By Glenn Heath Jr.
Much has been made of Renee Zellweger’s recent semi-retirement from acting. Most of the problematic scuttlebutt revolved around perceived changes to her physical appearance, the kind of rumors that once sold gossip rags but now invites the worst kind of click bait content. The entire episode proves just how little the film industry has changed in its treatment of women ever since the early silent movie days of Florence Lawrence.
If there’s one potential positive that came from Zellweger’s unfair experiences with the press and Hollywood hypocrisy, it’s that she probably better understood what it was like for then child star Judy Garland growing up under the iron thumb of MGM Studios during the 1930s.
In Rupert Goold’s sturdy biopic, Zellweger stars as the famed singer/actor decades after her starring roles in classics like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “A Star is Born.” But the film opens on a 1930s soundstage featuring a familiar yellow brick road. For young Judy (Darci Shaw), “The Wizard of Oz’s” iconic locale holds none of the magic or wonder that audiences would come to associate with it years later.
“Judy” immediately introduces a devil’s agreement by way of the vindictive mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), whose punishingly manipulative and sexist monologue about stardom functions as a key trauma of which the teenage Garland would never fully recover. Importantly, it’s not just the man’s menacing mind games that are threatening; Goold positions Mayer in the frame so as to make any physical escape seem impossible.
Adapted from Peter Quilter’s musical production “End of the Rainbow” by screenwriter Tom Edge, much of the film takes place in the late 1960s when Garland took gig singing at the London cabaret “Talk of the Town” to financially support her two young children.
Despite the nearly three decades of time that’s passed since “Oz,” Mayer’s predatory influence still remains potent on the now 47-year-old Judy. She abuses alcohol and drugs to cope with the ghosts of being a child star, which often leads to on-stage meltdowns that further fuel the easy-to-digest simplicity of her looming self-destruction.
Like many biopics about complicated women, “Judy” becomes bloated and banal trying to include as many characters and historical context as possible. Scenes with the men in Garland’s life are specifically tiresome, as they simply reinforce the stranglehold of Mayer’s influence without getting to the root of it. Judy’s ongoing squabbles with ex-husband Sidney (Rufus Sewell) and her delusional infatuation with husband-in-waiting Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) is obligatory plot filler.
Once the film finally moves on from these tertiary subplots and others (one involving a gay British couple is well-intentioned but purely symbolic), it finally belongs solely to Zellweger. Her purposefully raw performance, defined by those soulful eyes framed by perpetually running mascara, taps into a painful legacy of starlets who’ve been used, abused, and ultimately discarded by the Hollywood machine.
“Judy” unsurprisingly culminates with a public musical performance that allows Garland one last chance to reclaim her artistic and emotional power. But it doubles as a lovely victory for a woman who finally breaks free of male gatekeepers to connect with her audience directly.
Up to this point, the subtle cruelty of show business has been the only consistent in Judy life. But her climactic rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” reminds the performer and her adoring fans why they need each other so much. So, in a way, Judy (opening Friday, September 27), takes back the narrative of Hollywood stardom from the Mayer’s and the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world, placing the performer back in control of their own historical identity.
The approach produces its own problematic simplicities about historical perspective and hero-worship, but there are far worse ways Goold and Edge could have depicted these cycles of abuse. In its own subtle ways, “Judy” addresses the never-ending sting of victimhood with suitable agency.