Judy Garland was the greatest musical performer in American film (and perhaps on the concert stage as well) of the 20th century. It’s likely that no film could do her life—or even a portion of her life–justice. Judy, which focuses on Garland’s year or so before her untimely death in 1969 at the age of 47, is a rather paint-by-numbers, too-soft-by-half account of those years. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s nowhere near what it could be. It does, however, feature what (at this writing) will most likely be an Oscar-winning performance by Renée Zellweger, playing the comeback queen in a kind of comeback role for the actress (oh, how the Academy loves that combination!) It’s worth seeing the film for that performance alone.
The plot is simple and simplistic: Judy has blown through money and husbands, and she is schlepping her children around without the ability to pay for their care or housing. She gets an offer to sing in London, where she is especially loved, and she leaves her two younger children with her ex (their father Sid Luft) so she can earn enough money to get back to America and retrieve her children back. Along the way there are flashbacks to her time as a child at M-G-M, where her addiction to pills began, and where she was mistreated, overworked, and it is suggested, perhaps sexually abused.
By now that story of her youth is nearly legend, and the film plays it without nuance. The bad people are very bad—men and women—and yet the whole series of flashbacks is played out in lovely colors and surprisingly bring lighting—soft sweet memory cinematography with people acting badly. On paper that sounds intriguing and vaguely Hitchcockian; here it’s just strange and confusing. Of course we’re meant to believe that this early mistreatment is the reason for all of Garland’s later behaviors—with pills, the bottle, and erratic behavior on- and off-stage. There’s very little insight into any other factors, including Garland’s own choices, her difficult family life before films, or the sometimes unusual combination of drive and insecurity one often finds with great artists. There is one fine moment, though, that indicates what the rest of the film could have included. Judy mentions that she asked her close friend and performing partner Mickey Rooney for a date, and he rather cruelly turned her down. Later we see another soft and sweet flashback that has Rooney asking her out, but the draw of the audience’s applause overrides her desire to go out with him, and she turns him down. Oh, to have had more of that!
The softness of the flashbacks bleeds into the adult years, not in terms of visual treatment (thought that is clean, clear, and pretty as well), but in perspective. Garland died of a drug overdose—not a pretty picture. She was petulant, funny, cruel, and often completely unreliable. She drove some fans to ecstasy; she drove managers and business partners to utter distraction. Another Judy film might have ended with her dead on her bathroom floor, with all the failed possibilities of a life only half lived tragically felt. This one ends with Judy triumphant at a concert months before her death—the typical “this is how we really want to remember this person” so popular in films. The film manages to include erratic behavior, the love of the masses, bad marital choices, and drugs, but there is nothing that ties this all together. Even her last husband, the younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), is presented with possibilities (Is he a user? Does he really care for her? Was he really able to help her career?), but with no guide for the viewer as to what might have been going on. There is a great deal left out of her life, even the short part of her life portrayed here. But there is a valiant attempt to include elements of her life, personality, and difficulties; there just doesn’t seem to be an attempt to bring all these elements together.
Where the script and direction fail, however, Zellweger succeeds. Everything finally culminates in this film not in the story or its treatment, but in Zellweger’s performance. Between the character and the actress playing her, the viewer is distracted away from the rest of the film’s holes and weaknesses, and is drawn into this dominating show. Other than being taller and prettier than Garland, Zellweger IS Garland—a clichéd phrase that in this case isn’t hype. There were times when, in a moment here and there, she looked and acted so much like the real Garland that it was simply uncanny. Zellweger’s mannerisms have been subsumed into this other person; even Zellweger’s tendency to employ her mouth as an acting style works for this portrayal. Her non-singing parts were rich and detailed, and looked deeply acquired and felt. You could feel the deep fatigue of more than four decades of performing and being forced (or feeling like she was being forced) to perform. You could sense the insecurity, the anger, the frustration, and the immaturity that flashed from Garland when pressed by people and circumstance.
As far as the singing and performing parts go, I have to give Zellweger props while still holding my praise in reserve. I am very familiar with Garland’s voice, and I am a singer myself. Zellweger did some easy singing in Chicago, but it was nothing like what was called for here. She clearly has done her homework, both in the singing and performing. The edgy and nearly over-the-top style of later Garland was nailed by Zellweger, and her movements and actions while performing evoke Garland’s television work especially. But I’m sorry—this is Judy Garland we are talking about, the possessor of one of the great voices of all time in popular music. In the less demanding songs (e.g., “The Trolley Song”), Zellweger can handle the notes, and you can hear her occasionally injecting the phrasing and throatiness of Garland’s voice in a way that is exciting and evocative. But in the more demanding songs (e.g., “Come Rain or Come Shine”), Zellweger’s limitations become embarrassingly obvious, and the powerful endings and (relatively) high notes that Garland would wind up and pitch to the back rows are simply beyond Zellweger. There are even moments where, to use a common current phrase, she’s “pitchy,” something Garland never was. Zellweger has to take breaths where Garland never did, and the phrasing suffers.
And then there is the final song. I suppose a film on Garland has to end with her signature song, but to have it so broken up, and then unfinished, was either a questionable artistic choice of the screenwriter, or a necessary evil due to Zellweger’s inability to bring it to the emotional and musical heights we all remember. For me, my wife sings a much better “Over the Rainbow” than Zellweger manages, and the contrast was uncomfortable.
A comparison with La Vie en Rose can’t be helped. This was 2007’s film about “France’s Judy Garland,” Edith Piaf, who also died (in 1963) at 47. That won Marion Cotillard the Best Actress Oscar, quite deservedly and decidedly unusual for a foreign-language performance. Cotillard lip-synced Piaf’s actual songs, and pulled off perhaps the most convincing lip-synching in film history. Perhaps she took a cue from Garland herself, who when lip-synching her own pre-recorded songs when doing a film, actually sang the songs rather than just moved her mouth. In any event, we got believable performances from Cotillard while hearing Piaf herself. It’s not Zellweger’s fault that she can’t aspire to Garland’s heights; no one could. But the comparison for those us who know Garland’s work makes every musical performance a disappointment to one degree or another.
There has been some criticism that this performance is superficial and unnecessarily over the top. But check out Garland’s film performances after M-G-M (or even in 1947’s The Pirate), and take a look at her interviews. This was a woman who lived an over-the-top life in an over-the-top way. She found drama where that was none, and would constantly reinvent her past for a good story and to keep her persona as victim going strong.
This is going to be, for better or for worse, this generation’s Garland film. I’m not sure if it’s possible outside of a documentary or a limited TV series for even the best production could adequately portray one of the world’s greatest performers. We’re not likely to get a better dramatic performance of the star than we have here. Fortunately, the musical numbers are limited in number and often demand as much acting as singing.. But the Garland as victim trope needs a fresh look at some point. When Garland died, my saddened 16-year-old self mentioned to my mother (a fan of hers) how awful and challenging her life was. Her answer: “It’s not what happens in someone’s life that matters; it’s how they react to it.” Now that’s a Garland film I’d like to see.