Renée Zellweger fills Judy Garland’s ruby slippers quite nicely in a demanding role. She’s back on screen after a 6 year hiatus channeling the Hollywood show biz icon. Zellweger comes close to embodying the tormented woman, even singing her signature songs in the film. Our biggest criticism is the lack of that emotional tear in Garland’s voice, but Zellweger still delivers a bravura performance.
This artist is truly committed to this role, from her facial expressions, mannerisms, even her posture. Garland had curvature of the spine. The actress studied Garland’s moves and the prosthetic nose, makeup, brown contact lenses over her bright blue eyes, and pixie wigs complete the physical transformation. And she’s in every scene.
Zellweger studied with a voice coach (Eric Vetro) and the film’s musical director (Matt Dunkley) to get the sound and phrasing right. And they shot songs including “I’ll Go My Way By Myself,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in one take in front of a live audience with a full orchestra. No small chore for Zellweger. Reportedly there was not a dry eye in the house when she hit the last note.
English theatre director Rupert Goold based this production on the Broadway play “End of the Rainbow.” This film covers the last months of her life, living off her reputation, trying to make enough money to get custody of her children from Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell-The Man in the High Castle). Garland married 5 times, and was left with little to show for it, living out of hotels, scraping to get by.
Flashbacks to Garland’s childhood working for Louis B. Mayer on the Wizard of Oz are chilling. This was well before the #Metoo Movement and watching the way he tried to manipulate her is uncomfortable to see. Eventually, though not shown expicitly, is that he tried to touch her and only stopped when she protested. It was Mayer who put her on uppers and downers, diet pills and more to keep to her thin and working. Mayer made her very insecure telling her there was always a better looking girl who could replace her.The scene with her on a break from filming with Mickey Rooney and his rejecting her as well, didn’t help. The film takes place in 1968 when she reluctantly accepts an engagement in London at the fashionable nightclub, Talk of the Town.
Her voice is not what it used to be, and her popularity is also not what it was when she was an A-List Hollywood star with her own variety show on TV. She was known to be nervous and difficult. Most likely the result of her insecurity and the pills. Zellweger shows Judy looking and acting burned out and much older than her years. She’s only 47.
She’s greeted with open arms in London by the club owner Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) and the woman who would be her personal assistant, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley-Chernobyl). Buckley is remarkably good in the role. She plays it with British respect and restraint, sympathetic to Judy’s plight, still knowing her responsibility to get her on stage every night, no matter what shape she was in.
And in the middle of this tug of war to keep Judy performing, young lover/opportunist, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock- Hunger Games), shows up and marries her to make it all even more complicated. He’s just another detour for her and this movie.
Goold uses another distraction with a gay couple who are big fans and totally star struck. They buy tickets for every show. Judy had a huge following in the gay community and there’s a cute scene where Zellweger plays Judy as down to Earth and human when they take her back to their apartment for a fun late, late dinner. But Judy goes off the rails with them, too.
Zellweger shows Judy’s attitude with witty humor and funny comebacks, especially when something isn’t going quite right. She tries to lighten things up with her kids, too. She loves them, but she’s a mess. There’s only one scene with daughterLiza (Gemma-Leah Devereux). They’re at a party that lays flat. There’s no chemistry in this mother-daughter encounter. Judy’s interaction with youngest daughter Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey- Game of Thrones) show the kids are more mature than their mother.
Director Goold totally immersed Zellweger in Judy’s music every day on the set and as a result, there are moments in this film where the songs just seemed to ooze out of her. She obviously worked hard to channel this Hollywood icon. There’s still only one Judy Garland, but you don’t have to click your heels three times to see Renée Zellweger pull back the curtain on her own inspired version of this tragic soul who never found her rainbow.
Roadside Attractions 1Hour 58Minutes PG-13
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