Renée Zellweger gives a heartbreaking portrayal of Judy Garland in the last year of her sad life and declining career in the fictionalized but affecting “Judy.” Zellweger’s sometimes brutally unflattering performance is likely to garner the Oscar winner her fourth Academy Award nomination. (She won as Best Supporting Actress for 2003’s “Cold Mountain,” with Best Actress noms the previous two years for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Chicago.”) Zellweger even does all of her own singing, pulling off a more than acceptable and sometimes genuinely moving impersonation of the falling star.
Flashbacks reveal the abuse teenage Judy suffered from tyrannical MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). While giving her a threatening talking-to on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” Mayer rudely insults everything about her but “that voice.” Judy’s parents never are shown taking her side, nor is anyone else who may have acted as any kind of advocate, leaving her isolated in her misery.
Supplied with pills to keep her awake and others to help her sleep, and discouraged from eating so she won’t gain weight, Judy is berated into submission after each small attempt at rebellion. She even finds herself casually rebuffed by co-star Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry). When she hopefully asks him if the two of them are dating, he nonchalantly replies, “Ask Mr. Mayer. I think we’re just pals.”
Newcomer Darci Shaw, who portrays the conflicted and melancholy teenage Judy, looks more like a young Elizabeth Taylor than like Garland. Her obvious beauty undercuts the intended cruelty of Mayer’s remarks about Judy’s appearance, or at least alters their context, making them come off as strictly psychological abuse rather than coldly objective humiliation.
The real Judy was not traditionally cover-girl gorgeous, so she could have taken cutting remarks about her looks to heart. The only reason this movie’s Judy would be hurt by such insults is because she has been browbeaten out of all self-esteem and brainwashed. It’s a small difference, but a meaningful one.
With cropped jet-black hair, pancake makeup, and bright red lipstick, Zellweger is a much closer lookalike, playing the 46-year-old Judy in decline. She also has down pat the older Judy’s odd hybrid expression of wide-eyed wariness mixed with skeptically dour disinterest. Smoking, drinking, popping pills, or just being morose, she’s completely believable as the brittle onetime superstar who now finds herself so embarrassingly broke that she can’t even pay her hotel bill. (Although the film implies her money troubles arose primarily because the public’s tastes had changed, Judy actually lost most of her fortune and assets due to crooked management, embezzling, and asset seizures to pay insurmountable tax bills.)
Potential financial salvation comes in an offer to perform a series of concerts at London’s The Talk of The Town nightclub theater. Taking that weeks-long gig will mean leaving her children Lorna and Joey with their father, her ex-husband Sidney Luft (played with low-key exasperation by Rufus Sewell). That means missing Christmas with them, but times are tough. Also, she knows she can’t hope to keep custody of the kids without paying lawyers and affording a stable place where Lorna and Joey can live with her.
Nearly the entire movie takes place during the time Judy is in London. Her shows there were rocky at best, due to her drinking and the mental distractions that made her completely unreliable. Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), assistant to British theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), is assigned to be Judy’s minder. Her attempts to keep Judy on track and on time are frustratingly unsuccessful.
Refreshingly, Rosalyn never significantly warms up to the selfish and self-destructive star, maintaining a cordial but quietly disapproving demeanor toward her charge.
When Judy is on, though, she’s really on. Zellweger’s amazing single shot, no-edits performance of the first onstage song in the movie (“By Myself”) is a showstopper. And when “Over the Rainbow” finally arrives, its tear-jerking sentimentality is enhanced by Zellweger’s utterly spent, gave-it-all devastation.
Like most biopics, there’s a lot of fiction mixed with the facts. Strangely, some of what really happened is more interesting than what’s onscreen. Movie Judy meets the ingratiating but enigmatic Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young nightclub manager who would become her fifth husband, at a party just before she leaves for England near the end of 1968. That makes their romance and eventual marriage a dubiously whirlwind affair.
In reality, they met through a mutual friend back in 1966, when Deans delivered stimulant tablets to Judy’s New York hotel room. He allegedly passed himself off as a doctor, because Judy’s kids were present.
Also, the fact that Judy still was married at the time of her London shows never is mentioned, nor is the identity of her unseen husband (former tour promoter Mark Herron, from whom she had been separated since 1966). Their divorce was not finalized until February 11, 1969, a month before she married Deans, which is later than when she appears to marry Deans in the film.
Judy’s older daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is seen only briefly at a Hollywood party, asking mom to join her and some friends to go clubbing. Judy passes on the offer.
The movie contains one possibly intentional casting mistake. Perhaps because the BBC now has identity politics quotas and is one of the production companies behind “Judy,” real-life Talk of the Town white bandleader Burt Rhodes is portrayed by a black actor (Royce Pierreson). These days, however, it’s amazing that Sidney Luft wasn’t played by a disabled Asian, and Liza wasn’t outfitted in a hijab.
Two flagrantly fictional but nonetheless enjoyable characters are gay middle-aged British couple Stan and Dan (Daniel Cerqueira and Andy Nyman). Judy befriends the pair when they turn out to be the only fans waiting outside her stage door one night. She shocks them by going back to their flat, which includes the next best thing to a Judy Garland shrine. Including such literal “friends of Dorothy” stereotypes may smack of potentially offensive pandering, but the characters provide the only gentle comic relief in sight, with an added touch of bittersweetness. They also turn an outrageously cornball climactic moment into one that’s almost magically maudlin.
The Tom Edge screenplay, directed by Rupert Goold and based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow,” is a good enough character study to be compelling even when it’s fake, sappy, or genuinely depressing. That’s show biz!