There are few actors who are more associated with one particular role than Judy Garland is with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The part made her a star, though the long-lasting appeal of the film tended to overshadow her later work, which included Meet Me in St. Louis and an Oscar-nominated turn in the 1954 version of A Star is Born.
Although she would go on to be nominated for another Oscar in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, A Star is Born turned out, ironically, to be the beginning of the end of her film career. As depicted in the new biopic, Judy, by the mid-1960s Garland (Reneé Zellweger) was close to broke and living on the goodwill of certain hotels and friends.
Her deteriorating career and personal life essentially forced her to take a gig performing in a string of concerts in London in 1969. The film, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, juxtaposes her time in London with her experiences as an ingénue on the set of The Wizard of Oz.
Whether you have a detailed knowledge of Garland’s history, it’s still more than a bit shocking to see how unhappy she was for much of her life. The maltreatment she received when she was making The Wizard of Oz from studio head Louis B. Mayer and others, it is heavily implied, played a big part in her lack of self-esteem and methods of self-medication later in life.
However, the film is not a dirge leading up to her premature death at the age of 47. As evidenced by her still-memorable roles, she was the consummate entertainer, and even in a diminished state, she could still put on a show. The concerts are shown to be as they were — hit-and-miss — but the high moments are staged in such a way that it’s hard not to be transported to a state of musical nirvana.
The filmmakers also pay tribute to Garland’s status as an LGBTQ icon in some low-key but unambiguous ways, the most memorable of which is an interaction with a gay couple after one of her shows. The sequence deftly explores an idea that should be obvious — that stars are human beings like the rest of us — in a gentle manner that’s both heartbreaking and uplifting.
The person who’s almost entirely responsible for the success of the film is Zellweger, making a remarkable comeback to the Oscar spotlight. Through a combination of acting talent, singing ability, and sheer will, she makes you believe she is Judy Garland, even if she’s not an exact match in looks or voice. It’s an astonishing achievement, even more so given that — 2016’s Bridget Jones’s Baby aside — her last major movie role was in 2008.
Zellweger overwhelms pretty much everyone else in the film, though a few people do manage to make an impact. Jessie Buckley is nicely understated as Rosalyn, the person in charge of taking care of Garland in London. Finn Wittrock continues his rise as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth and final husband. And newcomer Darci Shaw is highly effective at setting the tone in her scenes as young Judy.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic film, and Judy Garland will forever be remembered because of it. But Garland was not Dorothy, and Judy does a fantastic job at exploring the person and star she was, as well as who she wished she could have been had life turned out different.