The Wizard of Oz (1939) is one of the most beloved classic American films of all time, but after “Judy,” this cherished favorite may be hard to watch the same way ever again. The film follows Hollywood icon Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger), most well known for her role as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” in the final months of her life. In her late 40s, performing her music abroad is the only work she can find. Here in her final months, Garland struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction in her mission to support herself and her children.
“Judy” is a commentary of Hollywood culture and the treatment of women in the industry. The film shines when Zellweger explores the depths of Garland’s suffering and life trajectory. The film highlights the horrific ways the studio pumped Garland full of pills and forced her to starve. As she grew older and her struggles manifested, no one would hire her and the once adoring public abandoned her, leaving her alone in her darkest hours.
Zellweger disappears into the role, exploring Garland’s deep-rooted struggles in a performance that will likely result in some well-earned awards nominations. Zellweger tackles the personal and public life of Garland with a quiet intensity, and performs all of her own vocals, which is a triumphant feat all on its own.
As a film, “Judy” struggles at times to tell an original story, falling victim to common Hollywood tropes. This happens particularly in the final scene when the audience helps her to sing when she can’t. The story of the troubled celebrity isn’t a new one, fresh off the heels of “Rocketman” (2019), the Elton John biopic of the same nature. Sadly, this may say more about how prevalent addiction is within the industry. Something “Judy” does to make up for its story flaws is present an intimate look into Hollywood, particularly during her youth, and how the world that built her up subsequently abandoned her.
Numerous interwoven sequences featuring a young Judy Garland, played by Darci Shaw, are a prominent aspect of the film. Garland was groomed by the studio executives during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz” and other gigs early in her career. “Judy” depicts the studio’s micromanagement of her life— from what she ate to when she slept and how she looked. One of the few scenes of visual beauty features the young Garland defiantly jumping into a pool set, visually isolating her as the background fades to black and the audience is pulled in to witness Judy in a rare moment of freedom. These sequences of trauma inflicted on a hopeful but impressionable young Garland act as a devastating parallel to the struggles she faced leading up to her death.
While the film highlights Garland, countless young women in the film and music industries are left in the wake of traumatic experiences from inhumane studio and public treatment. One can’t help but be reminded of other incredible talented individuals, like Amy Winehouse, who suffered a similar fate. All too often, the product is treated as more important than the person, and the results are devastating. The film acts as a cautionary tale for audiences, showing the consequences of not helping those in need.
The film may not reach heights of greatness, but the stunning performance by Zellweger and the chance to learn and reflect on an icon and the industry that killed her should not be passed up. Having the knowledge as an audience member that these were among her last months alive is a haunting experience. While at times derivative, the final scene is so impactful that it’s hard to care. She never wanted to be forgotten, and it’s doubtful she ever will be.