Judy Garland was America’s sweetheart for a time, including being immortalized as

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ, 1939.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ, 1939.

Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Behind the scenes, Garland suffered from lifelong insecurity, anger about the constraints she faced, substance abuse, and reliability issues that eventually lost her the ability to make a living. It also meant she could not provide a stable home for her two younger children, Lorna and Joey Luft (Liza Minelli was grown by then).

These are the things revealed in the 2019 film Judy, starring Renée Zellwegger. The story focuses on Judy’s final year or so (with flashbacks to her ingénue beginnings), when she left her kids to make some money abroad (although the locations of her final shows are a bit historically muddled, obviously for dramatic purposes) so she could win back custody of her kids.

Meanwhile, the children are left with ex-husband Sidney Luft, portrayed by Rufus Sewell (Dark City, A Knight’s Tale), who unfortunately has few and forgettable scenes as a rather flat, one-note personality. Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, is played by Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story, 2014–16). While he has a bit more of a visible role as the last intimate partner in Garland’s life, it’s still a thin characterization. It’s as though Zellwegger as Garland stays in sharp focus while all those around her are shot through a lens smeared with Vaseline.

Zellwegger as Garland in JUDY, 2019.

Zellwegger as Garland in JUDY, 2019.

In fact, the entire film seems crafted solely to showcase the acting and singing mimicry of Zellwegger, rather than telling the story of Garland’s triumphs and tragedies. An excellent review by Alison Willmore describes this show without a soul. Yes, Zellwegger might get an Oscar for this performance, but it seems rather exploitive. Garland was, after all, much more than the sum of these unhappy terminal situations.

In some moments, Zellwegger sublimely captures Garland’s look and movements, and even approximates her voice (though, like the excellent effort of Taron Egerton in Rocketman, no one can truly replicate inimitable voices like those of Elton John or Judy Garland).

But throughout most of the film, I was struck by the stark differences: Zellwegger is 50, emaciated, and really showing her age. Garland had withered toward the end of her 47 years due to prolonged drug use, but she still had the beautiful wide eyes and round cheeks that made her downright adorable all her life. Zellwegger also has ingrained expressions, like pursing her lips and squinting her eyes, that make her instantly recognizable—but as herself—that creep in and blow any illusion she casts of being the woman she portrays.

Garland and husband Deans, about 6 months before her death.

Garland and husband Deans, about 6 months before her death.

Theater director Rupert Goold does a commendable job with the pacing and imagery of Judy, and this film is worth watching. However, in the end, it’s depressing and shallow. It doesn’t touch the triumphant aspects of Garland’s life that can be celebrated and instead focuses on only the heartbreak. Lorna Luft sums up some of these shortcomings in a recent interview.Of course, an excellent performance shouldn’t and can’t be spoiled by mere expressions, but that’s how thin the veneer seems here. It’s dress-up and make-believe, rather than phenomenal true-life character portrayal. IMHO, it’s just not on the same wavelength as the performances of Geoffrey Rush in Shine, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and even Julia Roberts as Erin Brokovich. Though some of these portrayals required some makeup, it’s the actors’ deep dive into the humanity of each character that makes these films amazing.

Unlike some of the historical character films mentioned above, which I can and have watched again and again, I’ll probably not return to Judy. That quality of “I’d watch it again” is a bellwether of movie success to me.

If you’ve seen the movie, chime in about what you think. Will Zellwegger’s performance join the pantheon of best real-life character portrayals?