One day in 1968, the year before she died, Judy Garland watched a television interview she had done with Dick Cavett. Noticing Cavett’s fidgeting, she wondered why she made everyone so uncomfortable. Because, a friend replied, no one knew if she was going to sing “Over the Rainbow” or open her veins. “Sometimes I do both,” Garland said, “at the same time.”
In “Judy,” Renée Zellweger plays a few variations on Garland near the end of her life: worried mother, needy lover, disaster, legend. The woman who remains out of sight, though, is the sadder, scarier Judy who threw a butcher knife at one of her children and threatened to jump out a window in front of another. Even so, Zellweger is solid in a movie that derives its force from its central mythic figure and your own Yellow Brick Road memories: the Hollywood supernova with the inner-child vaudevillian named Frances Ethel Gumm, a.k.a. Baby.
One of those biopics that tries to encapsulate the sweep and substance of a life by narrowing in on ostensibly representative moments, “Judy” concentrates on Garland’s bumpy, weeks-long engagement at the Talk of the Town, a London cabaret-restaurant where patrons sometimes threw breadsticks at the faltering talent. When Garland arrived in London in late December 1968, she was broke. She had been forced to sell her house in Los Angeles — fans and servants had been helping pay the bills — and had effectively become a vagabond, which is how Gerald Clarke describes her in his sympathetic book “Get Happy.”
When Zellweger first sweeps into the movie there’s nothing to suggest that Judy is in trouble. She looks strong, with eyes and a smile that are naturally bright rather than pharmaceutically amped. Sailing down a palatial hotel lobby with her two youngest children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she commands the space like a genuine star, dressed in a floral pantsuit, her hair as feathered as a cockatoo’s crest. The pantsuit and her green scarf are as bright as a warning signal: They look a lot like an outfit she was meant to wear in “Valley of the Dolls” before she was fired. (Garland didn’t want to play the film’s harridan.)
Judy tries to check in but her account is in arrears. The staff is embarrassed. She’s outraged. With no money and no place to go, she and the kids clamber into a car. They’re headed into the next sad chapter of their life — the children soon move in with dad — the night city glowing in the distance like a lighted stage. Zellweger purses her lips and Judy shakes out a few tablets. Lorna asks her mother not to go to sleep. “No, no, no,” Judy says, Zellweger dragging out the words so that they slide together, like the pills she’s about to swallow. “These are the other ones.” She pops them and we’re off to the races for good times and bad.
“Judy” is based on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow,” which had a well-received Broadway run in 2012 and skitters between Judy ripping her heart out in a London hotel and at the theater where she will become the talk of the town. The movie, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, is a gentler, squarer mash note to the Great Woman that’s part maternal melodrama, part martyr story. Instructively, Judy is pawing a lover’s crotch soon after the play opens, not worrying about her children. This shift in emphasis to the Loving Mother is presumably meant to make Judy a more readily sympathetic figure who, in caring for her kids, is trying to correct the past.
Her larger story regularly surfaces in bland, unconvincing scenes of the teenage Judy (a miscast Darci Shaw) that drain attention and momentum from both the main story and Zellweger. Under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the young Judy is exhausted and hungry. She’s not supposed to eat and she can’t sleep, kept awake by pills pushed by a studio that thinks she’s too fat. Every so often, the boss, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), threateningly looms over her. The real Mayer wasn’t much taller than Garland, whose mother — missing in action here — was loathsome, details that might complicate the movie’s reductive vision of power and abuse, victimization and survival, women and men.
The Judy Garland story is an oft-told tragedy of greatness devoured by fame, by the entertainment machine, the audience’s habit-forming adoration and bad personal choices. The movie adheres to that template, delivering the usual scoundrels (Finn Wittrock as a lover), courtiers (Jessie Buckley as a minder) and facile psychology, sometimes with a #MeToo spin, most overtly in the scene of Mayer touching the young Judy’s chest. The real Garland said that Mayer groped her, but that she put an end to his harassment. She continued to speak well of him after he died and long into her own life, perhaps because people are far more complex than biopics like this one can admit.
Mostly, “Judy” offers the familiar spectacle of one star playing another. Zellweger’s performance is credible, with agitated flutters and filigreed touches, though it leans hard on Judy’s tremulous fragility, as if she were a panicked hummingbird. The take is also cautious, too comfortable; it never makes you flinch or look away. Wholly embracing Garland’s freneticism at its rawest might have registered as excessive or campy, but it would have deepened the portrait. So would Garland’s voice. Zellweger has a fine one — she sings all of Judy’s songs — but it can’t deliver the fantasy that this is one of the greatest entertainers in history.
By the late 1960s, Garland had made and lost fortunes, was addicted to drugs and had repeatedly attempted suicide and cried out for attention by threatening to do so, by cutting herself, swallowing aspirins. She overdosed so often that her daughter Liza apparently acquired a stomach pump. Of course, in the end, there was no one to help and Garland died at 47 from an accidental overdose. “Judy” tries hard to inject brightness and pleasure into this bleak picture as this lost, luminous woman grabs onto one last chance, one more man. It shows the highs and some of the lows, piles on the strained smiles and upbeat tunes, embracing the woman even as it tries to temper the despair that comes from watching someone die in slow motion.
Rated PG-13 for substance abuse. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.