Following on from Stan & Ollie and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool this film completes some kind of unofficial trilogy centring on successful Hollywood actors who, in their later years, found themselves washed up on British shores. As with Laurel and Hardy, but unlike Gloria Graham, this film’s central character is so famous that her first name alone brings her to mind and therefore this moniker has to be the name of the movie. Unlike the Stan & Ollie film though, which uses those names to show it is looking at the real men not the on screen versions of them, Judy was the personality whereas Frances Gumm, at least initially, was the woman behind it. This film examines how one was destroyed so as to craft the other.
What Stan & Ollie showed was how the men who owned the names also worked to create their public personas, especially Stan Laurel. In the case of Judy Garland though, it seems that she had little control over her life and image from the second she signed on, aged 16, to be Dorothy Gale. Much of the movie depicts how a young Judy, played brilliantly by Darci Shaw, was manipulated and bullied by studio head Louis B. Mayer and how she was slowly forced to take and rely on chemical hunger repressents and sleeping pills. Slowly she was made into the woman we saw on screen but it cost her sense of self and her emotional stability. One of Judy Garland’s most famous movies may have been A Star is Born but in reality this star was callously manufactured.
Of course Darci Shaw is not who people are talking about when they discuss this film. When we are not with the teenage Judy we are with her at the other end of her life and here she is portrayed by Renée Zellweger. What most critics have said is that Zellweger is superb in the role but that the rest of the movie is not as good. I don’t think this is entirely true though. Zellweger is absolutely incredible in the role but there isn’t actually that much movie around her. This isn’t a criticism, it is because the story is all about her and it all works with her performance to present a fascinating, compelling and moving character study.
When we pick up with the older Judy, aged 47, she is out of cash following years of financial mismanagement by her associates and a selfless generosity that came entirely from her. (The film did not tell me where the money went, Wikipedia did.) Struggling to support her children she is forced to leave them with their father in L.A and travel to London to do a series of shows in the Hippodrome.
Side note: These shows were managed by Bernard Delfont, played by here Michael Gambon. Delfont also appeared in Stan & Ollie played by Rufus Jones.
Zellweger’s Judy at this stage is reliant on medication and alcohol, underweight, tired and fragile; an absolute product of the oppression that started in her childhood and never stopped. She has done well in her career just as she was promised but it was a career where appearances are everything and personal welfare is almost irrelevant. Zellweger is astonishing in the way she captures Garland’s mannerisms and look (huge credit needs to go to the hair and make up team too) and how she totally nails that voice. She is also superb in how she plays a woman struggling to keep herself and her family together though and this is arguably where she really excels.
If you already revere Judy Garland from years of watching her movies then you’ll feel affection for this film from the start. Stan & Ollie worked in the same way but, much as I loved it, it never really got past this. Judy goes beyond this though to offer a great portrayal of a strong woman losing to her weaknesses. Weaknesses that tragically are not of her own making but of a cruel and shallow film industry that she sacrificed herself to in childhood. Also, let’s not forget how the events of recent years have shown that time was not up on this kind of thing as long ago as it should have been.
The Ripley Factor:
I wish I could tell you that Judy is a triumph over adversity story but Garland did not make it to 50, her lifestyle eventually wearing her out. There is dignity in her demise as shown here though because for all that was piled on her, the thing that made Judy Garland special was all her own.
If you rate Judy against the Ripley Factor set criteria it does well. It is not an overtly feminist film but it is totally a woman’s story. Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men? Absolutely not. Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism? Not even slightly. Are the women in the film real and believable? Absolutely. Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film? Nope and in fact Judy/Renée Zellweger is radiant and beautiful in the film without anyone having to make her look anything other than the age she is. Judy Garland may have been done with her career when she came close to hitting the half century but having reached the same point Renée Zellweger has, at the very least, just hit the pinnacle of hers.