In 2001, Judy Davis put two decades of skill at playing observant women whose nerves rub against their considerable intelligence into her portrait of the title character in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. This TV film has no magic except for the steady vibration of Davis at its core; critics have noted how Uncut Gems unsettles them, but the observation makes more sense watching Life with… The problem with Judy (2019) is how it lacks moviemaking fervor without offering a compensatory pleasure watching good actors. No dictum prevents screenwriters from returning to worn material, but in the case of Judy, director Rupert Goold approached Tom Edge’s script and asked, “How can I make yet another movie about Garland as below average as possible?”
Indeed, the frustration of experiencing “Judy Garland” as phenomenon in the wilds of pop culture stems from a tendency to dwell on the actress-singer’s alcoholic and pharmaceutical addictions but flattening the affect; instead of creating films whose visual design and performances assume Expressionist contortions commensurate with its subject, filmmakers produce biopics with the imagination of a Food Network show. To choose the former approach would be vulgar, to be sure, but at least it wouldn’t bore. I’ll take the drab cable show if it illuminates Judy Garland as an artist, but Judy doesn’t bother (Life with… is little better). To Goold and Edge, Garland was a fucked-up person whose abuse at the hands of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery, lit like John Lithgow as Roger Ailes in Bombshell and as subtle as a spiked glove) deserves the attention that the actress in The Clock, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born, and above all The Wizard of Oz doesn’t, and that the singer of “The Trolley Song,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “I Don’t Care” doesn’t. No doubt armed with the best of intentions, Goold and Edge prefer victimhood; it’s easier to dramatize than showing how stars like Garland delivered their indelible performances.
Desultory phantasmagoria Judy‘s not — it’s as homogenized as Harriet. In the London of 1968 where middle-aged people are catching up to the Swinging era, Garland arrives to a hero’s welcome for a run of performances that she hopes will net her a hefty payday. Back in the States she had subjected her children with Sid Luft Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd) to a humiliating shuffling between hotels (cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland lights one particular hotel as if it were the fleabag in Barton Fink). Flashbacks, intended as counterpoint, show a young Judy coerced into a plateful of diet pills enough to sink a humpback whale. Nothing has changed: she still lives on those pills and a geyser of vodka on the rocks. Why the film requires garishly staged flashbacks is unclear; maybe Goold and Edge intended them as character development or something. So precisely are they timed that you know the meet-cute between Garland and the nightclub owner Mickey Deans who becomes her fifth husband will be interrupted by a scene thirty years earlier in which she and Mickey (geddit?) Rooney can’t talk without a Mayer henchmen standing between her and a decent meal.
“I used to have ambitions, but they gave me the most terrible headache,” Garland says in the present day. Mouth puckered as if stung by a wasp, Renée Zellweger certainly looks like Judy in her final years. More importantly, she gets the ironic detachment, and when she performs “By Myself” on opening night she channels the gusto of a singer who’s walked a stage for thirty years as if it were her front parlor; whens she sings — she does her own singing — Zellweger’s performance isn’t mimetic, it’s immersive. And Good together with Birkeland pull their camera back so they can admire her in ravishing long shot. Zellweger also pulls off a smoky rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” But they’re stuck with fifteen minutes of singing and a hundred minutes of “private life” masochism. The obligatory confrontations between Garland and the impresario (Michael Gambon, wasted), and between Garland and the hapless attendant (Jessie Buckley) assigned to Garland; the onstage meltdown cutting to a flashback of a glowering Mayer, cornering young Judy in a barn on the MGM lot, warning her, “Don’t ever hold up one of my productions” — writers can’t stop writing these scenes, actors can’t resist playing them, and directors cheerfully recreate them with care and taste. And when Garland accepts the invitation of a sad middle-aged gay couple to join them for omelets and a night of carousing at their apartment — complete with allusion to an arrest for homosexual offenses before passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 — the film stops cold. Judy Garland, icon, Good to the Gays.
Still, Zellweger will likely win an Academy Award for this performance: the second consecutive year in which an actor wins for playing a doomed musician. Judy isn’t grotesque like Bohemian Rhapsody, nor does it bore like The Darkest Hour, but voters — who for the sake of argument are people — will forget it exists. Share the YouTube clips if you must, reminders that the art survives when the artist can’t.