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Judy is a compelling defence of the tragic movie star

 

Judy
directed by Rupert Goold

In a biopic of Judy Garland, Renée Zellweger's lead performance is captivating.

Frances Ethel Gumm, like poor Norma Jeane Mortenson, was a product of the mid-20th-century movie studio system in the truest sense of the word.

She began her showbiz life at two, then performed as part of vaudeville family trio The Gumm Sisters. When the group acquired Garland as a stage name, the youngest and most talented sibling rechristened herself Judy.

At 13, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, found stardom and began a life-long dependence on prescription drugs. MGM studio heads forced her to take uppers to lose weight and downers to counter the effects of the amphetamine diet pills. Yet the world was sold the story of Garland’s erratic behaviour and her accidental overdose death at 47 was made to seem inevitable.

In the age of #MeToo, it is therefore not only compassionate but timely that Judy presents a compelling case for the defence of Ms Garland, portraying the middle-aged star as, yes, desperate and perhaps pitiable, but indisputably exploited and scarred by the industry that invented her.

Judy, powered by Renée Zellweger’s lead performance, focuses on the final year of Garland’s life, as the mother of two young children (older daughter Liza Minnelli is already on her own path to stardom) heads to London for cabaret shows that promise enough income to let her retain custody of her kids.

The narrative flits back and forth between her London travails and the early MGM days. The scenes of bullying that the young Garland endured lay it on thick. There is also an allusion to sexual assault by the tyrannical studio boss Louis B Mayer, which is consistent with Garland’s own accounts.

But it is in the 1969 scenes that the film excels. Zellweger’s portrayal of the beleaguered star is a revelation; her features are startlingly similar and her mannerisms a convincing mix of Bridget Jones’ pout and Garland’s beguiling smile. She nails the voice, and the slump-shouldered gait that betrayed Garland’s low self-esteem. When Zellweger beams at husband No 5, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), the audience is also blinded by Garland’s megawatt allure.

Adapted from Peter Quilter’s Broadway play End of the Rainbow, the film is helmed by theatre director Rupert Goold, whose long-held, gliding camera shots can feel stagey, but that’s entirely in keeping with the subject.

The London musical numbers send shivers down the spine, with Zellweger’s effortless evocation completely captivating, and it’s a more affecting film when it’s on-stage than backstage. But as a biopic of a genuine Hollywood legend and tragedy, it does enough to dig into the mythology and is sure to reward true believers.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.