TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new biopic "Judy" stars Renee Zellweger as the singer and Hollywood star Judy Garland during the final months of her life. Judy Garland was 47 when she died in London in 1969.
Our film critic Justin Chang has this new view.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Academy Awards voters can rarely resist a celebrity impersonation, judging by some of the star turns that have won Oscars in recent years. These aren't just performances; they're jaw-dropping feats of mimicry. Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill. Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury.
The new film "Judy" is being sold along similar lines - Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland. To judge by the breathless hype that has greeted the movie so far, the approach seems to be paying off. What makes "Judy" unusually fascinating for an otherwise-standard celebrity biopic is that Zellweger isn't Judy Garland. Her transformation is impressive but hardly definitive.
Even with the help of a dark wig and skillful makeup and prosthetics, she doesn't exactly disappear into the role of the beloved singer and actress who captivated the public in movies like "The Wizard Of Oz" and "Meet Me In St. Louis." But even if you don't always believe you're in the presence of Garland, Zellweger nearly makes up in raw emotional commitment what she lacks in verisimilitude. Her intensely felt, go-for-broke performance sometimes runs the risk of overwhelming this sturdy screen adaptation of Peter Quilter's stage play "End Of The Rainbow."
"Judy" begins with one of several flashbacks to the teenaged Garland on the set of "The Wizard Of Oz," showing us how the industry created and destroyed her in the same breath. Her body and image are ruthlessly controlled by the powerful MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who puts her on a strict diet and gives her barbiturates and amphetamines, setting in motion the substance abuse problem that she will struggle with for the rest of her life.
But most of the movie is set in 1969, long after her Hollywood heyday and mere months before her death at the age of 47. Judy is now broke and virtually homeless, dragging herself from one crummy LA club performance to another. We meet her eldest child, Liza Minnelli, at a house party and also Judy's third husband, Sidney Luft, who takes custody of their two young children while she reluctantly books a gig at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London.
Although she's devastated at being separated from her kids, Judy has little choice but to work overseas where her fans can still be counted on to turn out in full force. In London, Judy's depression and insomnia quickly take over. She pops pills, skips rehearsals and nearly misses opening night. But once she stumbles into the spotlight and starts crooning "By Myself" and "The Trolley Song," her confidence comes surging back, and she enjoys having an appreciative crowd again.
One night after a show, Judy, feeling lonely, befriends an adoring couple, Stan and Dan, and joins them for a late dinner at their apartment. In a touching scene, Dan, played by Andy Nyman, reminds Judy how much she means to her many gay fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDY")
RENEE ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) It's sweet that you come to see me. Sometimes I spy the two of you out there like I have allies.
ANDY NYMAN: (As Dan) Well, we missed you in '64. It's sad.
ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) Oh, you couldn't get tickets?
NYMAN: (As Dan) Not together, no. Stan was otherwise engaged - six months for obscenity.
ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) In jail?
NYMAN: (As Dan) They changed the law since then. Turns out we didn't do anything wrong after all.
ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) They hound people in this world, anybody who's different. They can't stand it. Well, to hell with them.
CHANG: The director, Rupert Goold, has a deft way with actors. He gets a lovely performance from Jessie Buckley as Judy's London handler, Rosalyn Wilder, always there to lend an ear and keep her on schedule. Finn Wittrock plays the aggressively charming music entrepreneur Mickey Deans, who becomes Judy's fifth and final husband. Their tempestuous union does a number on Judy, who suffers a few drunken onstage meltdowns before rebounding with a climactic performance of "Over The Rainbow" that might just reduce you to tears.
It's a dazzling showcase for Zellweger, whose commitment is astonishing even when the illusion doesn't always seize hold. While the actress has a sweetly quavering singing voice, she makes no effort to match Garland's warm velvety contralto, reportedly at the instruction of the director himself, who rightly guessed that it would be smarter to channel Garland than to imitate her.
Curiously, Zellweger's physical resemblance to Garland is most pronounced when the camera catches her in profile. She wears the character like a mask that keeps slipping. There's something poignant about that, since Garland herself struggled to live up to a persona constructed for an audience that could love her one minute and turn on her the next. Zellweger herself knows something about what it's like to be chewed up and spat out by the industry machine.
After her earlier triumphs in movies like "Chicago" and "Cold Mountain," for which she won an Oscar, she struggled for the next decade to find decent roles, endured much sexist mockery from the entertainment press and only recently returned to filmmaking after a six-year hiatus. Her empathy for her subject is apparent in every scene. Renee Zellweger may not be Judy Garland, but she reminds us that technical perfection is no match for emotional truth.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews this week with singer-songwriter duo Tegan and Sara or Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose first novel is set in slave times, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")
JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings. From the moment I saw him, I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor. Bump, bump, bump went the brake. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings. When he smiled, I could feel the car shake. He tipped his hat and took a seat. He said he hoped he hadn't stepped upon my feet. He asked my name. I held my breath. I couldn't speak because he scared me half to death. Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer. Plop, plop, plop went...
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