Celebrity biopics are a tricky thing. They’re clearly award bait for the lead because that main performance tends to be the focusm and a lot of the time the plot of the film can be secondary to the acting. This isn’t an entirely unexpected phenomenon when the film is named after the person it’s chronicling (see: Jackie). Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renee Zellweger, falls prey to this issue, but with Zellweger’s dynamic performance as Garland, the corny and on-the-nose plot points don’t matter.
The film makes a smart choice to focus on the end of Judy Garland’s short life: her last gasp residency performances in London before she tragically died of a pill overdose. Still, the audience gets some flashbacks of Judy’s life growing up under a very high pressure spotlight. These moments satisfy the desire to see the spunky, doe-eyed Judy of the Wizard of Oz era (played with a delicate touch by actress Darci Shaw). These brief flashbacks don’t serve to show how Judy came to fame (the film assumes the audience knows Judy Garland’s full ouvre and songbook already), but how Judy’s self destruction and addiction was ingrained mostly in the choices adults made for her.
She’s shown being given pills to make her way through long rehearsals, and then more pills to get to sleep. She’s also not allowed to eat hamburgers or cake in scenes where her male counterparts scarf them down. She’s also shown being pressured (and sexually harassed) by the film studio powerhouse Louis B. Meyer. These flashbacks are sprinkled in thoughtfully – they’re also well-performed – but their point hits the audience like a sledgehammer.
The utter lack of subtlety is also on display on the main plot. Judy goes to London, in an attempt to revive her career and get custody of her young children, but the plot drags the same tropes are repeated. The film takes some corny turns as Judy’s only friends in life (theatre assistant Rosalyn and orchestra director Burt) look over her like guardian angels when they’re her paid help. There is also a moment in the film that starts very sweet and then turns sappy: when Judy’s only fans waiting at her stage door are an older gay male couple who obviously adore her, so she joins them in their home for dinner. It’s a nice escape for Judy from the spotlights and it’s a moment for Judy to express her gay rights stance, but then these men get turned from real people into a caricature. The heavy-handedness may be due to the fact that the film is directed by Rupert Goold (who’s known much more for his stage direction than screen), whose attentions and energy shine most brightly on Zellweger and her stage performances as Judy.
The film is littered with just decent supporting performances, like Finn Wittrock, who plays Judy’s fifth and final husband Mickey Deans. Wittrock is handsome and charming, but unfortunately he and Renee have a forced inauthentic chemistry.
Perhaps this is because all of the energy goes to Renee, and at least and she doesn’t disappoint. She plays Judy with a raw desire to be liked, masked by the drive to be the consummate performer. Her mannerisms and facial expressions (which are without prosthetics) feel so authentic alongside the fact that she fully becomes Judy: she sings all the songs herself, no lip syncing, and she’s good. Really good. The stage performances as riveting and don’t come off as mere imitation. All the lead actress awards seem destined for Renee in this performance and they are fully earned. It is truly a performance that hopefully will lead to a Reneeassaince because even with her years out of the limelight, she hasn’t lost her star power.