Starring Renee Zellweger as the titular star, Judy follows the final years of Hollywood icon Judy Garland as she performs tireless in an effort to regain custody of her children. Set thirty years “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland arrives in London to perform nightly sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans by night and battles her own personal demons by day.
Directed by Rupert Goold (True Story), Judyis both a loving tribute and unapologetic look at Judy Garland’s journey as a fading star near the end of her life. Visually, the film is simple yet effective. Lighting remains brightest during flashback sequences when her career is at its peak yet become more intimidating in the present, as Garland’s life continues to decline. What’s more, rather than attempt to entertain the audience using quick cuts, Goold often leaves the camera unflinchingly fixated upon the face of his star, allowing Judy to be the story (as opposed to the editing). In doing so, Goold wisely allows Zellweger to take centre stage and she absolutely shines as Garland. In one of the year’s best performances, Zellweger presents the aging star with a complex mix of ferocious self-destruction and tender grace. During live concerts, Zellweger shows Garland in her element and bursts off the screen with all the energy that one would expect from a Hollywood icon. Yet, when the lights dim, she begins to fold in on herself emotionally, collapsing under the weight of the expectations of others.
Though Judy focuses its lens on Garland’s journey, the film is also a scathing examination of celebrity culture. Although her motivation to perform stems from her desire to regain her children, Garland maintains a love-hate relationship with the spotlight. Known the world over for her singing voice, she has also found that the very act of getting on stage has become increasingly difficult for her. Whereas she has taken on the role of star willingly, she now fully understands the cost of the limelight. Despite the fact that she is beloved and held in reverence by millions, Judy has lost all sense of herself at the hands of the expectations of others. Bright lights bleed off the screen, giving her fame an ominous feel at the hands of the public. (Interestingly, however, while she’s onstage, stage lights resume their former brilliance, suggesting that Garland is still in her glory in front of her fans.)
However, Garland’s regrets aren’t simply due to her own personal malaise or lack of gratitude. By juxtaposing Garland’s teen years in the midst of the Hollywood studio system with her breakdown later in life, Judy reveals the direct impact that abusive leadership can have on childhood psyches. Forced not to eat in order to keep her figure slim and crushed by the expectations of the studio, Garland’s childlike innocence is slowly taken away as she is prevented from experiencing the joys of her youth. As a result, the elder Garland understandably displays an obsession with the approval of others as she grapples with the painful effects of child exploitation.
Whereas the opportunity to play Dorothy Gale once provided her with her own personal yellow brick road to fame, Garland now finds herself spiritually lost somewhere over the rainbow. In other words, having literally gained the whole world, Garland has lost her soul at the hands of those in power and it has left its mark on her. While fans selfishly cry out for her to meet their expectations, Garland struggles to even get out of bed in the morning due to crippling depression. Drowning herself in alcohol and drugs, Garland yearns to have someone drawn to her as a human being, as opposed to her celebrity status. Broken by her past, there’s a piece missing to her soul underneath the glittering lights of fame. Even as her soul aches for closeness, she must always be ready to perform when the curtain calls.
Painting his subject with a sympathetic brush, Goold neither condemns the fading actress nor entirely excuses her behaviour. Instead, Judy recognizes that the soul of the artist is just as valuable as that of others… and just as easily damaged.
Judy opens in theatres on Friday, September 27th, 2019.