Yes, she does it. She truly pulls it off. Ms. Zellweger is phenomenal in reconstructing the phenomenon. The chameleon like actress who has garnered multiple Oscar nominations and her Best Supporting Academy Award for “Cold Mountain”, is as distinctive in this assiduously researched portrayal as any I can recollect of an actual person who lives in the memories of millions of multi- generational fans of Ms. Garland.
I write this with some perspective. Sixty years ago, as a mere lad in Chicago, I attended at the Civic Opera House, in June of ’59, “An Evening with Judy Garland”. I recall that the audience was in a perpetual frenzy and that she delivered nine encores. This was when she was still married to producer Sid Luft , some five years after Garland’s triumph of the remake of” A Star Is Born”.
It was little more than two years before she performed and recorded her immortal, “Judy At Carnegie Hall” for Capitol Records for which this was an early tryout. She was overweight, in perfect voice, destined yet to provide an incredible straight acting performance in ” Judgement at Nuremburg”, as well as riveting performances among other films.
The CBS variety television shows, and subsequent engagements at The Palace on Broadway, were all ahead for her then. That June Chicago night in ’59 set the standard for all future performances I’ve been privileged to hear and behold, which few, if any have met.
Consequently, the sheer chutzpah that Zellweger required to take on this assignment to create a credible portrayal of the last months of this icon’s life in the winter of ’67, replete with singing in the delivery of Garland’s by then damaged, yet still alluring voice, coupled with the diva’s incomparable conviction in serving a song, all but corners the chutzpah market for this year. Yet, just as amazing is Zellweger’s evocation, rather than mere impersonation of Garland’s performing prowess, in her infinitely detailed characterization of the frail yet indomitable person/artist along with Garland’s wit, copious humor, devotion to her children, yet misguidance in her parenting, and disastrous relationships with men ultimately accumulating five husbands, all divorced.
The film is bookended by the beginning of her stardom at MGM with the notorious L.B. Mayer undercutting her confidence in many ways for life; he used to address her as, ” my little hunchback” with perverse affection. His powerful ubiquitous presence never letting her forget that she was merely Francis Gumm, and how there was many an All- American Girl out there who was prettier,with better teeth, posture, what have you, save for one talent, her voice.
This 16 year-old Judy, about to be officially cast as Dorothy since Shirley Temple’s boss at Fox simply would NOT part, for even one film, their box office bonanza, and so, Garland’s destiny was set for life, ever to be connected with that part, and that immortal song of Harold Arlen’s and Yip Harburg’s reference to the location of that land, ” heard once in a lullaby”. It is DARCI SHAW who portrays this teenager, and she’s as convincing as is her resemblance to that girl whom we all took to our hearts.
The other bookend which dominates the film is that which provides Zellweger’s extraordinary recreation of what we wholly accept as Judy’s last months on earth. Some of it is so wrenching that I was reminded of Kirk Douglas’ Van Gogh in “Lust For Life” .That’s meant entirely as a profound compliment to Ms. Zellweger and the creators of this film. Indeed, the lengths to which it’s obvious that attention to the details of this endgame to her story is quite similar to what producer, Houseman and director, Minnelli to their 1956 biopic from the Irving Stone recounting of the post-impressionist.
And who’s to say, that the art forms explored and the individual tragic tales involved have a keener significance of one over the other? Of course, the fruits from the orchards could not be more distinct, but in terms of what these individual artists went through to leave the indelible impressions of their once living, and how universal their appeal, straight to the heart, yet mindful of the head, endures and indeed grows, I venture the comparison nonetheless.
In any case that was what my gut was telling me when Zellweger’s Garland is literally pushed onstage for her initial London “Talk Of The Town” engagement which she accepted in desperation to dig out from being millions in debt, and forced to be separated from her two younger children so as to gain final custody from their father, Sid Luft, portrayed by the invariably brilliant and utterly convincing RUFUS SEWELL. The “pusher” just mentioned is the special advisor to the film, the still with us, Rosalyn Wilder, well played by JESSE BUCKLEY. It was Wilder who was given the dubious honor of “looking after” Judy by the London impresario, Bernard Delfont ( the redoubtable MICHAEL GAMBON ) for what was to be a highly lucrative six-week engagement. The events of those weeks that Garland was able to perform nightly are revealed with candor and humor reflective of Garland’s own. The fact that during this period she married for the fifth time a much younger Mickey Deans (a highly persuasive and attractive FINN WITTIROCK) , is but an all too brief high in the seemingly bottomless valley the subject traverses throughout.
Two more stand out performances come to view in the no doubt invented, yet fairly drawn to illustrate the significance of the “Friends of Dorothy” ,that were then the still stigmatized gay contingency. These are the characters of Dan and Stan, played by ANDY NYMAN and DANIEL CERQUEIRA, with touching sympathy, who have the night of their lives personally hosting their idol after an evening’s concert. The simpatico among the star and her devoted “different” most ardent fans was and remains to this day, a sociological element that was not to be ignored. That it was handled with taste by all helps to elevate the film even more.
One more mention of the pivotal moment when Wilder pushed the ailing diva onto the stage, and the film audience is carefully led to believe that what will ensue will be nothing short of calamitous, Zellweger, after a year’s training and relentless research coupled with the infinitely detailed production elements of musical arrangements, decor, costumes, hair and make-up, fuses with the historical being who was duly regarded as “the greatest entertainer in the world”.
That unmistakable fusion and the jolt that was reminiscent of what I felt in Chicago sixty years ago, is worth the price of admission and your most alert attention alone.
“JUDY” from Roadside Attractions and Pathe, features: RENEE ZELLWEGER, JESSIE BUCKLEY, FINN WITTROCK, RUFUS SEWELL, ROYCE PIERRESON, ANDY NYMAN, DANIEL CERQUIERA, and MICHAEL GAMBON.
Directed by RUPERT GOOLD, Screenplay, by TOM EDGE, based on the stage play, “END OF THE RAINBOW” by PETER QUILTER.
Director of Photography, OLE BRATT BIRKELAND, BSC, Production Designer, KAVE QUINN, Editor, MELANIE ANN OLIVER,ACE Costume Designer, JANNY TEMIME, Hair and Make Up Designer, JEREMY WOODHEAD, Casting by FIONA WEIR & ALICE SEARBY, Original Music by GABRIEL YARED, Musical Director, and Arranger, MATT DUNKLEY, Music upervisors, BECKY BENTHAM, KAREN ELLIOTT.
All Photos: David Hindley, Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions.