Today in stories of men who take it upon themselves to tell the story of a woman’s pain, we have the well-intentioned Judy, which fails to fully bring the performer to life. Renée Zellweger incredible efforts can’t save it despite throwing herself into the role with an abandon that most likely would’ve been appreciated by the much-missed Judy Garland.
Judy is also just as much about the film Garland is most remembered for, The Wizard of Oz, beginning on the set of that film in all its Old Hollywood glory far before it picks up thirty years later in 1968, where Garland is beset by a series of emotional and financial problems. She has a very real, loving connection with her two young children, as well as a good relationship with her adult daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), who seems both well-adjusted and concerned for her mother. However, Garland is also homeless, broke, on the verge of losing custody of her children, and has gained quite a reputation for being less than reliable.
When she’s offered to do a series of sold-out concerts in London, Garland sees it as a chance to give herself and her family a more stable life, and reluctantly leaves them with their father to do the shows. When she seems nearly incapable of getting too invested in doing the job she was not only hired to do, but needs to do in order to secure her future, no one really seems surprised. However, no film about Judy Garland would be complete without acknowledging her as a force of nature, for whom performing was an instinct. And why not? She’d been doing it since she was two years old, when she got her start performing vaudeville with her family before she became a movie star as a teenager.
Something more than skill is required to become as successful and legendary as Garland. No doubt her untimely death and her personal demons played a role in ensuring her legacy. She also had It, that elusive, but essential ingredient which defines a lasting star. It’s often called presence, a connection with an audience. A large chunk of Judy’s tended to be those who felt like outsiders, and some were, given her exalted status in the LGBTQ community, as evidenced – or rather, symbolized – by the bond Garland forms with the sweetly adoring couple Stan (Daniel Cerqueira and Dan (Andy Nyman). It would be more touching if it wasn’t also a symptom of the movie’s main issue, that of a subject as martyr, not a deeply complicated woman who is allowed to be far more than the image we have of her.
Judy also suffers from another common affliction, especially for biopics: Back Then Syndrome. There’s a lack of irony, and thus a lack of perception, in the flashbacks to Garland’s earlier career, where we are supposed to marvel at the obstacles she faced. Wasn’t it difficult how female stars suffered? Their weight, what they ate, was so closely scrutinized…Back Then. Prescription pills were used to ensure they made money for the studios! Back Then. A creepy scene with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) is the definition of the kind of cringey melodrama that believes it’s actually edgy for acknowledging how much women still face this kind of behavior.
Nor does the movie seem to realize just how much female stars are still dependent on being liked, no matter how much skill and talent they have. How else would you explain the equally cringey endorsement of the philosophy where it’s outright stated that it’s not about how much you love, but how much you’re loved by others? A legacy or a life probably shouldn’t be defined by a popularity contest. Certain stars just seem to bring out certain beliefs: not only that a beautiful woman was lost before her time due to the world’s cruelty (or just Hollywood’s), but that we could’ve been the one to save them.
Writers such as Eve Babitz knew better. The logic of the ingenue is not only to flirt with disaster, like even the best of us are bound to do, but to actively court it. They also tend to put themselves in other people’s hands, and believe and trust their opinions rather than their own. No wonder happy endings tend to be evasive for such women. If the movie were as committed to understanding a sliver of this concept, or just seeing beyond the tragedies of Garland’s life to the woman, as Zellweger clearly is, Judy would be a biopic worthy of both its stars, rather than an elegy defined by how one met her end.