For many, Judy Garland was Dorothy from Kansas. She was the girl who was swept away to Oz on a cyclone that also featured a witch.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of the Wicked Witch. I would literally run from the room when she came on screen. But, there was something magical in watching Judy perform. Her wide-eyed innocence as she realized the danger she and her friends were in, and her melancholy tone in her voice as she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was mesmerizing. Judy had a career for 30 years after release of “The Wizard of Oz,” but even to this day she’s still remembered most for a role that happened when she was 16 years old.
Can you imagine living with a legacy you created 30 years ago?
“Judy” stars Renee Zellweger as the iconic singer and actress. The film focuses on Judy’s show in London in the late 1960s. She is a has-been. She’s been deemed “unreliable and uninsurable” by movie studios and can’t keep a steady gig. She carts her children around to shows and keeps a suite in a hotel that is their home until she is unable to pay the rent. And just like that, Judy and her children are homeless.
In order to get a steady paycheck and an actual home for her children, Judy goes to London to headline a stage show. In the film, Zellweger comments that she has to leave her children in order to be with her children. Crazy, right?
The film follows Judy’s tumultuous turn in London as well as her battles with addiction and her own depression/anxiety. We also meet her third husband, Sid (Rufus Sewell) and fifth husband, Mickey (Finn Wittrock). Neither relationship seems particularly pleasant. What’s even more interesting, and perhaps depressing, is the fact we also see glimpses of Judy’s childhood.
She started performing at the age of 2 alongside her sisters. Judy was just 47 when she died of an overdose, and she had been performing and working for 45 years. Is that not the most heartbreaking thing you’ve heard all day?
According to the film, Judy’s drug use began when she was just a kid. She was given uppers to keep her peppy and alert for a performance, and then given sleep aids to help her wind down after a 18-hour day. Her weight was controlled because no one wanted a fat Dorothy, as her handler puts it. Her relationship with Mickey Rooney was well-publicized, although the film declares it was just for show.
Zellweger transforms for “Judy.” You’re never able to completely lose yourself in her performance and forget you’re watching Renee Zellweger play Judy Garland, but you will see her lose herself in this role.
I’ve watched some interviews and performances with Judy Garland. Early on, there’s this bright-eyed innocence and exuberance that shines through. She wanted to make her audience smile. As time went on, her light dimmed a bit or rather became duller. Judy was still there, but the purity of her early years was gone. Granted, I suppose that happens to all of us, but Judy led a hard life. The price of fame was heavy, and it eventually cost her her life.
Zellweger captures that pain. She captures Judy’s sly wit and the self-deprecating charm that permeated her life. Most of all, she captures Judy’s love for her fans. They adored her, and she loved them back.
“Judy” gets heavy-handed at times with the melodrama, but honestly, would you expect anything less? I still had to wipe away a tear, or 15, as Judy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the end of the film. Her voice cracks, and her emotions are shot. It’s a song of hope, but it’s also a realization that you may never reach the end of the rainbow where bluebirds fly. She can’t go on, but her audience has her back. It’s a beautiful scene, melodramatic or not.
And, for me, that’s the beauty of this picture. We are given a window into the final months of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and one of its greatest victims, as well. Hollywood has always preyed on the weak, children and women, especially. Judy was both. Golden Age executives sucked out everything that was exceptional, then cast her aside. It’s heartbreaking, and it feels more relevant than ever now in the Me Too era. After all, demons have to be exorcised every now and then. Too bad that Judy was never able to rid herself of her own.