“Minks, the drinks, the curves, the kinks, always acts before she thinks. Well that’s what you call a star boys. That’s what you call a star.” – Marc Almond, Saint Judy
Rupert Goold‘s Judy, based on Peter Quilter play, might be a gold standard Hollywood biopic, with the melodrama sentiments and fan mail, the pale devastation of the flesh smoothed over by flashbacks re-visioning studio corruption and blanket emotional abuse as a technicolor Oz nightmare. But, at its center, is a performance so raw, tender, and gut-wrenching that all the glitz only serves as a mere proverbial curtain.
Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland during Garland’s final year on Earth with a fierce loyalty and zero vanity, blazing through the star’s triumphant and catastrophic 1968 string of London shows as if her own life depended on their operatic veracity and mythic passions. It’s Renée’s voice instead of Judy’s that makes the screen and the hearts tremble, and that takes courage of a lifetime.
We get the gist of how Garland got so devastatingly undone within the first few seconds of screen time, even before the opening credits, with the predatory Louis B. Mayer and the wide-eyed, terrified but so eager Judy striking a Faustian deal – if she were to be Dorothy, her soul belonged to the studio.
And then we soon see why someone that young would be so tragically determined. Her well-being fully depended on how well she performed – from when she exited the womb, it seems, with a vaudeville troupe of a family, an adoring, disgraced gay father, who died too early, and an authoritarian stage mother so awful that she comes off as cartoonishly cruel – until one reads up on her, and realises that badly drawn meanness was exactly how Ethel Gumm rolled.
Ethel was there to serve MGM and Mr Meyer and administer pills to her daughter for every occasion – work, sleep, diet, running her like a well-oiled machine – making sure that the young teen lives according to schedule, often labouring 18 hours a day, always grateful that a ‘fat, plain, country’ kid like her was ever given a chance, let alone a life in the spotlight. That this has something to do with the mother’s own thwarted ambition, a seething resentment, and probable lack of talent, is sort of crystal clear.
There was no film I’ve seen that makes the contradictions of this state of developmental emotional extremes as blunt to the eye – at the same time being adored for what you can do, and despised for what you are, by the closest to you. It breaks a person at their very core. Judy, in a way, never stood a chance, the state of being unloved yet praised the only thing she knew. But she was herself a devoted mother, albeit an erratic one, as her life was erratic – motherhood being her only inner stability. A heroic stance considering her childhood.
The single false note in the film might be the short bit with Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) on screen, the tense yet friendly mother/daughter dynamic only scratched on the surface, but left unexplored.
There are moments of grace and beauty in Judy, as Garland, vulnerable, open and capricious as she was, inspired real affection from her surroundings, mostly the people that loved her scintillating, warm, wise-cracking presence, and had nothing to gain, or were decent enough to have surpassed the mercantile impulse. Which, incidentally, rendered Garland utterly broke in her later years, along with the combined effect of vicious gossip and addict unemployability. Jessie Buckley as Judy’s London assistant Rosalyn is an understanding, nourishing, motherly presence to the older woman, an almost therapeutic twist to the handlers of yore. Theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (a commanding Michael Gambon), who brought Judy in to perform in his venue, is grumpy and upset at her drug and booze induced unreliability, but unmistakably moved. And her super-fans, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) – ‘friends of Dorothy’, an old gay slang used to protect anonymity, who both suffered persecution for their sexuality (Stan, even imprisonment), are pure soulmate material to the original gay icon. Allies in the wings.
When Judy ends up having late night scrambled eggs in their home, with Dan at the piano, it’s a tinsel town movie moment, but it brought tears to my eyes, in the way Douglas Sirk films do. And there is something very Sirkian about Judy, a heartbreaking authenticity beneath the dramatically artificial, a quality of a backstage view into an elaborately crafted theatre show.
Judy’s rebellion was to self-destruct that imperfect machine she was made to be in the face of all who expected something from her, releasing the relentless truth of the human condition as a current of electricity without the protective isolation, defying her mother, her handlers, her husbands, the two of the five shown, slippery but stable Sid (Rufus Sewell) father of Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), and the latest addition, and the final, the young, charming wheeling-dealing yet clueless Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Sometimes even her audience got the electric jolt (the real loves of her life), when she fought back the heckling of fools unaware of what a diva really represents. Shades of Amy Winehouse. Along with the power of their voice, that authentic pathos was the source of their greatness.
And she was great. Judy was.