Renée Zellweger, pictured with Finn Wittrock, fills the screen in “Judy.” (Courtesy David Hindley/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

Renée Zellweger, pictured with Finn Wittrock, fills the screen in “Judy.” (Courtesy David Hindley/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

Renée Zellweger takes ‘Judy’ over the rainbow

Star soars in late-career portrait of troubled entertainer

Renée Zellweger plays the late-career Judy Garland in the period biopic “Judy,” and her heartbreaking, funny, caring performance turns what could easily have been a middling melodrama into a captivating character portrait.

Directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge (adapting a play by Peter Quilter), the film, like “Stan and Ollie,” dramatizes a vital episode in the late phase of a major entertainment act. It explores Garland’s early career as well.

In 1969, 46-year-old Judy Garland is a frail, boozing, pill-popping wreck. The Los Angeles hotel where she’s been living has ejected her for not paying the bill. She’s fighting ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two children. Deemed unreliable, the once in-demand singer-actress can find work only in small, low-paying clubs.

In London, however, audiences still love Judy, and, needing the paycheck, she arrives in the swinging British city to perform for five weeks at a high-profile cabaret.

It’s shaky going. On opening night, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), assigned by impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to watch Judy, has to slip the sedated, insecure diva into a dress and practically force her onto the stage. Fortunately, when Judy hears the applause, she performs triumphantly.

Other nights prove rockier.

The film follows her sad struggle throughout the engagement.

Her outlook brightens, albeit temporarily, when young lover Mickey Deans (Finn Whittrock), who will become Judy’s fifth husband, visits.

Some of what transpires is lackluster melodrama, and the 1930s flashbacks that connect past and present often feel contrived. At the MGM studio, teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) is given diet pills and sleeping tablets. In 1969, there’s the pill-addicted Judy. Such material, which also features mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who, presented through a Me Too-era lens, comes across as a creepy intimidator, isn’t insightful enough to merit its amount of screen time.

But Goold, who’s primarily a stage director, possesses a keen sense of the performer psyche and inspires strong acting. Zellweger reigns, and she brings a showbiz legend to stirring life.

The prosthetic enhancements are essential, but Zellweger, more importantly, conveys her character’s emotional turbulence and psychological complexities.

Doing her own singing, she‘s credible. Featured songs include “Get Happy” and, naturally, “Over the Rainbow.” Judy’s rendition of the latter undergoes affecting complications.

Elsewhere, in a passage that acknowledges the gay community’s regard for Garland, two fans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira) who have experienced homophobia tell Judy that her singing helps them cope. Over badly cooked eggs, Judy establishes a moving rapport with the pair.

Garland’s barbed wit also comes through. At one point, a doctor asks Judy if she’s been taking anything for depression. “Four husbands,” she replies.

REVIEW

Judy

Three stars

Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell

Written by: Tom Edge

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Movies and TV

Just Posted

People take part in early voting for the November 5 election at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Electionpalooza: SF school board recall will kick off a flurry of local races

‘It’s going to be a lot of elections and a lot of decisions for voters to make’

The fate of San Francisco nicotine giant Juul remains to be seen, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing whether to allow certain flavored vape products on the market. <ins>(Jeenah Moon/New York Times)</ins>
How the vape king of teen nicotine addiction rose and fell in San Francisco

‘Hey, Juul, don’t let the door hit you on the way out’

Cabernet sauvignon grapes sat in a container after being crushed at Smith-Madrone Winery in St. Helena. (Courtesy Smith-Madrone Winery)
San Francisco’s ‘Champagne problems’ — Wine industry suffers supply chain woes

‘Everywhere you turn, things that were easy are no longer easy’

Glasses behind the bar at LUNA in the Mission District on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Glassware is just one of the many things restaurants have had trouble keeping in stock as supply chain problems ripple outward. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
SF restaurants face product shortages and skyrocketing costs

‘The supply chain crisis has impacted us in almost every way imaginable’

A student carries a protection shield to her next class as part of her school’s COVID-19 safety measures. (Courtesy Allison Shelley/Eduimages)
Projected K-12 drops in enrollment pose immediate upheaval and decade-long challenge

State forecasts 11.4% fewer students by 2031 — LA and Bay Area to be hit hardest

Most Read