“Judy” Is What Happens When a Film Loves Its Subject Too Much
The new Judy Garland biopic offers a simple portrait of a complicated icon
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
There are good Judy Garland fans and there are bad Judy Garland fans. As Susie Boyt sketches out in My Judy Garland Life: A Memoir, it’s very easy to pick out the differences between the two. “Judy, to her good fans,” she writes, “is both the epitome of a very theatrical brand of glamour and an approachable, natural, hard-working champ. She is sophisticated and homely, humanity in its most dazzling incarnation, unassuming and captivating.” This is a version of Garland that dominates loving tributes fifty years after her death. Her memorable turns in The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and A Star is Born; her electrifying live performances at The London Palladium, The Palace and Carnegie Hall; her magnetic TV performances in her variety show—they’re all reminders of the larger-than-life star she was.
Meanwhile, bad fans relish instead the lurid details of Garland’s most unseemly personal demons. “She is most beautiful to them when viewed through a lens of pain,” Boyt writes. Considering Garland battled addiction for much of her life, struggled with weight issues, had a string of unsuccessful marriages, and was on the receiving end of abusive behavior from suitors, agents, executives, and family members alike, there’s no shortage of Garland pain to wade through and exalt as a “bad fan.”
Watching Rupert Goold’s Judy, with Renée Zellweger in the titular role, you very quickly realize what kind of Garland fans these are, both in front of and behind the camera. The film is perhaps the perfect example of what has become the norm when it comes to big screen biopics: complex individuals and their wayward journeys are distilled into palatable and very moving stories that polish off a sanitized image of the star in question. Working as a kind of posthumous publicity stunt, the biopic serves as an opportunity to make myth into reality, to tell the story as it should have happened with the added conceit that what you’re seeing is as faithful a recreation as one can find. Thus, while there are a number of exhaustive biographies of Garland out there (not to mention a musical currently playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse all about her childhood stardom and an upcoming Showtime documentary about her marriage to Sid Luft on the way), Judy is already primed to be the way many contemporary audiences encounter her backstage antics for the first time. And in true Hollywood fashion, it delivers a heart-tugging and tear-jerking drama that’s designed to make good Garland fans of us all. For, despite mining one of the most tumultuous years of the star’s life (we’re with her almost until the day she died of an overdose), Judy is almost too reverential, a hagiographic portrait that attempts to give us Judy the woman, but only offers us Judy the legend. Or rather, the gay legend, as told to us by oh-so-good fans.
Ostensibly based on Peter Quilter’s concert-cum-play After the Rainbow, Goold’s film dispenses with much of what made that theatrical event—a recreation of Garland’s months in London during a five-week run of sell-out concerts—so fascinating. Gone are many of the raunchy moments between Judy and her much younger husband Mickey Deans (played in the film by Finn Witrock); downplayed are Garland’s mood swings and suicidal ideations. The film also does away with one character from what was, on stage, a three-person play: Judy’s (fictional) gay London music director “Anthony,” a stand-in for all the fans who loved and wished to care for the A Star is Born actress. “We have given her everything,” he tells Deans at one point in the play. “Shown her the kind of loyalty and devotion that you couldn’t even dream of.” The line is nowhere in the film. Nor is Deans’ scathing comeback: “What the hell is it with you people? The more she falls apart, the more you adore her … If she was found half-dead in the gutter, you’d all cum in your pants.” But Anthony’s worshipful sensibility—and his sense that Garland owes something to the gay community in return for their adulation—has all but taken over the film’s approach to Garland and her story.
There’s a gay couple, in fact, who recur throughout the film. They love Judy to pieces and make a point of seeing her show as many times as possible. At one point, they even invite her out to dinner at their place, where they confess just how much she’s meant to them. They stand in not just for “Anthony,” but for millions of gay men, then and since, who saw in the young girl with the big voice an avatar for their own resilience. To them she was always first and foremost Dorothy, a wide-eyed girl in search for somewhere over the rainbow where misfits and oddballs could be themselves surrounded by a community that loved them for who they were. There was hope in the image Garland offered them; the personal issues she came to struggle with later in life—and the comebacks it fueled—merely made her feel more relatable to a community that felt equally targeted. Judy gave voice to those who felt voiceless; they understood at a visceral level how her resilience made her all the more beautiful, all the more worthy of their love. In Boyt’s configuration gay fans shuttle back and forth between being good and bad fans, celebrating her highs while always constantly keeping her lows in sight.
