by Hunter Johnson
Biographical films are not a new concept. Films like “Walk the Line” and “Chaplin” tell life stories from start to finish of their true-life protagonists. Other biopics focus just on the biggest event of someone’s life. “The Social Network” did this for Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and “The Disaster Artist” for film director Tommy Wiseau.
In “Judy,” rather than looking at what audiences are already aware of, director Rupert Goold focuses solely on the final year of Judy Garland’s life with occasional flashbacks to her time as Dorothy in the classic “The Wizard of Oz.” This makes for a fresh and somewhat dreary look at the life of an icon.
Judy Garland’s story was tragic. Goold’s film dives into the filming of “The Wizard of Oz” where the young Garland was emotionally abused by studio manager Louis B. Mayer. It addresses the lifelong depression that Garland faced along with the substance abuse and financial problems that plagued the final years of her life. The film isn’t glamorous and it most definitely isn’t easy to watch.
Renée Zellweger, who plays Garland, has been treading water as an actress for a while. She hasn’t had a hugely successful project in nearly 10 years. However, this might be the career-defining role that puts her back on the map as an A-list actress. She fully encapsulates Garland, not only as a brilliant stage performer, but also as a complicated person who suffered from drug addiction and depression throughout her life.
The film has a supporting cast with names like Finn Wittrock and Rufus Sewell. While they all give fine performances, the focus is very much on Zellweger, who fills Garland’s shoes with nuance and tragic hopelessness.
Goold’s film uses the hopelessness of Garland’s life to inspire hope for the future — specifically the future of Hollywood. Garland was abused by a system of executives that sought to control Garland’s image, thereby sending her down a path of pain and depression. But there’s a hope in the modern day that child actors and actresses can grow up in a society that doesn’t force them to be models of perfection or tolerate emotional abuse. “Judy” seeks to remind viewers of that constant hope for a better future.
Goold placed the music in “Judy” front and center. In the film, Garland spends her nights performing at The Talk of the Town nightclub, where she sings her hits. Zellweger sang these live on set without lip-syncing or auto-tuning, making for several hard-hitting and powerful scenes as she recaptured Garland’s spirit.
Zellweger steals the show, but “Judy” isn’t a perfect film in other areas. It often gets lost in its attempts to be politically relevant for a 2019 audience, making for many uneven scenes that feel contrived and biased. A subplot with Garland becoming friends with two of her fans and spending an evening with them is heartwarming but feels forced and targeted toward a modern audience.
The film also only addresses limited aspects of Garland’s life. The focus is only on the beginning and end of her career, as if the middle 30 years never occurred. There are no references to those events of her life. This may leave audiences wondering if what is being shown on screen is accurate to her life.
Despite these issues, Zellweger’s performance, along with the stirring music, creates a compelling watch. Goold uses the pop-culture icon to call for change in Hollywood.
Hunter Johnson is a sophomore Theatre major and an arts and entertainment writer for Cedars. He spends his time acting on stage, reading and watching “Star Wars” and occasionally doing homework.