For many stars, the road to Oscar nominations has, in recent years, led them to play stars of previous generations—and now that road is paved with yellow bricks. In the new bio-pic “Judy,” Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland, in a story that centers on the year before her death but also echoes back to her teen-age years, following her success in “The Wizard of Oz,” as a studio-made star. The narrowly focussed yet emotionally expansive film has been bruited about as a likely springboard for a statuette for its lead actress ever since the movie’s première, last month, at the Telluride Film Festival. Not that Oscars matter to the art—Zellweger already has one, from the right year, 2004, but for the wrong movie. She won for “Cold Mountain,” but her performance as the writer Barbara Novak in Peyton Reed’s “Down with Love” is one of the most scintillating comedic performances of the century, culminating in a sequence of breathtaking virtuosity, a whirlwind monologue deftly delivered in a single shot that runs more than three minutes.
“Down with Love” didn’t win any prizes, but its exemplary moment finds a peculiar echo in “Judy,” in a similarly extraordinary sequence that’s packed with both history and biography. It comes early in the film, after an opening scene sets up its crucial thematic conflict: a teen-age Judy (played by Darci Shaw) receives an encouraging and admonishing lecture by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the head of M-G-M, the studio that employed her. Mayer downplays her looks and glamour and declares that it’s her singing voice that will both set her apart from ordinary American girls and make her their idol. Yet years later, in 1968, those glory days are passed: Judy, in her mid-forties, struggles to make a living—not least because of the prescription-drug addiction that she endures, which resulted from her days at the studio, with one pill to keep her going through long shoot days and another to get her to sleep. She has no home of her own; she has lost her hotel room through nonpayment; she has her children Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) on the road with her, and they yearn for the more conventional life that they would lead in the Brentwood home of their father, Garland’s ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
Judy’s insolvency and instability threaten to cost her custody of the children, and, with no other offers coming in, Judy accepts a concert series in London with dismay and bewilderment. She asks, “I have to leave my children if I want to make enough money to be with my children?” When she gets to London—with her visit managed by the impresario’s assistant, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), and her musical accompaniment overseen by the music director and pianist Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson)—she’s nervous, dutiful, and consummately professional. She knows what’s riding on her success, which is heralded by a bravura and triumphant opening-night performance, in which Judy sings the nineteen-thirties standard “By Myself.” It’s an up-tempo version, referencing the way that Garland sang it in the movie “I Could Go On Singing,” from 1963, but pushing the pace even more. (Oddly enough, Garland stars, in that often intense yet stodgy movie, as a fictional American singer who travels to London in the hope of reuniting with her young son.) The director of “Judy,” Rupert Goold, shoots the scene in a single take, with a gliding, swooping, rising, dipping, approaching camera that choreographs the singer’s and the song’s emotional currents with a series of high-relief flourishes.
The sequence is reminiscent of one of the greatest moments in Garland’s career and, indeed, in the history of cinema: her performance, in a single roving take, of “The Man That Got Away,” in George Cukor’s version of “A Star Is Born,” from 1954. Up to that point in “Judy,” Zellweger delivers the shock of nervous energy and tense vulnerability, of jagged gestures and tautly tremulous voice, that are instantly identifiable with Garland. Her impersonation-like performance, however, seems not applied externally but built outward from within, the mannerisms arising from Zellweger’s strength of feeling and depth of imaginative sympathy. When she sings “By Myself” (and, yes, she sings Garland’s numbers throughout the film), she enters a transformative realm in which impersonation becomes incarnation.
The scene gives rise to a glorious paradox: Zellweger’s singing will neither make a viewer forget Garland’s voice nor remind a viewer of it, yet she conjures Garland’s mood and aura so intensely that, for the duration of the sequence, the two performers seem to fuse. When Zellweger reaches the triumphant end of the song and faces the cheering audience, it’s a moment of cathartic ecstasy that’s both emotionally draining and emotionally filling; it promises a movie of vast power. Alas, nothing else in the rest of the movie matches it; in shooting most of the onstage performances that follow, Goold is conventional and uninspired, and it leaves Zellweger’s stage presence merely signifying Garland rather than fully embodying her.
The subject of “Judy,” which is written by Tom Edge and based on a play by Peter Quilter, is laid out in a scene of the star on a British talk show, where the host (Ed Stoppard) asks intrusive questions about her family, and Judy answers, “I’m only Judy Garland one hour a night; the rest of the time, I want what everybody wants”—home, family, love. And, of course, the reason that she can’t have those things is the rotten foundation on which the hour of Judy Garland—the celebrity, the star, the singer, the artist—was constructed, thanks and no thanks to Mayer’s Mephistophelian clutches.
The teen-age Judy is seen, in flashbacks, craving the ordinary pleasures of adolescence: a piece of cake that she’s not allowed to eat (she’s forced to live on a perpetual diet); a dive in a pool (which is just for show, part of a photo op in which she’s supposed to pretend to have fun); a date (she goes out with Mickey Rooney, but it’s just for publicity’s sake). What sets her apart from the average viewer, and makes her life and art extraordinary, is also the source of her adolescent—and lifelong—agony. And when she engages in a trivial act of rebellion and lets loose with a petulant complaint, Mayer berates her monstrously, reminding her of her modest origins and troubled family. “Your name is Frances Gumm,” he says. “Your father is a faggot. Your mother only cares about what I think of you.” Then, when she is sixteen, Mayer sexually molests her, telling her that she sings from the heart while placing his hand on her “heart,” i.e., her breast. (Garland wrote about this incident in an unpublished autobiographical fragment, which didn’t surface until long after both her and Mayer’s deaths.)
One of the film’s most poignant scenes spotlights Garland’s status as a gay icon. After a concert, she ends up at the apartment of two gay male fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), eating dinner, singing songs, and learning the sad and infuriating story of their persecution under British law. That scene, like many in the film, is brought to life with epigrammatic dialogue that Zellweger possesses, once more, from within, infusing the text with an intense and conflict-riddled physicality that conveys the unvoiced torments upon which Garland’s furious performances are built.
Yet, most of the time, “Judy” renders Garland’s pathos, as well as the details of her life story, in the form of dramatic clichés and contrived arcs. Divorced from the third of her five husbands, Sidney Luft (there’s no mention of her fourth, the actor Mark Herron), she marries Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young man with big schemes, in a hurry, and hopes that his ideas (such as a chain of movie theatres that Judy will lend her name to) will put her back on sound financial footing. Meanwhile, her career quickly falls apart under the influence of alcohol and pills. The British audience and press react cruelly, as does Mickey, whose plans come to nought. The marriage falls apart, so does the concert series, and so do Garland’s dreams of stability. But a grand concluding commonplace, the triumphant and teary send-off, gives rise to yet another surprising coup de théâtre: Judy, her show and her life in ruins, sings “Over the Rainbow.” I won’t spoil the specifics, but Zellweger’s singing here passes through to the other side. Suddenly, Zellweger herself seems to pass over to the other side of the character, to come out from behind the curtain and reveal that the cabaret performer and singer in question isn’t Judy Garland but Renée Zellweger, and has been all along. She leaves the movie behind, where it belongs, and heads off on her own, by herself.