Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Judy (2019) - Movie Review

Judy Garland. Hollywood royalty. Gay icon. Star of one of the greatest films ever made. Making a biopic about her could have easily rested on her Yellow Brick Road days and captured something resembling poignancy; knowing how much of modern cinema owes to that film, from the continuing evolution of movie musicals to the dream-logic narratives of David Lynch, it’d resonate on that alone. But instead, director Rupert Goold and writer Tom Edge have gone for a different take, looking at the final year of Judy’s life, when she was trying to scrape together enough money from performing in London’s Talk Of The Town to officially retire. And the vision they give is so utterly spellbinding, it’s difficult imagining this story looking or feeling any differently than this.

I find myself struggling to recognise Judy’s presence on-screen as just a performance by RenĂ©e Zellweger. This isn’t even one of those makeup-heavy attempts at character transformation that usually magnetizes Oscar attention. But the effect of utter absorption into the role remains, making for one of her single best ever cinematic turns, and a central presence at the core of a production that orbits her every moment. To say nothing of Darci Shaw as her younger Wizard-Of-Oz-era self, whose abusive treatment within the Hollywood system sets up the tragic pins that Zellweger ends up striking down one after another.

The visuals, while mainly sticking to currently-traditional biopic trappings, with their muted colours and emphasis on realism, bring a lot of power out of this story of a faded starlet and her complicated dependence on show business. When Judy hits the London stage (with Zellweger doing her own singing, really nailing the almost jazz-talking delivery), Goold’s experience in theatre shines through, bringing a sense of immediacy and intimacy that only comes from mastery of a medium that doesn’t rely on post-production. And in the flashback scenes, the shadowy hands of the off-stage crew and the wooden set framing add tremendously to the effect that we are watching someone who, pretty much from the start of her life right to the end, has been part of a carefully-orchestrated production that took over her own reality.

In terms of Hollywood fatalism, the kind of artistic martyrdom that was stitched into Stan & Ollie’s own tribute to the tragicomedy of vaudeville, the depiction shown here is dourer than most. Both Zellweger and Shaw’s combined performances give a harrowing look at the life of Frances Gumm, one where producers, handlers and the press dictated every aspect of her life. It dips into moments of surrealism, like with Judy’s 16th "birthday party" which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so fucking depressing, but for the most part, it fixates on cold, hardened reality. The reality of Judy Garland, a literal starving artist dependent on pills and drink to stay upright, and someone whose life had become just another show.

Amidst the terrific acting, the phenomenal framing and the thick cloud of melancholy that hovers over this entire production, there is a lingering potential problem: Turning Judy into a sacrificial lamb on the glittered altar of showbiz. Between the view of her start in film to her racked attempts to stop performing and take care of her kids, showbiz almost takes on a chemically-addicted tinge in just how much she relies on it, yet desperately wants to stay away from it. In that dichotomy, this film could’ve just written off her hardship as a necessary evil for what she gave the stage and the screen… but the film goes for something a little deeper than that.

It shows her trials and tribulations, her private and public breakdowns, and her strained relationships with those around her… and then brings the audience into the equation. Specifically, in the form of a gay couple who Judy spends a night of music and drink with after one of her shows. Some lip service is paid to the then-recent rescinding of anti-gay discrimination laws that kept the couple apart, but it’s done in a refreshingly subtle way that doesn’t break through the artifice just to make its point.

Instead, it highlights her legacy as an entertainer, a linchpin in one of the touchstones of American cinema, and an ally to people who have seen their own share of hardships. And through their eyes, and their voices, they and the film in turn extend a heartfelt showing of gratitude to Judy Garland. One that acknowledges her pain, and how her pushing through that helped ease the pain of so many others. It balances sentiment with genuine empathy, all without losing sight of the human being at its core, making for one hell of a rousing effort and easily one of the most affecting films I’ve seen all year. We won't be forgetting you any time soon, Judy.

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