Judy: Bravura Performance in a No Surprise ‘Biopic’

by SC Reviewer Shelby Larsen

Now Playing on Sanibel

Renee Zellweger acts her heart out, trying to convey the anxiety, depression, alcoholism and dependency on pharmaceuticals that defined a large portion of the legendary Judy Garland’s adult years.

Set in 1968-69, during the last year of Garland’s life—she died of an overdose at 47—Rupert Goold’s film version of Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow, as adapted by Tom Edge, tries hard, but ultimately doesn’t succeed in creating an authentic image of the time, unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Given that limitation, as well as some uninspired direction and cinematography, the burden of the film calls on Zellweger to carry the story of this fragile, destructive, incredibly gifted woman. While she is wise not to attempt mimicry, she does capture the frenetic, edgy shell of addiction, yet still giving glimpses of the vulnerable woman inside. However, in her determination to avoid performing an impression of an incomparable artist, Zellweger occasionally indulges in just a little chewing of the scenery. Sometimes, when a familiar Zellweger look or mannerism emerges, it is all too apparent that this is Renee playing Judy, and some of that emotional closeness that the film strives for is lost.

No one can convincingly replicate Garland’s magnificent voice, and Zellweger wisely adapts the music to her own considerable vocal abilities. And why not? This is Judy Garland’s last stand, her London “Talk of the Town” concert tour, where no one knew, least of all Garland herself, what notes she could summon. Occasionally taking the stage under the influence, with audiences unsure of what they will hear, received by standing ovations and/or thrown breadsticks, depending on the night, it was never Garland’s prime, pure vocal performance.

Zellweger is surrounded by a supportive cast, that does the best they can with the stock characters they are given. The script contains no surprises. The outlines of Judy Garland’s life are fairly well known, at least for those who remember Neely O’Hara*. No surprises, that is, except leaving out some of the worst of Judy’s behaviors chronicled elsewhere. It includes flashbacks to her childhood stardom, as Frances Gumm became Judy Garland, verbally abused, and physically plied with both uppers and downers, and who knows what else, to get the movies that made lots and lots of money. Curiously, the presence of her notorious stage mother is either vastly diminished or eliminated. It was unclear, at least in this cut, that the figure played by Natasha Powell is in fact, Ethel Gumm, because she has an uncomfortable resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West.

Nor does the backstory focus on any bad choices made by Garland herself. In this version, she is a victim, no, a martyr to the voracious entertainment industry. It would have perhaps intensified the story if more references were made to some of the other factors that impacted this incredibly gifted woman.

No matter. Renee Zellweger’s performance, culminating in an emotional, if somewhat contrived final scene, is compelling.

*By the way, Neely O’Hara was a Judy Garland-ish (except not so -ish) in Jacqueline Suzanne’s potboiler Hollywood novel, Valley of the Dolls published in 1966.

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