“Her audience,” as Vito Russo once wrote about her gay fandom specifically, “was never sure whether she’d fall into the abyss or soar like a phoenix. One wanted to hold her and protect her because she was a lost lamb in a jungle, and yet be held by her because she was a tower of strength, someone who had experienced hell but continued to sing about bluebirds and happiness.” Judy leans hard into that first impetus: Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge seemingly want nothing more than to protect Garland. And in Zellweger’s tic-ridden and squint-heavy performance, they go out of their way to elicit a mix of woeful pity and concerned well-earned compassion whenever Judy is on screen—even, or especially, when she’s hurting or depressed or in a drug daze. There’s an attempt here to show Judy Garland, warts and all, but those warts are so lovingly drawn and placed and lit that they don’t ever feel real.
Such an airbrushed image of Garland will feel familiar to anyone who’s loved The Wizard of Oz and A Star is Born and who, perhaps, knows little about the backstage drama that dominated the star’s life. But diehard fans (good and bad alike) will recognize how much the film goes out of its way to mollify Garland’s own personality, especially in the 1960s. If, like me, you’ve gone out of your way to learn everything there is to know about Judy (not just the whispered stories about her or the bite-sized trivia that litter her Wikipedia page) you know there’s more to the anxious insomniac the film depicts. To watch footage from Garland’s last decade or to hear the expletive-laden recordings she made when working on her memoir is to get a glimpse of a performer who was broken in a truly ugly way. To see her try and get through late night appearances (with Cavett or Carson, say) is cringe-inducing; she’s manic and unfocused, clearly trying her best to look put together even as she’s spiraling. Similarly, to hear her rail against the world in the privacy of her home to a recorder she doesn’t quite know how to operate is outright unpleasant. Those abrasive public and private moments color our perception of Judy. The impulse to look away from them, to want to shield others from them, is central to her good fans. For how could you bask in her light when faced when such darkness?
In Judy, those moments are prettified to a fault. They must be. For the biopic demands and depends on our unconditional sympathy, a premise that requires stars merely suggest inner turmoil, never truly embody it. In an attempt to shower Garland with the empathy and compassion she so clearly lacked (and deserved) while alive, the film ends up over-protecting her, asking us to look away from the most unbecoming aspects of her private life. Even flashbacks about the abusive behavior she suffered at the hands of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer are beautifully framed in shadows and close-ups, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust us to grapple with Judy’s own disastrously formative scenes.
Similarly, the moments that should awe us into submission are few and far between. They come, mostly, in the shape of musical numbers. It is while singing Garland hits like “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” that Zellweger taps into what made Judy such an icon: she’s as dazzling as could be asked of her. But Zellweger can’t really match Judy’s vocal range—who can, really? Her voice is much too quivery and tinny. What that means is that Garland’s belts, those moments where you’d hear firsthand the strength she could conjure up when performing (or when yelling at her ex-husband), are not really in the film. We get instead some soulful whispered lyrics and a beautiful toned-down rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” We get the intimate, heartbroken Garland but rarely the boisterous, brassy gal she could also be. Where Judy Davis (in the ABC miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, based on her daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir) and Tracie Bennet (in Quilter’s play) had found ways of weaponizing Garland’s iconic “big voice” to explore how she could be both an anxious mess and a tower of strength—they were both incandescent, with Bennet playing Judy like a wind-up toy whose manic energy could light up all of London, and whose blackouts were just as frightful. Zellweger plays more with Judy’s meekness, a performance that leans in on those moments where her voice broke on stage, not the times when it tore through the theater like a tornado.
There’s an admirable ambition in telling Judy Garland’s story with such affection. A lavish biopic starring an Oscar-winning A-lister, after all, is as loving a tribute as any screen legend could hope for, especially one who suffered at the hands of the Hollywood system that now fetes her with abandon. Here was a performer who struggled to feel loved—by her mother, by her husbands, by her peers, by her fans—all throughout her life. Her need was so overt that it was covered in the press; a 1963 headline in the TV Radio Mirror read “Behind Judy Garland’s Frantic Drive for Success is this Fervent Prayer: Please Somebody… Love Me!” Her good fans, as arbitrary and contrived as that kind of label may be, live to shower her with that love. And watching Judy you can’t help but feel how much Goold and Zellweger feel for their protagonist. To offer Judy that love in telling her story is a kind of kindness. But this is a film that so loves Judy and that so wishes to care for her that it ends up stripping her of the alluring complexity that defined in her life and enshrined her in death. Judy here is, to Russo’s point, more wounded bluebird than soaring phoenix—and not, like the real Judy, both at the same time.