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Judy is a biopic that explores the life of the actress Judy Garland. It jumps between two timelines: Judy’s later years as she toured London to try and earn some money for her family and her teenage years on set for The Wizard of Oz. What transpires on screen is a story that many know very little about: the woman behind the character.

What we see happen to her is awful. Desperately awful. She is chaperoned from place to place as a young woman, forced to swallow various pills rather than to eat. Getting constant abuse from much older men who run the studio, being told she’s too fat, her nose is not thin enough, she’s not smart- that her only saving grace is her voice, and of course the studio’s interest in her.

If you know nothing about the Hollywood studio system of the 30s/40s era let me give you some brief context that the film itself leaves out. The studios were broken down in the Classical Hollywood era into the Big 5 and the Little 3. MGM was part of the Big 5 and had a contract with Garland. This meant they virtually owned her. They had final say on her pay, working hours, lifestyle habits and ultimately how she was perceived by the public, so in essence, they did own her. And yet, although what we see play out on screen is distressing, I feel they didn’t quite punctuate this point well enough. It’s here where my major issue with the film lies. The studio’s treatment of these men and women that they ‘owned’ was unforgivable. But what we see on screen doesn’t drive this point well enough. Yes, they’re rude to Garland, but the film didn’t seem to go in as much as they should have done. Who were the filmmakers trying to protect by not criticising the studio’s behaviour deeply enough? It certainly wasn’t Judy Garland. They don’t make the large statement about the studio system that really needs to be made in our modern era of standing up for women in the entertainment industry. Do I even need to mention ‘Me Too’ or are we all on board with what I’m getting at?

The other aspect to this real life tragedy lies in the later timeline when Garland has grown up. At her later stages in life Garland had lost her fortune, was homeless and in order to try and provide for her children she begrudgingly undertook a tour of London with a set of Live Shows.  Having lived a life of drug addiction, caused by the studio, she struggles to keep to deadlines and perform on such a rigorous schedule. Although we might feel inclined to believe that her plight is a result of her own actions the film pushes us to see the world from her perspective. It is another film that epitomizes a truly harrowing element to our society and culture. The unforgivable need to use and abuse those who we admire the most: entertainers. Just as with Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and Robin Williams and like so many others we allow greed to overcome the welfare of human beings. On two instances Judy’s character turns directly to camera, staring straight at us, forcing us to question who’s really in the wrong here, her, or us…? 

Renée Zellweger was masterful as Garland. It feels like we’ve been waiting a lifetime for Zellweger to reach her potential as an actress and I feel like she’s come so close with this role. She still has reach that wasn’t fulfilled here, as the filmmakers clearly decided to shy away from the overarching point of the film, but Zellweger is extremely close. What’s missing is Garland’s empowering moment, the moment where she highlights the true depths of the studio’s abuse of her. But then, in real life she probably didn’t get this moment, so why should she in a film about her life? This is the most heartbreaking point of the film: the true life from which it is based. As Garland never got to fully denounce the studio and truly expose its downright abuse of her, neither can her character.

Ultimately, this is a film that has attempted to make a huge statement about the treatment of actors in the classical Hollywood era, and into today’s industry, but then shied away from it at the last moment. Having said this however, it did move me. So it’s not like the film isn’t successful in inciting an emotional response, but the fact that they didn’t fully point the finger at MGM makes it a frustrating watch.  

Showing now in City Screen: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/city-screen-picturehouse