Saturday, September 28, 2019

Garlanded: JUDY

Judy, in standard biopic fashion, is as intermittently moving as it is surface-level false. At best, it works, yet even there its sentimental button-pushing is an artifice that never quite cracks the central problem of how to represent the interior life of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. Here is Judy Garland, at the end of her life, drinking and pill-popping, lashing out at hecklers and quivering vulnerably and almost satisfied before the adoring crowds at her limited engagement at a London club. In six months she’ll be dead. Screenwriter Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold, crafting a tasteful-to-a-fault film with little visual or verbal flair, don’t really know what sort of story to tell, and are content to rehearse the standard takes on her story, and the easy psychologizing about what went wrong. We get fleeting flashbacks to her time making The Wizard of Oz. In some ways, the first scene is the film’s best, as vaguely lecherous MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) leads a young Judy (Darci Shaw) out of a dark space of backstage doubt and onto a fake Yellow Brick Road set, and at one point in his monologue about how she’s so much better than “normal” girls in the audience they fleetingly make startling eye contact with the camera. We’re implicated in this moment, a culture devouring her without considering her personhood, but in the rest the blame is put on the studio serving her pills to go and pills to drop, working her nonstop. Then the bulk of the movie puts Judy at the other end of her career, with RenĂ©e Zellweger admirably inhabiting the role. She deserves all of the praise, as the movie is literally nothing without her. There were moments watching her stalk the stage or curled up despondent in her hotel suite or bitterly arguing with an ex-husband (Rufus Sewell) where I found myself thinking I was not watching an excellent impersonation, but Judy herself. That's movie magic. She’s a movingly fragile performer here, wasting away, crumbling inward, yet still able to pull it together to blast out a “Trolley Song” here and there. It’s a beguiling, interior performance, fully fleshing out what the film otherwise sketches in with cliches and received conventional wisdom about its subject. The scenes that most overtly deal with her persona or cultural import — an encounter with a gay couple outside the stage door, and one flashback with a dopey Mickey Rooney in a fake diner — are both moving and contrived, both true and not true in an instant. But they, like Zellweger, get at the simultaneous fragility and power that Garland possessed, what made her a star and keeps her alive. This shapeless movie can't extinguish the fire at its center.

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