JUDY – TIFF19 Review by Loren King

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Among the nearly 250 movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to independent foreign films, that screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one of my favorites was Judy, anchored by an astonishing performance by Renee Zellweger. In her first musical performance since Chicago, Zellweger delivers a comeback role for the ages that puts her at the front of this year’s best actress Oscar race.

Judy is an alternately haunting and inspiring look at Judy Garland’s 1968 extended engagement at Talk of the Town in London, which took place just months before she died in June, 1969, which coincided with the uprising at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn and the birth of the LGBT civil rights movement.

Aided by superb costumes, makeup, and hair styles, Zellweger transforms herself into Garland. Not only does she do all her own singing of Garland’s signature songs such as Come Rain or Come Shine, By Myself and a heart-wrenching Somewhere Over the Rainbow that will leave many weeping, she uncannily channels Garland’s vulnerability, quick humor, intelligence and survival instincts.

Flashbacks show how Hollywood turned Garland, who started performing in vaudeville as a toddler, into a drug addict. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer kept her working nonstop, instructing his underlings to keep the young actress on a steady diet of pills and robbing her of a childhood. If you thought “L.B.” was mean to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest with Howard DaSilva playing Mayer as a paternal authoritarian, Judy’s characterization of Mayer as a mercenary predator who caresses young Judy’s chest, forbids her to eat a hamburger, and generally abuses and exploits the hardworking, eager to please Garland at every turn will make your skin crawl.

By the time of the London engagement, Garland survived a nearly five-decade career. But she’s broke and battling ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their young children Lorna and Joey (Liza, her daughter with director Vincent Minnelli, is already a young woman with her own blossoming career). She’s about to marry her fifth husband, the younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). At just 47, she is still a monumental talent with a loyal fan base but an emotional wreck who needs to keep working to pay her bills after Luft mismanaged all the money she earned after years of films, concert and TV appearances. Her London shows are alternately brilliant and disastrous, and Zellweger manages the feat of portraying Garland’s singular gifts clouded by insecurity and drug dependency.

Judy shares some DNA with last year’s too-little-seen Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, with Annette Bening pitch perfect as actress Gloria Grahame, most famous for In a Lonely Place and her Oscar-winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful and who had her own share of marriage woes and career setbacks. By the 1970s, when Film Stars is set, Gloria is battling illness, acting on stage in London, and falls in love with a much younger man, played by Jamie Bell. In both films there’s a subtext about lack of agency that even stars of this magnitude had in the Hollywood of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. If sexual harassment, pay discrepancy and misogyny are rampant in Hollywood today, it boggles the mind to think about what accomplished, fearless women like Grahame and Garland were forced to endure in a workplace and a culture that was male-dominated from top to bottom.

Garland, of course, was a premiere gay icon and Judy pays homage to that, with a gay London couple who are Garland devotees and who attend many of her Talk of the Town shows. One night, after chatting with them at the stage door, the earthy Judy invites them to supper but they can’t find a restaurant that’s still open. Judy ends up hanging out with the couple in their flat — she sings an impromptu Get Happy that brings one of her new friends to tears — and learns that the men missed her 1964 London concerts because one was in jail for being gay — England didn’t decriminalize homosexuality until 1967. “They hound people in this world,” is Judy’s quiet, empathetic response.

Directed by Rupert Goold, known primarily as a theater director — he was nominated for a Tony for Ink, about Rupert Murdoch and tabloid journalism — Judy sometimes drifts into tortured artist/booze and dope cliches. But Zellweger is so magnetic as she nails why Garland is considered one of the world’s greatest entertainers that she makes the film a show biz survivor story and a heartbreaking celebration of Garland’s guts, talent and humanity.

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Loren King

Loren King's features and film reviews appear regularly in the Boston Globe, Boston Spirit magazine and the Provincetown Banner. She writes Scene Here, a localfilm column, in the Boston Sunday Globe. A member of the Boston Society of Film Critics since 2002, she served as its president for five years.