Quick fess up: I know nothing much about Judy Garland apart from her childhood star status, that she was Liza Minnelli’s’ mum and she was addicted to drink and drugs. So this a written from a more ingenue point of view than most reviews you will read.
This is a timely film in the era of #me too and coercive control. The film flashes backwards and forwards between Judy in her so-called glory days as a child star and, later, towards the end of her life in the late sixties. The reality of her childhood is very different: she is completely under the thumb of Louis B Mayer, the MGM studio chief who constantly reminds her she is a ‘fat-ankled, snag-toothed rube from Grand Rapids’ and unless she obeys him she’s headed back there. There is a hint of sexual predation and abuse in the way he touches her, not very fatherly at all.
In order to control her weight and her schedule – she often worked 16-hour days – for The Wizard of Oz she is force-fed pills morning noon and night, never allowed to eat burgers, chips or cakes and is under the iron rod of a monster nanny. Her childish innocence was lost early on and on the rare occasion when she rebels she is severely punished. There is a touching scene at the end of the film where Judy is presented with a cake. Her tentative mouthful and exclamation – ‘it’s delicious’ – brings home how deprived she was of normal pleasures. The pills and booze of her childhood became her life.
While the film uses flashback to give a context, its main action revolves around Judy’s last tour in London’s Talk of the Town (filmed at the Hackney Empire) in 1968, a five-week sell out show taken in desperation to earn some real money and provide a home for her beloved children. She deludes herself that she is first a mother and second a star, as she says in a TV interview, ‘I’m only Judy Garland for one hour a night. The rest of the time, I’m part of a family.’
By this stage she is on the skids. Her vulnerability is on show on her first night, where she almost doesn’t turn up but belts out her numbers after a shaky start. She knows how to work a crowd – when she was physically capable, although a lot of the time she wasn’t. At the end of that first night, when we see her in the dressing room, all tiny, curled up and bowed like a little old lady, she appropriately laments, ‘What if I can’t do it again?’
Renée Zellweger is magnificent as Judy. I’ve never been a great fan of hers, but here she has found her metier. She sings all the songs and is indeed bringing out an album of them with what, I suspect and others can confirm, is the right balance of tentativeness and gusto. She manages to alternate between addicted vulnerably and self-loathing and the superstar, where her eyes glitter, her pout glistens and she flirts and seduces all around her with her quick wit and repartee.
We see this with her lover Mickey Dean (Finn Wittrock), the bandleader (Royce Pierreson) with the fictional two gay fans, there as a nod to her legacy as a gay icon, and with her tour manager, the steely-with-a-heart-of gold Jessie Buckley. She is rather under-used in this movie, as are many of the other support actors – Michael Gambon as Bernard Delfont and Rufus Sewell as her third husband Sid Luft. When they are on screen they add an extra magic.
The one missing element is Liza Minnelli. We see them together early on at a party, where there is a hint of their dysfunctional relationship which cast a long shadow on Minnelli’s life. Given Judy’s mantra about wanting to be a good mother, an exploration of that fractured dynamic might have been enlightening and given more depth to her self-deception. Otherwise Rupert Goold’s direction is pretty spot on.
Perhaps the most poignant line of the film, ‘I just want what everybody wants. I seem to have a harder time getting it,’ is an epitaph to this talented but tortured soul. At least here we see that she is not entirely to blame for her wretched life.