By Leslie C. Halpern
It’s no easy task taking on the role of the iconic Judy Garland. Star Renee Zellweger will likely receive criticism for being too much like Garland (merely an impersonation), too much like Zellweger (transferred her own quirks to the role) or too much of a blend of the two women (neither this nor that). In short, despite a knock-out performance in which she physically, emotionally, and vocally transforms into the barbiturate-addicted singer, Zellweger is constricted by the limitations of the script and direction, and by the notoriety of the character she portrays.
This film focuses on the final year of Garland’s life when she struggles to retain custody of her two children while dealing with depleted funds because of alcohol and drug addictions. This instability leads to disastrous performances, unpaid bills, and gig cancellations. Desperate for a chance to make enough money to regain her footing and reclaim her children from her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), Garland takes a job in London playing a series of sold-out performances at a popular night spot.
Garland Promises a Beautiful Show
Drunk, doped-up, depressed, and acting like a diva, Garland refuses to rehearse, shows up late for shows, suffers from stage fright, and breaks down repeatedly on stage. Some nights the audience (which includes two die-hard gay fans who come to every performance) loves her, and some nights they throw things at her in anger. Although she promises her fan to always deliver a “beautiful show,” she’s a hot mess both onstage and off.
Behind the scenes, she terrorizes the young assistant (Jessie Buckley) assigned to watch after the singer, carries on a rocky romance with her much-younger, soon-to-be husband number five (Finn Wittrock), and heaps abuse and accusations at Sidney, who seems to be devoted to providing a stable life for their children.
The Wizard of Oz
Zellweger’s brash, twitchy, angst-ridden performance is painful to watch at times, not because of any acting flaw, but because it depicts such intense emotional suffering. Flashbacks throughout the movie reveal the reasons for this suffering; Garland was starved of food, stuffed with pills, and deprived of a childhood during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, and we’re to assume this ill treatment was followed by more of the same, which led to a lifetime of dysfunction.
Tragic, but riveting, this biopic delivers the music (Zellweger does her own signing) and the story of Garland’s final disintegration. The flashbacks provide some context, but the years between her childhood and the London concerts at age 47 remain something of a mystery. Did she ever seek help for her addictions? Did any of her five husbands try to get her clean and sober? Or was her life a continual downward spiral from childhood to adulthood? These answers are available elsewhere, but represent decades of a successful career barely referenced in this film—a film decidedly myopic on the abusive beginning and tragic end.
This troubling biopic looks at Judy Garland’s sold-out London concerts in the final months of her life.
- Stars: Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon
- Director: Rupert Goold
- Writers: Tom Edge (screenplay), Peter Quilter (based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow”)
- Genre: Biopic/Drama
- Run Time: 118 minutes
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking)
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.