By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
“There’s no place like home,” Judy Garland’s most iconic line of her storied career came at the beginning. So, finding the “world’s greatest entertainer” homeless with Lorna and Joey in tow as JUDY begins thirty years later is, to say the least ironically heartbreaking. Arriving on the doorstep of her third husband, Sid Luft takes his children in but demands custody to give them a permanent home all to Garland’s absolute objections. Broke and with few options, she books five weeks of concerts in London during the winter of 1968, even though it means being separated from her children.
Focusing on these few months during the last year of her life, the new biopic JUDY is not the story of an “impossible” diva chasing her big comeback one might expect. Rather it finds at its heart, a mother desperate for the means of providing a stable and loving home for her children, something she never had herself.
“I was born at the age of twelve on an MGM lot.” – Judy Garland
The film’s harrowing prologue shows an innocent teenage Garland making her pact with MGM’s devil, Louis B. Mayer whose menacing and emotional manipulation could only be called child abuse. Throughout JUDY, flashbacks expose how Garland’s story was completely staged for the cameras. From phony picturesque dates with co-star Mickey Rooney to her 16th Birthday party shot on a fake poolside set with hired guests and prop cake, it was for the Garland image. Resistance was futile as the scope of the mogul’s grip on his young starlet grew from mental trauma to physical control of her diet, regiments of amphetamines and barbiturates, and eventual fondling.
“In our house, the word of Louis B. Mayer became the law.” – Judy Garland
Catching the last twinkles of a once brilliant star about to burn out, Renée Zellweger sparkles in an uncanny portrayal of the Hollywood icon. Her much anticipated first song as the legendary performer doesn’t come until well into the film, but when it does, it smashes like a farmhouse landing in Oz. As with other leading actors in recent music biopics, Zellweger does her own singing; but in JUDY, her songs were performed and recorded live on camera. While the litmus test for portraying Garland is arguably vocal performance, Zellweger most shines in the smaller more intimate moments of the film. It’s Garland as a loving mother, a kind and caring woman, an addict in pain, and not “performer” where she is the brightest.
Finn Wittrock is charmingly smarmy as Mickey Deans, Garland’s predatory, opportunistic, fifth husband. From the moment he lays eyes on her at a party to leaving her curled up with anxiety on the bathroom floor, it’s clear Deans, like the other men in her life, only view her as a commodity.
Jessica Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, Garland’s personal assistant assigned by her London concert producer is the woman caught in the middle. She sees the lonely, addicted, terrified woman off stage but responsible for getting a living legend on stage. Yet as compelling as that is, screenwriter, Tom Edge gives Buckley little to work with. In fact, he gives so little attention to the supporting characters in JUDY they have the depth of soundstage cutouts.
“There have been a lot of stories written about me, some of them fantastically distorted.” – Judy Garland
More than shallow characters, Edge’s screenplay (based stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter) is inauthentic and unabashedly fraudulent for a biopic. Accounts of Garland’s London concert meltdowns and her behavior offstage are almost as notorious as she is legendary. Three decades of drug addiction and alcoholism were reaching their apex fueling her stage fright and terror of losing her children and vice versa. Rather than depicting the reality of a woman literally on the brink who would succumb to her demons in six months, Edge’s screenplay is a watered-down, dramatically washed out story with little pathos, emotional connection, or impact. Sadly, the moments that do strike a chord are completely made up.
Admittedly, one of the most touching scenes in JUDY is her late-night dinner with an adoring gay couple at their London flat. The problem is, it never happened. Of course, biopics dramatize events in the lives of their characters, but fabricating significant events with absolutely no basis, in fact, is wrong. What’s more, if the same fictional gay couple is in the audience and helps Garland when she can’t get through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then obviously that didn’t happen either, but neither did the entire treacly final scene for that matter.
Those scenes are phony and staged ala Louis B Mayer and MGM solely for the JUDY image. To have a film call out studio manipulation and deception only to do the exact same thing is hypocritical, disingenuous, adding more insult to Garland’s already injured truth. She never got redemption, an exit with head held high, her Hollywood ending. It’s tragic but, it’s the truth. It’s part what makes Judy Garland, Judy Garland, endearingly vulnerable, immensely talent, cripplingly flawed, and gone too soon.
At the end of her rainbow, as the pot of gold she desperately needed grew ever more elusive, Garland was terrified she’d never be able to give her children a home. Given Renée Zellweger’s stellar performance, it’s a shame the people behind the curtain of JUDY, didn’t have the brains, heart, and courage to tell her story with more truth and honesty.
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” – Judy Garland
Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland
Darci Shaw as young Judy Garland
Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans
Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft
Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder
Directed by Rupert Goold
Screenplay by Tom Edge
Based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter
BBC Films Pathé Calamity Films Roadside Attractions
(photo credit for all images: David Hindley)
Lawrence Pfeil, Jr., is a freelance writer/playwright who has reviewed film and theatre, both on and off-Broadway, for media outlets including The Randy Report, the New York Blade and Edge Publications.