About a year ago I did an “Origins” post on Judy, and it’s kinda nice that Amazon brought the movie to Prime. Were my first impressions correct? Yes and no.
The movie alternates between scenes of Judy as a youngster and as an adult, up to about six months before she passed away. There’s music, of course, sung by Renee Zellweger, who is no stranger to song and dance herself.
From the beginning, Judy Garland’s life has been all about pressure. Pressure to stay in the public eye. Pressure to perform. Pressure to be extraordinary. L.B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) hangs over young Judy in the film like Iago over Othello, guilting her into delivering the goods. Judy, deftly played as a teen by Darci Shaw, complies, but inwardly she rebels. She doesn’t want to celebrate her birthday two months early, cutting a cake she’s not allowed to eat. She doesn’t want to pop pills that keep her from sleeping. A trip to the commissary is an exercise in cruelty when the burger she orders is whisked out from under her, and in a fit of pique she grabs Mickey Rooney’s (Gus Barry) burger and stuffs her face while the cameras snap away. Her entire life consists of being told what to do.
As an adult, Judy doesn’t have quite so many people telling her what to do, and she feels lost. She doesn’t know who to trust. Most men look at Judy as a golden goose and that’s all. It doesn’t help that she was never taught to handle her own finances or live within her means.
When she’s kicked out of her hotel, Judy takes her children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joe (Lewin Lloyd) to the home of their dad and her ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) so the kids can go to sleep. Since Judy can’t stay there herself, she then heads over to her daughter, Liza’s (Gemma-Leah Devereaux) house, where a party is in full swing. When the party decides to take things on the town, Judy stays around talking to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a younger guy who’s both starstruck and jadedly comfortable in Judy’s presence. The two of them end up talking all night and building a Dixie cup pyramid on the stomach of a guy who’s passed out on the bearskin rug.
Since Judy’s finances are in such sad shape, she gets booked on a five-week concert engagement at the Talk of the Town nightclub (now the Hippodrome) in London. From the minute she lands she’s treated like royalty. She gets the best suite in her hotel, she has staff at her beck and call, and she has an assistant, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), a nice, no-nonsense lady who becomes more of a handler than she bargained for.
Judy has definite ideas about how she wants rehearsals to go (Read: She doesn’t want to rehearse) and is content to let bandleader Burt (Royce Pierreson) put together the staging and the setlist. She knows every stage so well she can perform blindfolded. She wants to rest. She sails out of the rehearsal hall leaving a bewildered Burt and Rosalyn behind.
Opening Night arrives, and Judy is not at the theater. Rosalyn has to fetch her at her hotel, makeup artist Vivian (Jodie McNee) in tow, while the dancers fill the time with one more number…and then another. Rosalyn has to practically dress Judy, get her coat on, lead her out the door, and push her onstage. Judy looks like a deer in headlights for a minute or two, and then launches into her performance.
Judy plugs along with her show, but instead of becoming more comfortable with the routine she becomes more neurotic. The British press, which is notoriously ruthless, doesn’t cut her any slack, and producer Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) threatens to stick affable pop guitarist Lonnie (John Dagleish) on in Judy’s place. At first this motivates Judy to show up, but the end of her five-week run can’t come soon enough. By that point audiences are pelting her with bits of their dinners and heckling her.
Meanwhile, Mickey Deans smuggles himself in on a room service cart, and it’s pretty well-known how that went.
The film gets a lot of the details right. Judy’s mannerisms on stage, her neuroses, her erratic behavior all really happened. The British press was ruthless to her and audiences were rude. If anything, the film tones down how rude they really were–the Guardian mentioned people belching during shows. The engagement became such a dismal affair that same article sympathetically remarked that Judy looked thin and haggard.
Also toned down is how worn out Lorna was at this stage of her mother’s life. Judy shows her calmly but sadly accepting her mother going to London, when in actuality Lorna felt traumatized at the idea of living with her mother ever again and exhausted to the point of lethargy. However, the point of Judy isn’t the nitty-gritty of her last year of life. Performing and being haunted by her past are what gives this film its life and breath.
Yeah, about performing.
Judy‘s first song, “By Myself” made me cringe–the whole scene smacks of trying too hard. The tune was a favorite of Judy’s but it’s too big for Zellweger’s voice. And it’s filmed badly. There’s one insert shot where Zellweger leans over and her body goes completely out of frame. Who in their right mind would allow a shot that bad in a final release? That’s just weird. As if putting the proverbial cherry on top of the unfortunate sundae, the number finishes with Judy posing against the spotlight as if begging to be screencapped.
The staging isn’t the only forced thing about the number. Renee Zellweger’s face looks like she’s trying to will Judy’s intensity into it, especially around the eyes. It reminds me of William Powell’s rubber band facelift. As long as Zellweger allows herself to relax into the part, which she does throughout the rest of the movie, she’s great. She seems to get why Judy was and is a star.
However, it’s not enough to save the film, which, while it admirably focuses on a short part of Judy’s life, doesn’t really get below the surface. Some of this is due to the fact that so much about Judy Garland, especially at that time of her life, was exaggerated or fabricated by the press and her various biographers. We know this frustrated and angered Judy, and no one except possibly Mickey Rooney knew what she felt like. She knew she was playing a character; she knew there was tremendous pressure on her to be this mythical person even she didn’t understand, and she knew she was one of a kind. Judy Garland was like Elvis that way. And just like Elvis, the constant tension wore her out.
I can see why Judy’s children wanted nothing to do with Judy–the last year of her life was a very painful time for them. It also might get tiresome to see their mother’s life exploited when she’s more than able to wow us all by herself, even though it’s over fifty years after her death.
Plus, Liza, Lorna, and Joe were not charmed by Mickey Deans. He wasn’t considerate of them, and after Judy died seemed intent on using his small role in her life to cash in wherever he could, including publishing a book, Weep No More, My Lady. Lorna found Deans especially irritating and called him “a putz” in her memoir. “He makes Kato Kaelin look like Man of the Year,” she added. Ouch.
While Judy tries to get deeper than a typical biopic, it’s still a typical biopic. The acting is competent, although its talent is overshadowed by Judy’s performance sequences, and it doesn’t really add anything to what’s already been said about Judy. In fairness, though, genius is pretty tough to copy, and Judy Garland was brilliant.
Another post is coming up on Tuesday. Thanks for reading, all, and see you soon…
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Luft, Lorna. Me and My Shadows: Living With the Legacy of Judy Garland. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.