Biopics have evolved in recent years favoring a specifically selected moment in their subjects’ lives instead of going for the sprawling epic treatment. Consider the differences between The Last Emperor and Stan & Ollie as one example. What you lose in a comprehensive overview, you gain with more honed dramatic storytelling. The latest example, Judy, based on a play by Peter Quilter, written by Tom Edge and directed by Rupert Goold (True Story), concentrates mainly on a couple of months in 1968 as the legendary Judy Garland traveled to London for a series of sold out stage performances. Broke, addicted to drugs and alcohol, lonely and battered by a tough life, she would die six months later. Flashbacks to one of her biggest triumphs, The Wizard Of Oz, only serve to demonstrate the beginnings of her troubles.
I’m reminded of My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, where the lead performance outshone everything else, and Judy certainly features an astounding turn by Renée Zellweger in what amounts to a small but heartbreaking character study. While she has the mannerisms down pat and sings well enough to bare her soul, Zellweger’s achievement along with Goold’s is to hone in on every minute emotion which flashes across her face. An early scene in which Judy fails to secure a hotel room for herself and her children because she has no money, proves devastating due to Zellweger’s microexpressions. While unflappable with the desk clerk and putting on a brave face for her kids, she also conveys a deep-seated heartbreak, and it’s an astonishing piece of acting. It’s easy to see how he daughter Liza inherited her mother’s smile-through-tears approach to life.
Gorgeously filmed, with a special mention to cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (American Animals), Judy really excels during the musical numbers, where the camera work feels completely in sync with its subject. While tonally middle of the road and sometimes maudlin, the film, nonetheless, resonates for anyone who has ever felt abandoned or put out to pasture and just trying to tough it out. While Rufus Sewell and Finn Wittrock have their stern and delightful moments respectively as Judy’s last two husbands, it’s Jessie Buckley as Garland’s London assistant and Andy Nyman as a gay fan who make true impressions in the shadow of Zellweger. Buckley, who in her young career has excelled at playing the wild child, tamps down her instincts for a much more still approach, and she succeeds in finding the empathetic core to a character in a tough situation. Nyman, as one half of a gay couple who befriend Garland for an evening, beautifully stands in for her legions of fans. In fact, their scenes together stand our more than anything else in the film, culminating in a tear-inducing climax you won’t soon forget. No longer portrayed as the tragic diva, Garland gets her due as a funny, sweet, fun hangout kinda gal. Would she have been revered as much had she not lived such a troubled life? Would she have helped ignite the Stonewall Riots had she not died right before they occurred? We’ll never know, but Judy, and Zellweger’s monumental achievement, assures we’ll continue to treasure this smart, talented woman.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Judy gets a 50 out of 50. It checks off so many boxes: Gay Icon, Gay characters, Diva singing, and I fully expect the Drag community to adopt Zellweger’s iconic interpretation of “The Trolley Song” for years to come.
By Glenn Gaylord
Judy opens today September 27th in the U.S. and in international territories starting in October.