A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.
The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.
“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else…I want what everyone wants, I just seem to have a harder time getting it” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.
Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get Happy, The Trolly Song, Come Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.
Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.
Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!