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

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Construction in the Better Market Street Project between Fifth and Eighth streets is expected to break ground in mid-2021.<ins></ins>
SFMTA board to vote on Better Market Street changes

Agency seeks to make up for slimmed-down plan with traffic safety improvements

U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks during an event to name President-elect Joe Biden’s economic team at the Queen Theater on Dec. 1, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)
Kamala Harris to resign from Senate

Bridget Bowman CQ-Roll Call Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will resign from the… Continue reading

A view of Science Hall at the City College of San Francisco Ocean campus on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
CCSF begins search for next chancellor amid new challenges

‘It’s arguably the biggest single responsibility the board has,’ trustee says

Some people are concerned that University of California, San Francisco’s expansion at its Parnassus campus could cause an undesirable increase in the number of riders on Muni’s N-Judah line.<ins></ins>
Will UCSF’s $20 million pledge to SFMTA offset traffic woes?

An even more crowded N-Judah plus increased congestion ahead cause concern

From left, Natasha Dennerstein, Gar McVey-Russell, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Jan Steckel and Miah Jeffra appear in Perfectly Queer’s fifth anniversary reading on Jan. 20.<ins> (Courtesy photo)</ins>
Perfectly Queer reading series celebrates fifth anniversary

Online event features five writers, games, prizes

Most Read