Here’s an odd biopic sub-genre … Hollywood Legend in career crisis comes to Britain and is perked up a bit (but still dies soon after), as seen in My Week with Marilyn, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Stan & Ollie. I wonder if anyone’s working up a script about that ill-fated stage tour of Dracula which led Bela Lugosi into an Old Mother Riley movie?
In 1968, Judy Garland was brought to London by impresario Bernard Delfont to sing cabaret-style at the Talk of the Town – and things didn’t go smoothly.
Renée Zellweger’s Judy shows an unparalleled mastery of expressive wrinkle-manipulation in a performance that’s a lot more than just an imitation. Michael Gambon is a wary Delfont – if Rufus Jones had reprised the role from Stan & Ollie, this could be part of an extrended cinematic universe of comeback dramas – who assigns young Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) to hustle the erratic star along through her demanding schedule. Mixed in are a custody battle with one ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and a whirlwind romance/marriage with a handsome flim-flam man (Finn Wittrock) that proves less emotionally satisfying to Judy than connecting with her devoted audience. A significant segment of her fandom is represented by a quietly yearning couple of comical ‘friends of Dorothy’ (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who are kinder to her than her actual colleagues and friends – but, of course, don’t have to put up with so much from her.
It’s an up-and-down ride, with the star’s parlous physical and mental health shadowing her onstage turns and a couple of tabloid-unfriendly disasters which threaten the ultimate nightmare – paying to see Judy Garland but getting Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgliesh) instead – though Garland keeps getting in focus for about the length of a set-piece song.
Pointed but slightly garbled flashbacks feature a young Judy (Darci Shaw) and a sinister Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) – combination plantation owner and lecherous foster father – and glimpses of her well-known lifelong problem with prescription pills at firet foisted on her by the studo to keep her eyes open and her weight down during a brutal production schedule. There are also scenes with Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereaux) and young Mickey Rooney, but the casting coup of Fenella Woolgar yields only a drive-by on a bicycle along the yellow brick road set.
All these movies are built around awards-bid performances – as the likes of Michelle Williams, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly channel genuine screen legends but also the troubled souls behind the smiling/pouting/laughing/singing faces. It’s no easy task. Zellweger not only has to get Judy at a particular stage in her career (looking frankly old and tired but as twinkly as she is crotchety) but also has to compete with the Garland who played games with her own autobiography in A Star is Born. Scripted by Tom Edge from a play by Peter Quilter and directed by Rupert Goold, this is a carriage trade biopic – poignant rather than horrifying, which works through the drama – allowing Judy to crack bitter jokes about her own cliché fading star misbehavuour to cover the pain – and finally delivers the inescapable showbiz glitz and schmaltz, plus a last number you’d have to be concrete not to cry during.