The little I know about Judy Garland comes from Hollywood folklore, celebrity gossip magazines and a D in A-Level Media Studies many moons ago. She was drugged to wake her up, she was drugged to allow her some sleep. She was not allowed to eat. And that was all as a child of the infamous Hollywood Studio System, at its height from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This film not only details the last few months of Garland’s turbulent life, but also touches upon her ‘upbringing’ at the hands of Louis B. Mayer at MGM Studios, where she infamously shot to stardom as the be-plaited Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
The wonderful Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho, with its plush, comfortable seats and fancy coffee machine, welcomed us in from the chilly October evening, to join a sadly rather small audience in the later screening of Judy. We shed our coats and scarves and settled in, unsure what to expect from this Renée Zellweger awards-vehicle, as it seems to have been billed. Having recently binged on Zellweger in the Netflix Original What/If, I was prepared for the aesthetic change in the former Ms Bridget Jones to some degree, but she takes her performance to another level as the troubled, eponymous star in Rupert Goold’s film.
The film begins with Garland performing on stage with her children, Lorna and Joe (Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd), hardly scratching together enough money to afford a hotel room for the night. And so she takes the difficult decision for any mother: to leave her children with their father (Sidney Luft, played brilliantly by Rufus Sewell), and heads to London, where her name still brings in the crowds and she may be able to earn enough to get that family home she has been striving for.
While, obviously, the film is based in the facts surrounding Garland’s last months, the sad tale of her struggle to stay afloat both financially and emotionally, towards the end of her life, is here buoyed by some lighter (although still tinged with sadness) moments involving a couple of die-hard fans. The gay couple attend her sold-out ‘Talk of The Town’ show in London most evenings, and wait outside the stage door for her. It is at this point that the loneliness of the star is most apparent; she spends the evening with these star-struck fans, and we see a lighter side to her character, as she is finally allowed to be herself, it seems.
The flashbacks to her childhood tell a story that one hopes is more fiction than fact, but that, sadly, probably contains more truth than any other part of this film. The studio system was a harsh childminder: this has been documented many times, and it is made clear as we witness scenes of Garland’s controlled childhood (with the captivating Darci Shaw as the young Garland), that much of her anxiety and drug-dependency as an adult is borne of her time with MGM.
I came out of the film feeling exhausted and angry on her behalf. But mostly just very, very sad. It is kudos to all of the performances that I became so involved in that brief glimpse into her life, fictionalised or not. But it is Zellweger’s embodiment of the role that stands out. Her mannerisms and tics, the way she holds herself, almost hunched as though battling a snowstorm, her wide-eyed wonder at audiences, at everything. I was completely mesmerised throughout. It’s a film that will certainly stay with me for a while.