The critical adulation and awards bestowed upon Judy, or it’s leading lady I should say, should come as no surprise. As well as being the sort of full-bodied, sorrowful performance which voting bodies love, it plays up to Hollywood’s fascination with itself. Or at least with one of its own. Judy Garland did pick up a now-defunct Academy Juvenile Award for her performance in The Wizard of Oz, but was never awarded as an adult. Famously, she lost out to Grace Kelly on the Best Actress award in 1955; a fact that was repeated loudly by commentators as Renee Zellweger collected her second Oscar this weekend.
For that reason some have postulated that Zellweger’s win is a belated win for Garland of some sort. That might go some way to explaining the near clean sweep during this awards’ season. It’s a fine, fierce and committed impersonation of Garland and there is much to enjoy during the film’s musical numbers, but I also found it a somewhat muddled turn, possibly guided by the movie’s rather despondent narrative.
Tom Edge’s script is an adaptation of the Peter Quilter play End of the Rainbow. This is primarily Garland towards the end of her tragically short life, living in London as she performs a five-week run of shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub in the West End. She is a heavy drinker, smoker and drug addict, bouncing from one abusive, coercive relationship to another; broke to the point of despondency and separated from her children as she tries to drum up enough money to buy a house for herself and her family. We do also get a glimpse of a very young Judy taking her first steps in Hollywood under the wing Louis B. Mayer. We see the beginnings of her drug dependency as a contract star at MGM forced onto a constant diet of pills to keep suppress her appetite and keep her performing for hours on end.
This is a movie which does a great job of contextualising the problems Garland had and as a platform from which Zellweger can project. Beyond that, I’m not convinced. It’s a film which is so desperate to focus on the injustices to which Garland was subjected, and their effects, that one feels Zellweger’s performance has had to imbibe the weight of all that drink and drugs itself. And the performance is principal point of all this – it feels like quintessential vehicle. Sure enough you can see Zellweger throw herself head first into this in a bodily performance, trying, it would seem, to channel Garland’s spirit into the scene. There is much to be wowed by, most notably in those moments when Judy is onstage and invariably battling through a fug of booze and pills. As a juggling of impression and performance it’s admirable and often impressive, the trouble is there is so, so much of it, it becomes a somewhat chaotic brew. The facial tics and scrunched expressions start to jar and there is occasionally the stumble-drunk of the church hall amateur, cluttering an otherwise engrossing performance in a mediocre biopic.
Biography, Drama | UK, 2019 | Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital | Out Now | Pathe UK | Dir. Rupert Goold | Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock