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Review: TIFF 2019: ‘Judy’ is a tale of joy and tears on- and off-screen (Includes first-hand account)

Being a famous child actor is a difficult gig as you’re constantly in demand and living any semblance of a normal life may be out of the question with shoots and promotional tours filling your calendar. It was even worse before the rules protecting kids, regulating their work hours and mandating school work, were put into place. Before that, young actors were pushed to their limits with long work days, uncaring handlers and mismanaged careers. Judy Garland was America’s sweetheart, but it didn’t do her any favours in life. The biopic, Judy, is adapted from the stage play, “End of the Rainbow,” and portrays her final residence at a London nightclub in 1968.

Judy (Renée Zellweger) was a stage sensation before she reached double digits. She was pretty, could act and had a beautiful singing voice that other pretty girls didn’t. The Wizard of Oz made her a star and Take me to St. Louis made her the girl next door everyone wanted to marry. But 30 years later, she was a mother of two engaged in custody battle. She could no longer book movie roles and her vices determined whether it would be a good day or a bad one. The London show was important to getting her feet back on the ground and giving her more time to spend with her kids… though it wouldn’t work out as anyone hoped.

At 46, Judy was a chronic insomniac, pill addict and mostly functioning alcoholic with a failing voice and debilitating anxiety and depression. She’d been married four times and loved her two children with all her heart. She then briefly married an ambitious, handsome man half her age who promised to get Judy the deal that would set her, i.e. them, up for life. She adored him, but they didn’t appear to have much in common. Conversely, the film portrays a touching, spontaneous friendship she forms with a gay couple who revere her. However, nothing compares to when Judy gets on stage and gives it everything she has — in that moment, she’s immaculate.

The film uses her incoherent moments to flashback to her life after Oz but before St. Louis, when Louis B. Mayer was keeping his dancing monkey on an impossibly tight leash. She worked non-stop 18-hour days, couldn’t sleep and didn’t have friends beyond fellow child actor, Mickey Rooney. There’s also hints of possible molestation, but there’s no doubt she suffered other forms of abuse and endangerment growing up in the spotlight. These glimpses of the past are just snippets of what contributed to her current state of being, though most of the industry was aware of her issues.

Zellweger loses herself in this role, embodying Judy at her best and worst moments. For anyone familiar with the actress’ late career, there’s nothing revelatory in the narrative — but it’s still something to see a depiction of her in all her glory with the audience in the palm of her hands. On the other hand, watching an icon struggle to get through the day or be treated like a show horse is difficult at times. But the last five minutes of this film is a culmination of all the emotions up to that point and it’s so marvellously sad and exuberant that many will have trouble holding back the tears.

Judy had its Canadian premiere in the Special Presentations category at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2019 coverage.

Director: Rupert Goold
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley and Rufus Sewell

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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