body and image are relentlessly controlled by MGM's powerful studio manager, Louis B. Mayer, who puts her on a strict diet and gives her barbiturates and amphetamines, triggering the substance abuse problem she'll fight to end her life.
But most of the movie was set in 1969, long after its Hollywood heyday and only months before she died at the age of 47. Judy is already broken and almost homeless, dragging along a somber performance of the club in LA, we meet her older child Lisa Minnelli at a home party, and also Judy's third husband – Sidney Luft, who takes custody of their two young children while reluctantly booking a gig at The Talk of the Town in London. Although devastated by separation from her children, Judy has little choice but to work abroad, where her fans can still rely on her to be at full strength.
In London, Judy's depression and insomnia quickly take hold: she pops pills, skips rehearsals, and almost misses the opening night. But after she comes across the spotlight and arranges for herself and the song of the trolls, her confidence goes back and she is glad to have a grateful crowd again.
One night after the show, Judy, feeling lonely, befriends couples who love Stan and Dan, and joins them for a late dinner in their apartment. In a moving scene, Dan, played by Andy Nyman, reminds Judy how much she means to her many gay fans.
Directed by Rupert Gould, he is skillful with the cast. He gets a great performance from Jesse Buckley as Judy of London's Rosaline Wilder, always there to set her ear and keep her on schedule. Finn Vitroc plays aggressively charming music entrepreneur Mickey Deens, who becomes Judy's fifth and final husband. Their tumultuous union makes a number of Judy, who suffers from several drunken crises on stage before bouncing off with a climax rendition of "Over the Rainbow," which may just bring you to tears.
This is a dazzling showcase for Zellweger whose engagement is astounding even when the illusion is not always mastered. While the actress has a sweetly fluttering singing voice, she makes no effort to meet Garland's warm, velvety counter – according to reports directed by the director himself, who rightly suggested that it would be wiser to channel Garland than her imitates. Curiously, Zellweger's physical resemblance to Garland is most pronounced when the camera catches her in profile; she wears the character as a mask that continues to slip. There is something touching about this, as Garland herself struggles to live up to a person created for an audience who can love her one minute and turn her on the next.
Zellweger herself knows a thing or two about what it's like to be chewed and spat out by an industrial machine. After her earlier triumphs in films such as Chicago and Cold Mountain (the last for which she won an Oscar), she has struggled to find decent roles over the next decade. She suffered a lot of sexist ridicule from the entertainment press and only recently returned to filmmaking after a six-year hiatus. Her involvement with her subject is evident in every scene. Renee Zellweger may not be Judy Garland, but she reminds us that technical excellence does not match emotional truth.