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Film review: ‘Judy’ shows how the actor's life wasn't all rainbows

Renée Zellweger stars in this affectionate tribute to the 'Wizard of Oz' star

Renée Zellweger in Judy
Renée Zellweger in Judy

Being a child star is not a thing to envy. Judy, a musical drama, is both a warm and loving tribute to the actor and singer Judy Garland as well as a cautionary tale about the pressures and impact of celebrity.

Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Garland worked as an actor, dancer and singer for 45 of the 47 years she lived. The film opens with a 14-year-old Judy (Darci Shaw) being cast to play what would become the iconic part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The pressure of early stardom and humiliation fuelled insecurities as a harsh studio executive listed out her physical flaws. He described her as above average but exceptional because of her singing voice. A studio minder offered her pills to suppress her appetite and pills to help her sleep at night.

Garland carried these insecurities and dependence on drugs into her adulthood. The alcohol and substance abuse and eating disorder eventually led to ill-health and her death in 1969. When asked if she took anything to manage depression, Garland famously said, “Four husbands. It didn’t work." This was before she married her fifth and final husband. Of the four, Sid Luft (Rupert Sewell) and Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) appear in the film, while mention of her three other husbands is left out. Her third child, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Deveraux), almost casually appears in just one scene.

From that Oz audition, director Rupert Goold moves to 1968. Deeply in debt, homeless and desperate to hold on to custody of her two young children, Garland (Renée Zellweger) grabs the opportunity to work in London. In the United States she is reputed to be “unreliable and uninsurable", but the British love her.

Zellweger sings some of Garland’s most popular songs, including “Get Happy" and “For Once in My Life". Goold reserves “Over The Rainbow" for a swan song.

Sidebars to her personal anguish, loneliness and issues of low self-esteem borne out of years of commodification and abuse are portrayed through her devoted fans, her enduring status of gay icon (demonstrated in an overcooked scene with an adoring gay couple) and her relationship with her children. In one of the more revealing moments, she tells a television interviewer, “I am Judy Garland for one hour every night. The rest of the time I am part of a family."

But Goold also conveys that Garland was no victim. She basked in the adulation and stardom and loved to perform.

Based on stage musical drama End of The Rainbow and adapted for screen by Tom Edge, Goold retains the clichés and directs with affection. Zellweger, with a little help from the prosthetics, hair and make-up departments, and a lot of weight loss, has worked hard. But her twitchiness and limited vocal range is a reminder that she’s studiously playing a studied version of Garland. Only occasionally does the actor effortlessly become her subject.

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