In her late 40s, Judy Garland is down on her luck, near destitute in every way but loaded with debt, desperate to make just enough money to keep her kids with her but never quite sober enough to make it work. In America, her reputation for being unreliable practically a national headline. The real money is in London, but that’s a whole ocean away from her kids. But needs must.
The thing is, Judy’s demons are portable. They travel with her. Her engagements do not run smoothly. We flash back to her early days in the studio system, circa The Wizard of Oz. Studio head Louis B. Mayer is a total dick. He steals her childhood and replaces them with pills. Pills for everything: to pep her up, knock her out, thin her down, keep her going for 18 hour days. Judy’s addictions are traced with a very straight line back to these early days, before she’s even old enough to question them. Her parents practically sell her to the studio and she’s completely at the mercy of people who just want to exploit her.
But that voice, that talent, those unforgettable movies: it wasn’t Judy who got rich on them.
These shows, the London shows, are some of Judy’s last. She will be dead in 6 months, and the fact that she is waning is clear to all. A good day means a fantastic show: the legend is still in there somewhere. But there are bad days, and very bad shows.
Judy is not a biopic, it’s a very small sliver taken mostly from the end of her life. It is 0% glamour. This movie is a performance piece. It is a 100% ‘for your consideration’ love letter to the Academy for Renee Zellweger to be considered for her Oscar, please (in fact, she’s already got a Best Supporting, but rumour is, it’s a little lonely up there on her mantelpiece).
I never quite forgot that I was watching Renee, but I did often see Judy (and Sean, being less familiar with Judy, saw Liza), so she was doing something right. She was doing a LOT right: she channels Judy’s voice, singing more so than speaking. And she nails the spastic mannerisms of a pill-popper, jerking painfully across the screen. The total effect is an awful lot of sympathy for an icon who really just wanted to be a regular woman. But if you’re not a fan of Judy, there may not be much there for you. There isn’t a plot. There’s mostly just going to and from the venue, with gin and tonics in between. Is it a great, meaty role, well performed, with much to be admired? Absolutely, taking up so much space it leaves room for little else.