As one of the biggest stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Judy Garland ultimately became one of its most notorious casualties. Judy alternates between two timelines: The first shows us a bright, impressionable Judy (Darci Shaw) on the Wizard of Oz set, where she is fed diet pills, sleeping pills, and withering commentary about her looks. We then jump to 1969, where that micromanagement has slowly and painfully reduced a brilliant human being into a smoldering wreck. This forms the basis for Judy, which doesn’t feel so much like an ordinary biopic as a magnificent tragedy.
To borrow a bit of casino parlance, our story begins just as Judy (Renée Zellweger) finds herself down to the felt: Brittle, broke, and boozy, she lugs her young children from gig to gig, hotel to hotel. Desperate to provide for her family, Judy agrees to a limited residency at a concert hall in London. Her erratic performances are highly affected by dependence on barbiturates and vodka. This fragile state gets further exacerbated by the presence of Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a much-younger man Judy meets and ultimately marries. Self-assured and vacantly charming, Mickey turns out to be the best and worst thing for Judy, all at once.
The movie also advances the long-standing notion that MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) played an active role in young Judy’s physical and emotional demolition. Mayer controls what she eats, what she says, and who she dates. If Judy rebels in any way, Mayer is exceptionally creative about finding ways to call her fat and ugly. There’s even a brief #MeToo moment in which the studio head makes an awkwardly sexual gesture towards her. All of these moments compound to strip Judy of any sense of self-worth.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, Judy has been criticized for playing loose with the truth. Details may get tinkered with, timelines may blur, but my response to that in both films is largely the same: They feel authentic. Zellweger, like Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, isn’t so much an imitation as a full-on embodiment. Anybody who’s seen any of Judy Garland’s later interviews knows that she was a mess of tics and incoherent rambling. Zellweger captures the candle’s final flickers with incredible attention to every sad smile, every empty stare. Her Judy is a woman desperate to prove she can still kill it on stage, all while slowly dying off of it.
Zellweger also knocks it out as Judy’s onstage persona. Her singing is unabashedly big, and it sounds enough like the real thing that you’ll eventually just go with it. It might be Oscar bait, but who cares? Like Freddie Mercury, Judy was blessed with unknowable genius and unreachable sadness, and bottling all that complexity in a single performance is nothing short of astonishing. If Zellweger doesn’t at least snag a nomination, I’ll be shocked.
Movie history has blessed us with many iconic moments, but none are bigger than Dorothy Gale singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. It’s cinematic perfection, wherein Judy’s gorgeous voice imbues the song with sadness, yearning, and hope, at the same time. Now, we look at that scene with the melancholic knowledge that Judy Garland’s star was destined to burn briefly before burning out forever. Judy is the sad, important story of an incredible woman who gave her all to the entertainment industry, only to be steamrolled by it.
119 min. PG-13.