Frances Winston reviews this none-too-accurate biopic of iconic entertainer, Judy Garland
Directed by: Rupert Goold – Starring: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw
Judy Garland is often referred to as the greatest entertainer of all time. However, this movie doesn’t focus on her triumphs, such as her award-winning acting performances and concerts, or her record-breaking recordings. Rather, it portrays Garland near the end of her life, as she undertakes a five-week run at the legendary Talk of the Town nightclub.
Much like last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, I came to this as a fan of Garland, and also in the unfortunate position (for review purposes) of having read many biographies by those who were actually there when events took place, and also having background knowledge of the source material. For this reason, I am reviewing it for its merits as a film, rather than its accuracy regarding the story, which is based on a play called End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter.
By his own admission, this had evolved from one of his earlier works, entitled Last Song of the Nightingale, about a fictitious past-her-prime diva, and he stated that the play’s protagonist was a gender-switch on an alcoholic, male, cruise-ship performer of his acquaintance.
This means that I was prepared for inaccuracies beyond the usual dramatic licence. And there are many. Yes, the Talk of the Town run wasn’t one of Garland’s finest hours – even die-hard fans admit that. But there is a lot of fiction here also. Even one of the real-life characters depicted in the film, Rosalyn Wilder (played by Irish actor, Jessie Buckley) admitted in an interview to contacting Quilter about the play saying:
“I wrote him a letter saying it never happened like that. He didn’t reply”.
The timeline is extremely awry, and there are several incidents that contradict eyewitness accounts of her own family and others. So now that there is some context…
Renée gives an all-consuming performance in the lead role. She was clearly very passionate about it, and does do a mesmerising job. She does seem to struggle somewhat with the prosthetic teeth she is wearing (Garland’s perfect smile in films was the result of removable caps) and seems conscious of them, but overall, she does a great job channelling the spirit of a past-her-prime diva. It just doesn’t feel like Garland, but rather an amalgamation of several characters.
Not as well cast is Darci Shaw as a young Judy. She is pleasing enough, but one-dimensional. The script does try to convey how the abuses of Garland’s childhood (including being pumped full of drugs and starved so that she was thin enough for screen) affected her, but Shaw doesn’t fully convey what she’s going through. She doesn’t bring any of the complex layers to the character that you’d expect.
Wittrock, as Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, is unrecognisable from the real person. Deans wrote a book about their time together, and is easy enough to research. He doesn’t have a huge amount to do, which is a shame, as he is a great actor. However, given that this was originally a one-woman play, any additional characters have merely been fleshed out from the source material, and details of their meeting – and even the timeline for their marriage is fictitious here.
Buckley completely shows why her star is rising. As Wilder, who was charged with being Judy’s assistant during the run of the show, she manages to do a fantastic job of appearing cool on the surface, so as not to upset her charge, but you can see the frantic panic in her eyes as Judy’s tardiness and substance issues get progressively worse.
They address Garland’s ‘gay icon’ status, by including two fictitious gay characters, who are supposed to represent her fans in general, as well as her adoration within the LGBTQ community. Again, these are very one-dimensional, and even an attempt to get political regarding the legalities of homosexuality in that era falls a bit flat. By the end of the film, they have almost been reduced to a comedic distraction. This feels like a very token inclusion, and removing them would not make much difference to the film.
Zellweger does all her own singing here, and most of the songs will be familiar to people. While she can indeed hold a tune, she doesn’t have the powerhouse contralto that Garland did, and this lets the story down somewhat. The songs are so iconic that hearing them sung by someone else – even if the intent is to show that the character’s voice wasn’t at its best – is a little jarring. It’s like when you hear anyone other than Sinatra singing My Way.
At the screening I attended, I saw people in tears at the end of it. And indeed, if you put aside the inaccuracies, this is a very moving story of a jaded star, who has been consumed by the industry that fed off her talent for so long.
As a biopic of Garland, this doesn’t do her justice, as there was far more to her than these five weeks of her life, and it’s been covered far more objectively in other works. However, as a testament to the entertainment industry’s ability to chew up and spit out a performer, it is a shocking, albeit all-too-common tale.
In Cinemas October 3rd! Trailer below: