Every year, you get at least one film clearly designed purely for the purpose of nabbing an Oscar for its star. In 2019, Judy is that film. Renée Zellweger’s heartfelt take on Judy Garland immediately pushes her to the front of the awards queue. It’s a great performance in an otherwise so-so biopic, which brings the legendary entertainer to melancholic life.
Reminiscent of last year’s similarly themed Stan and Ollie, Judy places Judy Garland on a UK tour in the twilight of her career. It’s 1968 and her money has dried up, so she needs to make these concerts pay in order to be able to have her young children live with her. Zellweger does a fantastic job of showing the weight of all the accumulated indignities life has thrust Judy’s way, from the monstrous way she was treated as a child star to the rather inept opportunists that present themselves as friends in her later life.
Judy follows pretty generic biopic beats, and the supporting cast make little to no impression, but Garland’s stage shows are consistently impressive. Singing to massive audiences comes as naturally to Zellweger as breathing, and her transitions from Judy’s drunken jitters off stage to absolutely owning the theatre are irresistible and sometimes properly moving.
Even by Hollywood biopic standards, Judy is sentimental bordering on saccharine, especially in a corny final scene that you’ll find either sweetly endearing or eye-rollingly annoying. Yet it doesn’t sugarcoat the brutal reality of how Hollywood treats its young actors: all diet pills, hatchet-faced managers, and sexual harassment.
You understand why Garland is so deeply damaged and it’s impossible not to feel for her. It might not be all that special from scene to scene, but when Judy focuses most tightly on its star, it shines.
CAST: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon
DIRECTOR: Rupert Goold
WRITERS: Tom Edge (screenplay), Peter Quilter (stageplay, The End of the Rainbow)
SYNOPSIS: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a sold-out series of concerts.