"Judy" is a heartbreaking portrait of a goddess in decline. It depicts the final year in the life of film icon Judy Garland, during her performance at the London nightclub The Talk of the Town in 1969. And there isn't much more to say about this movie than that. It's heartbreaking. You see Judy fall on stage. You see concert-goers throw their bread at her in contempt. You see her, a woman who had been addicted to pills by MGM when she was just a teenager, struggling to sleep at night. You see her grabbing for booze, cigarettes, and pills just to get through the day.
She marries Mickey Deans, a much younger, starstruck man she barely knows, whom the viewer decides is not good for her. She is unceremoniously kicked out of her residence, where she lives with her two children, Lorna and Joe Luft. She can't pay the bills. She's broke. She hands her kids over to ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Sewell's scenes are brief but he communicates that he's been around the block, the hard way, with Judy, and he no longer views her through a gauzy lens. Luft informs Judy in brusque, no-nonsense words that he wants custody of the kids. They want and deserve stability and friends, not the peripatetic, hand-to-mouth show business life Judy offers them.
All of this heartbreaking material would be easier to take, and would add up to a better movie, if there were a plot that allowed for Aristotelian pity, fear, and catharsis. Instead I'll remember this movie most for seeing Judy fallen on the stage, disgusted and betrayed fans throwing their bread at her.
The problem is, of course, is that this is a true story, a story that most people who will attend this movie know all too well. We can't change the details of the plot, so the plot has no place to go but down.
Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm, was one of the singular talents of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You can experience Judy's gift with a short visit to a YouTube video. Watch, for example, her televised rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." She delivered this soul-stirring, powerhouse performance just after JFK was assassinated. That's more than a movie star. That's a supernova.
Judy was born to a mother who didn't want her and looked into aborting her. Abortion was illegal and so Judy drew breath. Her father was gay and the family had to leave town after he faced morals charges. They moved to California. Her talent fell into the hands of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, in photos, looks like a plump, elderly city councilman. If what we hear about his treatment of Judy is true, there is a special place in Hell for Louis B. Mayer.
He was – allegedly – a drug peddler and greedy exploiter. Mayer recognized that Judy had talent, but he also recognized that she was not attractive. When Judy was just a child, Mayer starved her, plied her with drugs, and, allegedly, called Judy "My little hunchback" because she was short and had curvature of the spine. At the same time, this – alleged – greedy perv used to molest Judy. He would, repeatedly, put his hand on his child star's breast. Finally, when Judy grew up, she told him never to do it again. We see all this in "Judy" in flashbacks. You just want to jump up onto the screen and rescue that child.
There are a couple of great scenes in "Judy." Late one night, she greets two gay fans at the stage door. They take her home for a meal. What happens in their apartment, and, again, close to the end of the movie, is very touching. I don't want to describe it here because I don't want to ruin it for you.
Another provocative aspect of the film is its treatment of performance, and the life of a performer or any creative person. "Judy" shows Judy in performance mode, in mask-is-off mode, and in performance mode even though she's not onstage. All of this is handled very deftly. You realize what incredibly hard work performing is.
I love Judy Garland. I see her as a martyr. I can't say that I've ever seen any other performer give so much, so consistently, in one performance after another, over the course of decades. Her rendition of "The Man that Got Away" in "A Star is Born," that sums up impossible sexual yearning, her dreamy, wistful, melancholy, defiant, resigned, ever-hopeful "Friendly Star" from "Summer Stock," her "Get Happy" from that same movie that feels like taking a bath in unadulterated sunshine, "Mack the Black" from "The Pirate," a performance both sexy and witty – no one else has racked up that depth and breadth of material. Watching her suffer through this new movie made me cry.
There's much talk about Renee Zellweger's performance. Zellweger is a fine actress and she gives a fine performance. The thing is, we already have Judy onscreen. Maybe what we need is a documentary. A question I'd really like to see answered is, by physicians, psychiatrists, accountants, Hollywood historians, did it really have to end the way it did?