Judy Film Review: Renée Zellweger Transforms into Garland

Enjoying its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film FestivalJudy is a pitch-perfect biopic featuring one of Renée Zellweger’s best performances yet.

The touching portrait of Judy Garland’s last days is directed by Rupert Goold. Its screenplay by Tom Edge is based on an adaptation of Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow.

For the award-winning director, Rupert Goold, “One of the things that really drew me to the script was that it was very specifically about two moments in Judy’s career: the beginning and the end, and I felt there was an opportunity there to avoid the pitfalls of the linear ‘then this happened next’ biopic. The film could become a sort of passion play about the tragic end but ultimate apotheosis of a kind of secular saint. Both an origins story but also a final redemption.”

The Judy film begins when Garland leaves her children in LA to play a 5 week run in London.
The Judy film begins when Garland leaves her children in LA to play a 5 week run in London.

Judy Film Review

Judy Garland was America’s sweetheart for decades, captivating the imagination of movie lovers around the world with her portrayal of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Fans of the troubled Hollywood star enjoy an intimate portrait in Judy, watching the celebrated actress struggle to perform her last concerts from behind the curtain.

The film seamlessly toggles between time periods. We anxiously watch Judy Garland’s alcohol and drug addiction spiral out of control in the 1960s at she heads to London, England in an attempt to revive her career.

But first, we discover in America she’s become a washed up star. When we first meet Zellweger’s rendition of Judy, she’s about to perform at a small venue in Los Angeles with her young children Lorna and Joey. The venues manager hands her an envelope filled with just $150 for her performance. Later that night Judy arrives at her hotel to check in and is soon kicked to the curb after realizing she’s racked up unpaid bills. The acting icon is deeply in debt, homeless, and teetering on the edge.

The Judy film brilliantly cuts to flashbacks of her child star days, as she’s shockingly abused on the set of MGM. Considered one of Hollywood’s first internationally bankable female actresses, Judy is pressured into perfection by her on stage handlers. The films greatest villain is the head of the MGM studio, Louis B. Mayer, who taunts young Judy into believing she’s ugly and disposable. He gives her a life changing choice, do everything he asks of her and he’ll make her a star or walk away and become an under-appreciated housewife. Judy quickly develops disorders and addictions as MGM’s management forbid her from eating, barely allow her to sleep and force her to pop prescription medication.

In a time long before the #MeToo movement, one particularly enraging scene in the film Judy features a terrified Garland being demeaned and sexualized by one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s top executive. The films shocking flashbacks help the audience understand how Judy Garland’s life got so out of control.

In the film Judy, Renée Zellweger transforms into Garland.
In the film Judy, Renée Zellweger transforms into Garland.

Judy Moves to London

The majority of the Judy film focuses on the winter of 1968, when Garland left her kids in Los Angeles to perform at sold out shows at London’s The Talk of the Town. She promises both of her children she’ll be gone for a 5 week run to save up money so she can buy them a house and live happily ever after in Hollywood.

Of course things don’t exactly go to plan. Judy arrives in London a fragile ghost of a woman, smoking cigarettes, sipping endless glasses of vodka, popping pills and wreathing in bed each night with insomnia.

London was a last resort for Judy in many ways, says screenwriter Tom Edge: “London was one of the last places that still had fond memories of Judy that were relatively unclouded. For Judy it was both a rare lifeline and an opportunity to stare down her critics and prove to herself and others that she still had what it took.”

British actress Jessie Buckley who wowed TIFF audiences last year in Wild Rose acts as Rosalyn Wilder, Judy’s caretaker in London. Wilder was able to provide an account of her time with Garland and at The Talk of the Town. After tracking her down via a Judy Garland fanzine interview, her guidance as a consultant on the film was indispensable. “Rosalyn was the unlocking of everything about this story; the whole film really changed because of her,” explains Livingstone. “She’s a terrific woman – funny, unsparing, with a huge amount of insight into the world of 1960s London dinner clubs and into what Garland was like in person.”

While Garland’s opening night in London is critically acclaimed, we watch the exhausted star suffering through her addictions. One night she might captivate an audience, and another she might trip and fall on stage, slurring her speech, forcing audiences to boo her beyond belief.

It’s surprising that Garland is even able to perform during her stupors. In one particular scene her manager rushes to her suite moments before she’s supposed to take the stage and she’s found crying in her bathroom wearing nothing but her pyjamas. With swift action a makeup artist slips her into a gown, powders her knows and moments later she’s thrust onto stage. After working tirelessly for 45 of her 47 years, it makes you wonder how long someone can be made to puppet for applause before breaking.

In Judy, Zellweger showcases Garland's last days spent struggling with addiction.
In Judy, Zellweger showcases Garland’s last days spent struggling with addiction.

Renée Zellweger Transforms Into Judy Garland

The film Judy is a triumph in writing, direction, costuming, music and cinematography but it’s Zellweger’s career defining role as Garland that will leave audiences gobsmacked.

“I’m one of millions and millions through the generations who fell in love with her,” says Renée Zellweger of her character in the film Judy. Zellweger adds, “She’s beloved and internationally revered as arguably the greatest entertainer who has ever lived.”

Taking the story away from the usual biopic structure – a chronological sprint through the best bits of a person’s life – and instead to focus in depth on a particular moment in time, was also a major selling point for its leading actress, Renée Zellweger: “I thought there was an opportunity to explore something that isn’t often considered when you’re thinking about this larger than life personality – what it was that she delivered in her work and what it cost her. This was a period in her life when she was working because she needed to work, but physically needed to rest. Her voice, the thing that gives her value and self-worth, is also the thing that she’s destroying in order to be able to take care of her children.”

“There was no one else who had the ability to sing, act and be comedic in that way. And by good fortune, Renée was the same age as Judy at the time she gave these London shows,” explains Livingstone.

Zellweger had her own motivations to tell this story: “As a creative person, there’s nothing that’s more exciting than to be taken out of your comfort zone. I also wanted to look at those in-between moments that seem to get left out when you’re telling the story of a person you think you know.”

A year before the official rehearsal process began, Renée started training with a vocal coach in the US, before finally rehearsing for 4 months with the film’s musical director, Matt Dunkley.

Encapsulating such a singular figure wasn’t just down to the singing – the distinctive accent, tone of voice and movements during the on-stage performance, all had to be mastered. Dunkley always had confidence in Zellweger’s ability on that front: “She’s an actress who can sing rather than a singer who can act. So, I always knew that the acting side of it was going to be fantastic. She trained with a speaking voice coach to get the sound of Judy’s voice and her pronunciation and she worked with a choreographer to get her mannerisms. Judy was twitchy in her body movements and Renée’s capturing of that was amazing.”

Rupert Goold was equally impressed by Zellweger’s physical transformation: “One of my favourite parts of her performance is how she holds her shoulders. Judy had this curvature of the spine and it made her look much older and frailer than she really was in the later part of her life. On the first day I thought ‘Oh wow, this is a proper actor, this is somebody who is playing a role, not just putting on an outfit’.”

Why Renée Zellweger Singing ‘Over The Rainbow’ in ‘Judy’ Was Crucial to The Film.

Judy’s Hair and Makeup

The physical transformation that Zellweger was able to make relied just as much on the abilities of hair and makeup designer Jeremy Woodhead, and costume designer Jany Temime.

Research into Judy’s appearance at the time was vital. “The good thing about Garland is that she is very well documented; her looks are very well photographed,” continues Woodhead, “It’s a matter of collating all the research and working out what hairstyles and what makeup would transfer well onto Renée, discarding some and pushing others to compensate for the fact that their face shapes are quite different. We then honed the different hairstyles that Judy Garland had at that time and decided which ones would work best on Renée.”

The onstage and offstage looks for Garland were distinctly different, comments Temime: “The way she is in her stage costume was inspired by what Judy Garland herself wore; shiny, gold, expensive. She wears a show costume because she is a woman who can give a show. Then for Judy in real life, I thought to dress her as if with leftovers from the films she did because I think lots of actresses were taking home what they wore in film. Renée is actually wearing my mum’s Chanel bag and Hermes scarf! Even in normal life she looked ready for any paparazzi. But when she is in the hotel on her own, everything comes down.”

Judy is a Film For “Friends of Dorothy”

Gay TIFF audiences are bound to embrace Judy with glee. For LGBT film lovers, Judy Garland is considered a gay Hollywood icon.

Her Wizard of Oz character offers an important gay slang history lesson. “A friend of Dorothy,” is a veiled way of indicating you are a gay man or LGBT identifying person. The phrase dates back to Word War II, when homosexual acts were illegal in the United States. Stating that, or asking if, someone was a “friend of Dorothy,” was a euphemism used for discussing sexual orientation without others knowing its meaning.

Gay Garland groupies will particularly appreciate the films homage to the Hollywood icons LGBT fans. One night after finishing a show Judy meets her most beloved London fans, a British gay couple Stan and Dan. They wait every night for her at the stage door to get her autograph and spoil her with fresh flowers. The flamboyant pair are astonished when Judy suggests they have dinner together one night. After toiling around town looking for a restaurant open at midnight on a Tuesday, they end up taking her home for a piss poor omelette.

One of the films most heartfelt moments takes place when Judy learns of the difficulties the two gay men have had maintaining their relationship in the face of legal persecution. Judy’s music has provided them with solace throughout their suffering so she spoils them by offering a concert in their kitchen. Audiences can’t help but choke up as Judy’s biggest fan finds himself tearing up as he sings a duet with his muse.

Fast forward to the last moments of the film Judy and Zellweger offers one last performance as Garland. She croons for a captivated audience while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Wizard of Oz fans will get chills as it is in that very moment when Zellweger best expresses her unique iteration of Garland.

Although her performance is a triumph, her shaky voice falters as she draws to the end of the song. Proof that her audience will always support her, Stan and Dan both stand in the balcony and sing the song back to her. It’s a touching moment that perfectly encapsulates the gay community’s fierce support for actresses that suffer and stumble.

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Oscar winner Renée Zellweger delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Judy Garland during the last year of her life, in Rupert Goold’s touching adaptation of the stage play End of the Rainbow.

Date Created: September 27, 2019

Runtime: 118 min

  • Genre:
  • Drama
  • Producer:
  • David Livingstone
  • Director:
  • Rupert Goold
  • Writer:
  • Cast:
  • Renée Zellweger,
  • Jessie Buckley,
  • Finn Wittrock,
  • Rufus Sewell,
  • Michael Gambon,
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