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Judy

Last year treated us to A Star is Born (2018), a remake of a Judy Garland picture from 1954. The film was massively successful, a critical and box office darling that scored multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It even won Best Original Song for a single that’s still getting radio play.

So here’s Judy, a biopic in which Judy Garland herself is played by Renee Zellweger. It seems so long ago when Zellweger starred in Bridget Jones’ Diary and Chicago, earning two consecutive Best Actress nominations. After that booming success, she spent the next four years in a string of respectable awards hopefuls (Cold Mountain, Cinderella Man, Miss Potter, etc.). Alas, things took a sharp downturn in the late aughts, when Zellweger apparently decided to try a “smaller indie movies” phase that didn’t pan out (Appaloosa, My One and Only, Case 39, etc.). After a string of flops and some glaringly obvious plastic surgery, Zellweger sat out half the ’10s before returning for a Bridget Jones sequel that somehow grossed $211 million worldwide.

Nearly two decades after Chicago, when Zellweger is still coming out of a hiatus and searching for her place in the new pop culture zeitgeist, she makes her big awards push as one of the last century’s most iconic triple threats. How did it go?

The filmmakers earn points right off the bat for not making this another cradle-to-grave biopic. Instead, the movie flashes between two distinct time periods: Judy Garland’s teenage years (played by Darci Shaw) and in the last stage of her career (Zellweger). The flashbacks bring context to Judy Garland’s later years, portraying her as the product of a hard and frankly abusive childhood. She’s been in the spotlight for as long as she could walk. Her childhood and teenage years were a constant cycle of movie shoots and promos. Every last detail of her life was micromanaged by the studio execs (namely Louis B. Mayer, here played by Richard Cordery). She was barely ever allowed to eat or sleep, fueled by the amphetamines given to her by the studio.

Flash forward to 1969. Garland continues to subsist pretty much entirely on alcohol, cigarettes, amphetamines, and God knows what else. She’s become so notoriously unstable and unreliable that she’s burned through four marriages and every last bridge in Tinseltown. No agent or manager will take her on, no insurance will cover her, and so she can’t land any film or TV work. She’s up to her ears in debt, she’s homeless, she’s living hand-to-mouth on whatever singing or dancing gigs will pay her a pittance. Oh, and she’s also trying to raise two young children (Lorna and Joey Tuft, respectively played by Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd) who perform with their mother when they’re not sleeping in taxi cabs.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Liza Minelli, Garland’s far more famous daughter. She’s played here by Gemma-Leah Devereux in a brief yet delightful turn for all of one scene.)

Speaking of money problems, this is right about the time when Garland meets Mickey Deans. He’s an aspiring entrepreneur looking for anyone who might invest in one of his dozen outlandish business ideas, and he’s played by Finn Wittrock. It’s immediately obvious that this guy is nothing but trouble, so of course he eventually enters into Garland’s fifth ill-fated marriage. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, with nowhere else to go, Garland goes back to one of her ex-husbands (Sidney Luft, played by Rufus Sewell), the father to Lorna and Joey. He firmly yet respectfully disagrees with the notion that Garland is in any position to give their kids the stability that they need, so he sues for greater custody. Facing a fresh new batch of legal bills, Garland agrees to a series of concerts in London, where some vestiges of her former stardom still remain.

Let’s move on to the supporting cast. Michael Gambon is phoning it in, and Finn Wittrock is playing to the cheap seats. Rufus Sewell is one of the better supporting players, wringing some degree of empathy out of what could easily have been a stock asshole role. I was also impressed with Richard Cordery, always playing Mayer as a cutthroat businessman without ever quite going over the line into archvillainy. Kudos are due to Bella Ramsey, Gemma-Leah Devereux, and Darci Shaw, all of whom show tremendous potential without much of any chance to show more than that.

The better supporting players in this movie are given maybe one or two scenes apiece, and basically nothing to do. There are a couple of supporting players with ample screentime and a significant effect on the plot, but it feels like they’ve been so thoroughly sandbagged as to eliminate any and all chance of overshadowing our main star. Easily the worst cases in point are Royce Pierreson as the band leader, and Jessie Buckley as Garland’s diligent PA. These two are constantly at Garland’s elbow the whole time she’s in London, and yet they barely register as actual people. There’s no excuse for that, when I’ve seen so many weaker actors do far more with considerably less.

But then we have the gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira. These two play a crucial thematic role in the story, demonstrating the tremendous impact that Judy Garland had in the gay community. More broadly, they represent the all-important proof that all of Garland’s time in the spotlight and her extraordinarily difficult childhood weren’t all for nothing. I don’t dare go into specifics, but these two characters are directly responsible for some of the most deeply moving and relevant moments in the film, a powerful affirmation of Garland’s indispensable place in our greater cultural history.

Yet for all of that, our gay couple themselves barely register as actual people. For something like 90 percent of their screen time, they only appear as flaming gay stereotypes either squabbling with each other or bowing and scraping for the adoration of their idol. Such a waste.

