This strenuous but soapy real-life drama adapted from Peter Quilter’s play ‘End of the Rainbow’ bookends Judy Garland’s life in a way that leaves no doubt over who it blames for the star’s later-life struggles. Hollywood – embodied in the bullying, Weinstein-like form of mogul Louis B Mayer (the ‘M’ in MGM) – is shown stage-managing her life, plying her with pills and crushing her self-esteem, reminding her that she was nothing without its spotlights shining down on her. MGM, the studio that would make ‘Gaslight’, got in some early practice in the art with the budding starlet.
The dramatic choice to bolt on scenes of the young Judy (Darci Shaw) prepping for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ leaves it feeling disjointed and reductive in parts. Each of her travails – pills, booze, insomnia – gets its own origin story as ‘Judy’ jags back and forth between the early years and the 47-year-old version (Renée Zellweger) enjoying a final hurrah on the London stage. It puts its protagonist on the couch and offers a diagnosis when it would have been much better off letting its iconic star speak for herself.
Its trump card, of course, is Zellweger, who blows through the film in a gust of jittery energy, wounded ego and half-buried star quality. The transformation is startling, with dark lenses and a birdlike physicality essaying a faded but still formidable life force who’s at once unknowable and, by 1969, wildly over-exposed. We see her bitter feud with ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) and a love affair with handsome but shallow young entrepreneur Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), though neither hold too many surprises. You don’t need to be a Judy-ologist to know that toxic men were a fixture in her story. As she points out in one of the movie’s best self-owns: ‘Every time I cut a cake, I find I’ve married a jerk.’
Zellweger nails Garland’s witticisms and waning physicality. She worked with ‘La La Land’ vocal coach Eric Vetro to prep for the role and does her own singing (even Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner as Edith Piaf in ‘La Vie En Rose’, lip-synched to Piaf’s vocals). It pays off in crowd-pleasers like ‘Over the Rainbow’, belted out to hard-to-impress London crowds. Just when, raddled and rusty, she seems on the verge of a public burnout, she produces a heart-stopping rendition of ‘By Myself’. Director Rupert Goold neatly subverts expectations and Zellweger takes the chance to show off her chops in an Oscar-reel-friendly scene.
There are other nice moments, especially as the script focuses on the 1938 Garland and interrogates a studio system too callous – or uncaring – to see the damage it’s doing to her. A burger with Mickey Rooney appears to be like any other gawky teenage date, until the camera dollies back and reveals a battery of photographers craning in on their liaison. Elsewhere, the overbearing Mayer (Richard Cordery, all unctuous menace) browbeats Judy as they walk down the actual Yellow Brick Road. Thanks to him and Hollywood’s enablers, there was a pot of pills at the end of Garland’s rainbow.
‘Judy’ develops a slow puncture in the second half as the sparky, spiky Zellweger gets marooned in some listless scenes. There’s a horribly on-the-nose subplot with two of Garland’s gay fans and, criminally, the fab (and musical) Jessie Buckley gets a thankless role as the theatre assistant assigned to keep the star sober and punctual. It’s all about Zellweger, though, and she’s to the manner born as the ill-fated star.