Judy Garland: The Legend Behind the Rainbow
Great performances by the leads personifying Judy Garland can’t fully redeem a clumsy stage play adaptation of the last months of the tragic diva’s life.
In a film and media climate where biopics are big business, each rushing to tell ‘the true story’ of a subject in a place or time, Judy purports to be the story of Garland in her last years in London and how she met her demise there at the age of 47. If this was all the film was undertaking to achieve, it would be successful. Unfortunately, the film is too ambitious as it unsuccessfully tries to convey too many details about Garland’s life — and how disastrous things became for her. The brushstrokes are so broad as to be sloppy, and details get confused in an impressionistic mist. The saving grace, as is often the case, is the performance of the two leads, Judy Junior (Darci Shaw), and Judy Senior (Renée Zellweger).
Everybody loves a comeback. It’s an axiom that’s so often used that it’s part of our collective consciousness. The most apropos quotation for Judy comes from the equally tragic star Billie Holiday — ‘I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been.’ Judy Garland was a star in the Hollywood system, who rose and fell so often that her comebacks were viewed with suspicion and a fleeting temporality. No matter the heights she scaled, the crashes were inevitable and anticipated. Her career would be permanently overshadowed by the Juvenile Oscar awarded to her for embodying Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Garland tried desperately to rehabilitate her career, but she was never able to escape her most famous role despite two other Oscar nominations for later works.
Opening with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) describing a generic midwestern house that could be on a farmstead in Kansas, or just as easily been the house where Garland, as Frances Ethel Gumm, began her life in Grand Rapids Minnesota. From a photograph, a black soundstage, and the all too ominous presence of Mayer, the audience is greeted with a traditional pinhole reveal to the technicolor marvel that is the MGM stage for Oz. Mayer tells Judy she’s his favorite, but she’s easily replaceable. Darci Shaw’s young Garland stoically and anxiously accepts that she’s the girl dropped in a basket by chance, luck, ill fortune, on the lot. She is Dorothy Gale, the girl next door. Not the pretty girl, but the gutsy girl. All the pretty girls grow up to be no-one. Garland will be a star if the Wizard of MGM allows it, or maybe Shirley Temple will be. It’s up to the changing of the wind.
Cut to the aging, fragile mess that is Zellweger’s Garland in the late ’60s, and we see that she’s still blown about by chance and misfortune. In this timeline ‘there’s no place like home’ for Garland because she hasn’t got one. She’s moving her children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd), from pillar to post, skipping out on hotel bills because she’s broke, and no-one will take a chance on her after a very public career of meltdowns, failures, and so many boulevards of broken dreams. Again, Garland is stoic and anxious. Depending on which face she has to show she’s Diva Judy Garland or gentle and protective Momma. Quick personality changes and the-show-must-go-on bravado are all a part of the greater Garland mythology. So too is her absolute devotion to her three children despite her inability to parent them in a stable environment.
The audience watches Garland trying to find a place for herself and her children as Dorothy back in a metaphorical Oz that’s more akin in visual brutality to director Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan (2010), than the technicolor sound stage at MGM. In a dream-like fugue, she takes her children to her ex-husband Sid Luft’s house, where he berates her for being a bad mother. Luft is played by Rufus Sewell, Gods of Egypt (2016), in a curious manner as distant but reasonable. The real Luft’s excesses and bullying of Garland are hinted at but not made explicit. The film skips over everything from Garland’s life as a juvenile actress to the point of departure to London because it’s not trying to give a full picture of Garland’s life. The only callbacks to moments outside of the journey from Oz to London’s Talk of the Town theater come in song, dialogue, and gestures.
Real-life characters lack narrative heft. From Finn Wittrock’s, La La Land (2016), opportunistic Mickey Deans, to the fleeting presence of Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) — characters are often set pieces and factotums designed to elicit an emotional audience response about Garland. Mickey indulges Garland’s needs — he’s her protector and her playmate, and that’s what makes her vulnerable to his venal charms. The seventeen-year-old Garland fell in love with another Mickey (Rooney) because he indulged her rebellious, playful side also. Garland is so accustomed to abusive relationships she has enormous trouble distinguishing anyone’s motives around her, and this confusion feeds into visualized hysteria. The audience gets the sense Judy hasn’t been as reckless as her legend suggested but is a deeply broken and abused woman. However, with absences in the narrative like her ex-husband Vincente Minnelli, the audience needs to intuit her history through deciphering the dialogue and relying on symbolism.
In any biographical depiction, some aspects of the subject’s life will be jettisoned for plot expediency. Structurally that technique can work but not in the case of trying to trace an A-Z line of Garland’s life. Her ex-husband and director Minnelli needs to exist so that the audience can better understand not only the musical numbers that intercut the action, but also why Garland acts the ways she does. When Zellweger belts out ‘The Trolley Song,’ from Minnelli’s 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, knowing that Garland was worked into exhaustion on that film set by yet another man who claimed to have created her is information the audience should possess.
Newcomer Darci Shaw as Judy is as robust as Zellweger in her complete transformation into the character. She’s an inspiring young talent whose presence is not too aggressive as the young starlet ensuring that false notes are kept to a minimum. Judy’s barely repressed rage and rebellion, as well as her indefatigable workhorse compulsiveness to please everyone, is conveyed by Shaw with the manner of ease belonging to a more seasoned performer.
Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose (2018), does a presentable job as Garland’s London wrangler Rosalyn Wilder. But just as with characters like the overtly Wicked Witch of The West stage mother, Ethel Gumm (Natasha Powell), Wilder is a stand-in for the Good Witch Glinda. Even at times, we see her recreating gestures of tenderness and adoration shown by James Mason as Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954). Regrettably, the towering Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011), is finally another impresario for whom Garland plays out the role of Disaster Diva. So many characters become remote impressions of famous faces. Some of these will work like Gus Barry’s Mickey Rooney. Yet others, particularly John Dagleish’s Lonnie Donegan, only the English will recognize and will doubtfully resonate for a broader audience.
On a road filled with Tin Men, Scarecrows, and Cowardly Lions, the most touching performance comes from a gay couple, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira). Their stubborn insistence that they only ever want to ‘see Judy’ give us a sense of what Garland’s resilience and genius meant to a community also battered into submission against a system stacked against them. Judy cultivates a lovely and melancholic relationship with the two men that provides her the opportunity to act as a mother again. For Judy, fans become her proximate family. Zellweger is heartbreakingly tender as she cooks for the men, fussing over them as if they were her own absent children and seeking their approbations so she can assuage her own guilt and loneliness.
The film ultimately is a slow tease for the final musical number. There is one song everyone who has heard of Garland associates with her. By the time Zellweger takes a seat, and intimately half sings, half speaks ‘Over the Rainbow,’ it has been a very tortuous road leading to the number which hits the mark as much as it misses it. The Talk of the Town audience gives Judy a standing ovation for the song and Judy’s palpable relief and ecstasy at delivering the showstopper is disappointingly diminished by the explanatory end titles telling the audience how it really was amongst the last times Judy would sing, as she’d be found dead from a barbiturate overdose in a hotel room in London just a short while later. When Zellweger delivers her final line, ‘You won’t forget me, will you?’ the film requires you to have forgotten the breadth of who Judy really was to invest yourself in her tragedy.
It’s difficult to say in a period where a decent impersonation of another performer seems to be a metric for great acting, whether a biopic is worth your time if you’re a fan of the person being portrayed. How much someone knows about Garland is going to color their perception of the film, and I’m not sure the payoff is there if you’re looking for a film that tells you about Judy Garland. That said, the truly powerful parts of the picture are the intimate portrayals of Garland. Zellweger and Shaw manage to make the gutsy girl Garland into something more elusive than a series of fabricated gestures and songs.
Judy is adapted for the screen by Tom Edge, Lovesick (2014-18), from the stage musical drama End of The Rainbow by Peter Quilter, and it is designed to showcase Zellweger’s phenomenal stage presence as Judy whilst she performs Garland standards with varying degrees of success.
Rupert Goold’s direction is mostly faceless and frequently unsystematic. There are times where he barely manages to hide obvious gaffes and, often, by virtue of being trite and stagey, makes it marginally harder for the actors to do their jobs. The music by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), is all melodrama strings and swirls acting as a tonal signifier designed to showcase the Garland songs.
Cinematography by BAFTA nominee Ole Bratt Birkeland, American Animals (2018), is composed to wring as much pathos as possible from any scene. The technical aspects, like many parts of the film, are hit-and-miss. If they land well, it often seems by chance rather than design.
A bugbear for me is that when it comes to telling the story of Judy Garland, the point of view so often comes from men. Unless it’s poor Liza Minnelli, forced to recount ad-infinitum her turbulent life with her mother (ditto Lorna Luft), depictions of Judy do feel exploitive rather than intimate. Garland’s perpetual bullying by the media and the men in her life finds accidental resonance when one sees her life being reproduced again by a predominantly male creative team. I’m not sure that this is any better than the forced authenticity Garland underwent via directors such as Cukor, Minnelli, and Mayer. Judy screams over and over in the script that she created herself. She’s the one who did the work despite the enormous physical and mental toll it took on her. Arguably, the same thing can be said for Zellweger. Without her fundamental performance, there is no film. Whilst audiences are still looking at non-male storytelling as exceptions to the rule, the stories of complex women will be left to people who aren’t by default the best people to be rendering them. Simon Curtis’ 2011 film My Week with Marilyn falls into this category, too. In the case of that film, Michelle Williams was nominated for many awards for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, proving that performance is crucial for larger success in this genre.
When one boils the film down to its grist, one fact stands out as undeniable — Zellweger is also staging a comeback as Judy. After a significant absence from the big screen for years, she, like Garland, was the focus of rumors about alcoholism and eating disorders, with her appearance consistently scrutinized. In a post-Weinstein world, the analogies between the portrayal of Mayer as a sexually threatening presence have already caused gossip about parallels in Zellweger’s life, which she has firmly denied.
The film belongs to Zellweger; everybody does indeed love a comeback — and, as the film makes abundantly clear, Garland didn’t get to enjoy one, so the audience, and probably the Academy, will be cheering on Renée’s.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney