Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Judy – searching out community while on a futile quest for family security

As a vehicle to celebrate Renée Zellweger’s talents at getting under the skin of characters, the Judy biopic currently in cinemas focussing on the twilight of the musical actress’ career and life is perfect.

Zellweger casts a gaunt shadow as a performer who is jaundiced with her circumstances. Promised that she’d have earned a million dollars by the time she was 20, the teenage actress instead lined the pockets of bullying studio bosses who profited from hit films like The Wizard of Oz. Penniless, and dependent to pills, she ends up driving herself hard to continue singing at gigs for a mere $150 a throw in order to try to afford a place to live with her two school-aged children. (Judy Garland’s older daughter Liza Minnelli barely gets a mention in this version of her story)

The offer of a residency in London takes her away from the children she loves, but offers audiences and paychecks of a size that could lift her out of her financial and mental depression. But can she bear the toll of performing, together with the burden of demanding men who continue to surround her?

As the hard-drinking, pill-popping, chain-smoking, rehearsal-shy, fidgety, panicky, restless performer, Zellweger gives a breathtaking performance. It’s as if Zellweger is, herself, a 1960’s popstar as she plays with the words and the music and the audience. Her voice sounds damaged. Her movements are clumsy as Garland staggers to get into the swing of a number. Yet the star’s performance is at the expense of other characters – like her patient and forebearing production assistant Rosalyn Wilder played by Jessie Buckley who can deliver a hundred lines with a mere glance or shrug – who don’t get the space to become three dimensional.

In the opening sequence and sporadic flashback scenes, young Judy is played by Darci Shaw, a captivating presence on-screen displaying a naivety of youth and an emerging impulsive petulance that Zellweger picks up in her later years. The contrast between Wilder and her Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio ‘mother’ couldn’t be greater.

Director Rupert Goold ensures that the cinema audience feel the will-she-won’t-she tension as her London agents wonder how the opening night at Talk of the Town will play out. It’s an anxiety that will only grow as the weeks run on, her confidence wobbles, and another husband joins the list of poor men in her life.

A contented evening spent with two gay superfans plays up the sense that Garland longed for family and community and grasped it where she could. John Dagleish has fun with his small role playing Lonnie Donegan, the singer waiting in the wings, both figuratively and literally, to take over top billing from Garland.

The quality of the songs cover over the film’s faults. Though when the end credits roll, there’s a sombre sense of finality, realising that Garland will never wake up with the clouds far behind her in her short time remaining on Earth.
Someday I wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney top
That's where you'll find me

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