Thursday, September 26, 2019

Review: "Judy"

“I still believe in it, y’know -- the love you find with an audience.”

Judy Garland was known for having more career comebacks than you could count. Really, her entire adult career was one long comeback from the Golden Age stardom of her child/ingenue years. She was the studio’s hand-picked “America’s sweetheart” -- until she become a grown woman who stumbled through addiction, financial instability and one bad marriage after another.

Renée Zellweger hasn’t been the star of a mainstream movie since 2009’s “New in Town,” so people are calling “Judy” her comeback picture. She’s 50 now, an age when many Hollywood many actresses find themselves lonely for projects. So there’s a certain synergy in her playing an over-the-hill flameout trying to make one last go at stardom.

(It should be noted, she’s already older than Garland was at her death, though they have to use aging makeup to make her sufficiently haggard.)

She is indeed a knockout playing Garland during the last months of her life, a faded star who’s sick of showbiz but is forced to suck at the only teat available to her. Unable to get booked anywhere else, she just wants the financial means to support her two younger children, over whose custody she is fighting a long-game war with ex-hubby Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger nails the mannerisms and singing of Garland, including that strange head-shaking, humped-posture thing she acquired later in her career. The looks aren’t exactly spot-on, but the hair, makeup and lighting are close enough that after a while you don’t think about it much.

The actress will almost certainly get an Academy Award nomination out of this, and deserves to.
But I can’t help but put “Judy” in a pile with other similar Oscar-bait biopics like “Ray” and “Capote.” The central performance so dominates the film as to overpower the narrative function. The acting is the story.

So side characters are not given space to live and breathe, and the narrative tends to hover in place rather than go anywhere.

It’s quite literally all Judy, Judy, Judy.

I confess the iconography Garland holds in certain communities, particularly among gay men, is bewildering to me. Garland was a talented singer, though more as a crooner-for-hire than as someone who made indelible music of her own. By my lights she was a middling actress at best.

The screenplay by Tom Edge, based on a play by Peter Quilter, focuses on a period of a few months in the late 1960s when Garland sang at a big London theater. Director Rupert Goold (“True Story”) stages the many musical numbers with appreciable skill and flair, and they are the highlight of the experience.

The wonderful Jessie Buckley is largely wasted as Rosalyn, the British handler assigned to take care of her during her London stay. This mostly involves making sure she shows up in the right places at the right times at an acceptable level of inebriation.

I kept hoping the two characters would forge some kind of bond or even an All-About-Eve-ish antagonism, but their interactions skim the surface.

Michael Gambon plays the theater owner, standing in the wings and fretting about Judy’s erratic performances on his stage. Royce Pierreson is Burt, the band leader who craves collaboration but is dismissed to the background.

Darci Shaw plays Judy as a teen in flashback scenes, where she is controlled by Louis B. Mayer, who sees her as his personal creation, and pet. (I can’t find a credit for the actor who plays Mayer, but he’s terrific.) Their insistence that she starve herself began a lifelong habit of pill-popping and insomnia.

Finn Wittrock plays Mickey Deans, an agreeably scruffy young admirer who presses himself upon Garland at a party thrown by her daughter, Liza Minnelli, already a big star on her own. That mother-daughter relationship is left almost completely unexplored, though we traipse through the tiresome infatuation/ingratiation/dissolution journey with Mickey.

The time elapse from their marriage to breakup scene must set some kind of filmmaking record.

I enjoyed a lot of things about “Judy,” but it’s one of those movies that is good bordering on very good without ever finding true greatness. People will go see it to witness one Hollywood legend playing the hell out of another bygone one.

That’s fine, but I wish there was more story to tell beyond the spotlight.

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