Of course, pretty much all of these problems stem from the same basic problem: There’s not much in the way here of external conflict. We’re told that Garland is up to her eyeballs in debt, but it barely factors into the plot after the opening scene, and she’s treated to every luxury upon arriving in London. Speaking of which, Garland’s hosts in London seem preternaturally capable of managing Garland’s worst fuckups and mistakes, quick to clean up her messes and/or forgive and forget. Thus we constantly hear about how Garland’s drugged-up and unreliable nature are the main source of crisis, yet I could count on one or two fingers the number of times her antics put the show in any serious jeopardy. It’s toothless, and the stakes of the film suffer greatly as a direct result.

By far the more compelling drama stems from Garland as a mother to her two young children. She genuinely wants to be a good mother. She wants to be there for them, to provide them with a stable and loving home. She wants to protect them from everything she ever suffered through and provide for them the happy childhood she never had. But at the same time, she can never provide that precisely because of the damaged childhood she had. This life of touring and showbiz is all she’s ever known, and so it’s all she has to give to her kids.

It’s a heartbreaking inner conflict that Zellweger plays beautifully. In point of fact, it’s really quite remarkable how Zellweger threw herself into this role with such aplomb. I’m hesitant to describe the extent to which Zellweger does such a phenomenal job of playing this sharp-witted, broken down, washed up actress whose best years are long behind her, because I’m not sure it would come off as a compliment.

From start to finish, this whole film was clearly built as a starring vehicle for Zellweger, and it succeeds beautifully in that regard. But there’s something that could have made it even better, and absolutely nothing was done with it. The filmmakers should all be ashamed, kicking themselves for leaving this completely unexplored until the goddamn title card at the end of the movie.

Judy Garland’s five-week run of concerts in London ended in March of 1969. She died in June of 1969 at the age of 47.

That whole time Garland was fighting for custody of her children, working hard to raise them, when she wouldn’t even live to see their next birthdays. That whole time Garland was trying to shore up her career, working for a future she would never live to see. All that damage done to her in her youth, leading up to such a tragically short life and a premature death of barbiturate overdose.

Everything — and I do mean EVERYTHING — in this movie takes on so much more heft with that knowledge. The whole film becomes far more meaningfully tragic with that bit of dramatic irony. Imagine if the filmmakers had leaned into that, playing up Garland’s health issues and drug abuse even further, to the point where she was at serious risk of death as opposed to the trifling inconvenience of delaying a show. Imagine if anyone had directly stated — or even hinted! — that Garland is only 47 years old, yet she looks a good two or three decades older. It could have been this massive elephant in the room, the fact that Garland clearly has more years behind her than ahead of her and nobody knows how much more time she has left.

This could’ve done so much to crystallize the themes that are already there, to make them into something far more engaging and sympathetic. But no, this game-changing bit of information was withheld from the audience until the end credits. FAIL.

So what else are we left with? Well, there’s a bit about workplace sexism, homophobia, systemic misogyny and so on, but all of these are too fleeting to be properly developed into any kind of statement. The film is much clearer in its depiction of cruel working conditions for children leading to fucked-up adults down the road, but we’ve already learned that lesson. Especially in Hollywood, where federal laws and union protections are heavily enforced to keep exactly this sort of abuse from happening. That’s not to say it doesn’t still happen on occasion, but it’s much more out in the open and swiftly condemned. The kind of abuse that Judy Garland went through as depicted in the movie simply doesn’t look the same now, especially not when the old studio-driven system of the ’40s has been archaic for decades.

All that’s left after that is the implicit question of whether so many years of sacrifice and hard work in entertainment is worth anything in the final analysis, and whether it could possibly lead to any kind of healthy adult life in the long run. It’s a subject that’s been done to death countless times in so many other, better films — we’ve already had four iterations of A Star is Born, for God’s sake. (Also, stay tuned for my upcoming review of Dolemite is My Name. Better yet, go see it for yourself right now.) I can see how the life and times of Judy Garland might have been used to show a new perspective on the concept, a timely examination made in bold and creative ways, but not with these filmmakers.

While I respect Judy for taking a tighter focus than most other biopics, Judy Garland deserves a better biopic than this. Renee Zellweger puts in a phenomenal performance, but even the strongest of the supporting players are never given a chance to do much of anything. Moreover, the film’s statements about show business are threadbare, its statements about child exploitation are obsolete, and its statements about feminism and LGBT acceptance are immaterial.

Above all, because the filmmakers are so preoccupied with Judy Garland — a woman who died 50 years ago, sculpted by a studio system no longer in existence — to the exclusion of all else, no implicit or explicit connection is made to the circumstances of today. There’s nothing timely or relevant about the deeper themes here, and nothing innovative or ambitious in the delivery, though the motherhood throughline and the child abuse angle at least help to humanize the subject.

The film is nothing more or less than a shallow Oscar-bait vehicle for Renee Zellweger and a celebration of Judy Garland. If that’s enough to pique your interest, go see it and have a good time. Otherwise, you’ll find nothing else on offer and you’ll be missing nothing to skip it.

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