There’s an eerie irony and occasional guilt in watching a movie about a woman whose life was marred by the fact that she worked in movies. In the biopic Judy, which chronicles Judy Garland’s struggling health and career in the last year of her life, there is no reprieve from the tragedy.
At 46 years old, Garland (Renée Zellweger) has no permanent home and no steady income to provide for her children. Her drug use and insomnia have ravaged her personal and professional life; with few other options, she agrees to a multi-week concert run at a theater in London and leaves her young kids with her ex-husband. She lives alone at a hotel, drinking, smoking, and taking pills until it’s time for her to get onstage (if she’s sober enough), and then goes home alone again. She rarely sleeps (only once in the movie) and never eats (a tiny bite of cake, once). Physically, she is thin, pale, and looks much older than her age. But she still has that voice and when she’s on, people eat it up. But when she’s off — late, drunk, stumbling around the stage — the crowd is quick to turn on her, heckling or throwing food.
In the middle of the film, she marries her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who, like her previous husbands, is interested in making money off his wife and ultimately can’t handle the burden of Garland’s struggles. Those aforementioned struggles are put into context with flashbacks of teenage Garland on the set of Wizard of Oz, where the studio put her on a strict diet and gave her amphetamines to keep her awake and barbiturates to help her sleep. The latter eventually killed her.
In Garland’s adult life in the film, she is still famous enough that people are always asking, “Can I get you anything?” But she's not rich enough to actually have anything. In her teenage flashbacks, a slimy executive tells her that if she doesn’t work 18 hour days and do the pills and the dieting, she will have nothing.
The flashbacks, like the rest of the movie, are profoundly sad. In one scene, teen Garland is on a date at a diner with young Mickey Rooney, eating hamburgers and fries. Only it’s not a real diner; it’s a set created so press can get photos of them “dating,” and Garland’s not actually eating because she’s not allowed to. In another, there’s a similar setup with a fake birthday party where she’s not allowed to eat the cake. While the flashbacks are sad, they’re also cartoonish, in tone and appearance, with washed-out hues like a black and white photo that’s been colorized with pastels. Teen Garland feels more like a faded portrait than a real person; her lines are mostly responses to being yelled at.
Zellweger fully disappears into her role, with a dark wig, colored contacts, and prosthetic nose. But she has the mannerisms and posture too, as well as the voice (I mean, not the voice, but good enough). It’s not far into the movie before you forget that it's Zellweger you're watching. Most of the other characters and acting in the movie are wasted on forgettable fluff.
Judy has the problem biopics of this caliber struggle with, which is that there are no surprises — even if you don’t know much about Garland (like me, who has never seen Wizard of Oz), nothing in the movie will come as a surprise. Her life had the trajectory common for people who get too famous at too young an age, and it’s not made easier by the persistent collective amnesia about childhood stardom. Every generation has child stars who barely make it out alive (or don’t).
It’s clear the cast and filmmakers admire Garland, but the film struggles under the weight of its subject. It doesn’t know how to handle her addiction besides showing it over and over again, and it doesn’t know how to respect her talent without being corny. She is always described in the film as a legend and an incomparable talent, but without explaining where that came from. In Judy, she is more mythological figure than a real, three dimensional human. But we're already familiar with the myth; it would have been nice to get to know the person.