“Judy” is a biographical film made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Judy Garland. It is also a textbook example of Oscar-bait, a film carefully constructed to attract as many Academy Award nominations as possible. A talented actress who changes her appearance and gives a showcase of the art of imitation? Check. A tragic story about the need to sacrifice important things in life for art? Check. A nomination for the Academy Award for the best leading actress was a sure thing. I think Renée Zellweger is likely to win the second Academy Award in her career. But is “Judy” a good movie?
Generally – yeah, sort of. But I do of course have some reservations 😉
The Artist vs. The Human
The movie states its thesis in the very first scene – clearly, without subtlety. A teenage Judy is walking around “The Wizard of Oz” movie set with Louis B. Mayer. She confides in him that sometimes she would like to be a normal girl. He tells her that she has a gift which normal girls do not own. This gift is what makes her stand out, so she must use it. Judy agrees, but her face expresses doubt. And immediately we know that this conflict will be the heart of the movie. We also know that ultimately it will not be resolved (because in such films it never is).
I think the biggest problem of this movie is that if someone doesn’t know why Judy Garland is one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, they will not learn it watching this movie. The plot does not show the details of Judy’s career, except for her role in “The Wizard of Oz”. The movie expects the audience to either have a general knowledge of Judy’s life or to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening on screen. Important aspects of her life, like four marriages, addiction to alcohol and various prescription drugs, and the reasons for her endless financial problems, are only briefly outlined or summed up with single sentences.
It’s hard not to notice some similarities between the story of Judy and the stories of young Disney stars who in adulthood experience many problems caused by the restrictions imposed on them by the studio. Individual scenes suggest the enormous influence that MGM studio had on how young Judy looked, what she ate, how much she weighed, who she met with. In Judy’s adulthood, this leads to various addictions, and the overwhelming need to be loved. The need which is not satisfied by her five marriages or the adoration of the audience.
Yet, we do not see Judy’s greatest successes or her biggest problems. They are somewhere in the past. They influence her behaviour, her decisions, the way she relates to people in her life. But a viewer who has no knowledge of her biography may not have context and will misunderstand the fragments of Judy that we see on the screen.
Judy Garland, The Legend
My favourite subplot in the movie, which appears quite accidentally and ultimately does not lead anywhere, is the story of a pair of gay men. They come to every concert of Judy and one time end up spending an evening with her. I did not expect the movie to touch upon Judy’s status as an LGBT icon. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the so-called “homosexual activities” were illegal, and gay communities often used slang to not be understood by the straight majority, gays were often called “friends of Dorothy”.
There is a really touching scene when Judy sings a song for the two men, and one of them cries looking at her photos hanging on the wall. We do not know the details of their experiences, living in a long-term relationship during the times when they could have been imprisoned for it. But we see how the shared passion and inspiration found in their idol’s difficult life were what kept them alive.
I was all the more disappointed by a later scene of a conversation with the venue director, where Judy blames the pair for her exhaustion and calls them “fruits” (a pejorative slang term for gay men).
Being Judy Garland
Renée Zellweger is really good as Judy. You can see that she has done her homework when it comes to studying and learning Judy’s mannerisms. There were a few moments when I forgot it was Zellweger and not Garland I saw on the screen. To tell the truth, the make-artists are also to thank for that. They used not only make-up but also a prosthetic nose, teeth and contact lenses to make the actress look like Judy. Even so, I am sure that there will be those who will criticise this performance, talking about exaggeration, parodying gestures. Maybe they will even be right. In my opinion, Zellweger is so honest in it that I believe her. I believe Judy might have behaved like that.
But what about the singing?
The only false note (har har) in her performance is, in my opinion, the decision to use her own vocals. I’ve never thought of Renée Zellweger as a great singer, and her role in “Chicago” rather confirmed this for me. In “Judy” she sings much better and stronger, but still, it is not the voice of Judy Garland. It’s worth remembering that even at the end of her life, struggling with addictions, Judy still had an amazing voice.
Still, it is quite impressive that the vocals were reportedly recorded live. So what we see on screen is not a lipsync for a studio recording, but a record of how the scene really went. And although it wasn’t Judy’s vocal class, I admit, I shed a few tears during songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine” or “Over The Rainbow”.
The supporting roles in the film are quite solid, although no one stands out significantly. Above all, young Darci Shaw is memorable as young Judy. Known for his many roles in “American Horror Story”, Finn Wittrock does what he can as Mickey Deans, Judy’s last husband. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to work with. Neither do Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell and Jessie Buckley.
“Judy” is a good movie, but it absolutely is not an outstanding one. The creators’ intention to achieve a specific effect is a little too visible, but Renée Zellweger’s performance is really good. The dilemma at the heart of it – career or “real life” is a rather banal cliche, which, unfortunately, often plagues the biographies of great artists. But the determination of Judy, who knows nothing else than being a stage artist, and at the same time wants to be a good mother and wife, is shown credibly and poignantly at times.
If you’re interested in learning more about the movie and Judy in general, I recommend “The JUDY Companion”. Its author perfectly sums up what is missing in the movie. Personally, I agree with her 100%.
P.S. Watching “Judy” I couldn’t stop thinking about another movie about a brilliant singer in the last days of her life. I’m thinking about “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”, which I wholeheartedly recommend (you can watch it on HBO GO). Both films are adaptations of theatre plays and in both cases, it can be felt. In the case of “Lady Day …” this is obviously harder to avoid. The action takes place during one concert of Billie Holliday, during which she mentions the hardships of her life. The creators of the film simply shot the performance of the amazing Audra McDonald, using several different shots. This is a much simpler task, but there is still a similarity between the movies.
P.P.S. I wrote this review before, as I predicted, Renée Zellweger won an Academy Award for her performance in the movie. Called it.