Last year’s Stan & Ollie depicted the famed comedians touring the United Kingdom while trying to land a movie deal. Organising their act was budding impresario Bernard Delfont, who sixteen years later presented another Hollywood legend in the twilight of their career. Yet for Judy Garland, her appearance on the London stage was borne out of necessity. Heavily in debt, she is convinced that the only way to care for her children is to leave them for an engagement at Delfont’s Talk of the Town nightclub. Like Laurel and Hardy, her tour would be impacted by events from her past, though the origins of Judy’s troubles ran a lot deeper.
A series of flashbacks to Judy’s early film career bear witness to the difficulties that would plague her later in life. On the set of The Wizard of Oz (1939), studio boss Louis B. Mayer informs the child actress that although there are plenty of girls prettier, taller and slimmer than her, none of them have her voice. Yet he callously refuses to listen to it when she wants to enjoy the things those pretty girls take for granted. His studio is in the business of fabricating childhood memories, not experiencing them, and Mayer has no qualms in employing a variety of measures to get the most out of his young star.
Thirty years later in the back of a taxi, Lorna Luft begs her mother not to take a pill that she fears will put her to sleep. “No, no, no” Judy assures her. “These are the other ones.” It is one of Renée Zellweger’s first appearances as Garland, and over the next two hours she gives a performance that is devoid of the mannerisms that have crept into her previous roles. This is a total immersion into character that goes far beyond the remarkable physical transformation to encompass Garland’s determinedness, vulnerability and exhaustion. She not only acts fragile, she looks it! Then there’s the singing, and while Zellweger can certainly carry a tune, she doesn’t sound like Judy Garland. Sadly, at this stage of her life, neither did Judy Garland.
It is such a dominant performance that much else pales in comparison. Adapted from Peter Quilter’s play ‘End of the Rainbow’, the movie betrays its stage origins as a three-hander by delivering underwritten supporting characters. Finn Wittrock provides some shading to his role as Mickey Deans, but the rest of the cast are basically reduced to performing the role required of Rosalyn Wilder’s Jessie, that being getting Judy front and centre. Where the film does succeed is expanding the scope of the play beyond the stage, via a backstory, use of the aforementioned flashbacks and imagined jaunts with die-hard fans.
It is these same fans that provide an emotional ending to the film, capped off by heartbreakingly appropriate quote from The Wizard of Oz.
Judy completed her five week engagement at Talk of the Town, and was not replaced by Lonnie Donegan.
Judy did nit meet Mickey Deans at a Hollywood party. They were introduced when Deans delivered pills to her late one night.
The characters of Stan and Dan, Judy's gay fans, are fictional.
Biopic features many behind-the-scenes interactions from The Wizard of Oz, but no actual scene recreations.