As a member of the generation who remembers Judy Garland only as Dorothy, Judy is quite the eye-opener. We see Garland not as America’s sweetheart, cheerful and lively, but as a washed-out celebrity, drug-addicted and homeless.
Renee Zellwegger’s performance as this fading star is truly remarkable. She juggles intense subject matters like drug addiction and depression with powerful musical performances of classics like “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Shine” beautifully. Neither is an easy feat. It would be easy to play Judy merely as someone to be pitied, just as it would be easy to put on performances that pale in comparison to the legendary singer’s. Zellweger does neither. She approaches Garland’s character with empathy and truthfulness, fueling every scene and song with authentic emotion.
Zellweger’s Garland also has amazing strength, making Judy feel more heroic than tragic. In many ways, that strength is the center of this movie. As director Rupert Goold said in a recent interview with Variety, “[Judy’s] story is an example of hope and survivalism and consistent reinvention.” Zellweger’s Garland is nothing if not strong, forcing a polite smile even when faced with extreme personal and professional tragedy. As Zellweger mentioned in the same Variety interview, “You couldn’t really fully recognize how extraordinary [Judy Garland] was without knowing the circumstances that she was challenged by during this period of her life.”
Unfortunately, none of the other characters were able to meet this level of dimensionality. Michael Gambon as the owner of Talk of the Town where Garland does her London shows, Rufus Sidwell as Garland’s disdainful ex-husband and Richard Cordery as the studio executive on The Wizard of Oz all feel like flat caricatures. Even Darci Shaw’s overly innocent, almost theatrical, portrayal of young Garland feels shallow.
Subsequently, the flashbacks to Garland’s days as a child star feel like a missed opportunity. Instead of showing the hardships of child stardom in a way that feels real and complex, we’re given scenes that feel cliché. The overbearing manager and the creepy studio executive that control her life are archetypes that are too predictable to be at all interesting.
This chasm between Zellweger’s stunning achievement and the other mediocre performances make Judy feel altogether unsatisfying.
As does the film’s ending, which seemed to miss the mark. After her short-lived marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) implodes and her running show at Talk of the Town is canceled, our protagonist is at a real low point. Her final song of the movie, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which she is only permitted to perform thanks to the kindness of her replacement, is heartbreaking. Too overcome by sadness to finish out the hopeful tune, the audience — who, just a few nights before, booed her off stage — joins together and picks up where she left off.
Perhaps this is meant to be satisfying, to show the film’s audience that Garland was loved and adored. The Wizard of Oz quote that serves as the last shot of the film seems like it’s supposed to have the same effect. It reads, “A heart is not measured by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” It seems as though the filmmakers intended for this to be some sort of consolation, a way to make Garland’s tragic life and premature death, which we’re reminded of only a frame earlier, seem less depressing. Instead, it just feels empty. This hollow attempt to make her celebrity seem meaningful undermines the personal and professional strength that Zellweger so expertly portrayed.
All in all, Judy is a mixed bag: part Renee Zellweger’s ticket to an Oscar and part cliché tragedy. If nothing else, you should see it so that you can know Judy Garland for more than just her ruby slippers.
Sarah Knight is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.