“Judy,” opening nationwide Friday, offers a glimpse into the life of Judy Garland as both the girl in the ruby red slippers and the boozing, drug-addled entertainer slipping toward death in her final money-making engagement.
The film, staring Rene Zellweger in the title role and directed by Rupert Goold, opens with Garland performing with her two kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd), in tow. But it soon becomes clear that all the glitter is part of an act, with their dressing room the pantry at the back of a nightclub kitchen. The smiles on stage soon change into expressions of frustration as Garland later drags the youngsters to an expensive hotel, only to be turned away. Her unpaid bill has resulted in her suite being cleaned out and her belongings put in storage.
In desperation, Garland ends up knocking on the door of Sid Luft, the father of the two children, in Brentwood. By 1968, one year prior to her death, Luft and Garland, who married in 1952, had been divorced for three years. Rightfully, he is concerned about the children. After all, it’s a school night and Garland had just blithely remarked that the kids had slept in a cab.
For her one-night performance, Garland is paid $150, which is quickly spent, and she still needs a place to stay. She ends up crashing a party of her older daughter, Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), where she meets the attractive Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a fan with an entrepreneurial spirit who is handsome enough to catch the eye of women and men.
In flashbacks, we see a young Judy (Darci Shaw) being bullied and badgered by her cruel adult handlers. Her female chaperone reminds her not to eat because she’ll get fat, and the slimy head of the studio alternates between praise and cutting criticism.
That early diet of pill-popping and emotional abuse most certainly shaped the adult Judy’s behavior, as did her desire to perform. The movie’s melodrama comes when Judy flies to London to perform at an upscale nightclub, Talk of the Town. The money will save her, but who will save her from herself? She has a minder, but Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) isn’t quite up to handling this well-practiced drug addict.
Into this tragedy enter two jesters, a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who have splurged to see her every night.
Her manager and soon-to-be husband, along with the tour piano player, are the pill-popping prevention team.
It’s when the tired child Judy, who is drugged so she can keep practicing choreography, is juxtaposed with a performance in which the adult Judy’s eyes indicate she is on autopilot that we feel the extent of her childhood tragedy.
The close-ups in “Judy” will be punishing for fans of Garland and Zellweger. By her 40s, Garland had developed physical and vocal mannerisms which Zellweger inhabits, at times looking like a human puppet manipulated by muscle memories more than feeling the music.
Plus, the emotional center isn’t Judy and her caregivers, as it was in the play “End of the Rainbow,” by Peter Quilter. Rather, it’s Garland and her audience, and that’s a cold embrace by a crowd comprised of some who only wanted to see the legend perform and those few who really loved her despite her vulnerabilities and obvious addiction problems.
If you don’t mind a grueling ride, and a Hollywood treatment of an entertainment legend heading toward her final train wreck, “Judy” might be worth the ticket.
But if you fondly recall Quilter’s Olivier Award-nominated play, you might want to stay away and remember the magic.