If you want a review of Judy, starring Renee Zelweger, you can check it out in any number of publications.
I went to see Judy out of a sense of religious devotion. Several other members of
the cult were there. There were a couple of young women in their early twenties
who were dancing along to the songs. I’m guessing these girls had taken their share
of closeted boys from drama club to school dances.
Everybody else there was a gay man of a certain age, including me. We were there to see a retelling of a story we knew deeply, a kind of cultural scripture. Judy, aka Frances Gumm, born in a trunk, on stage at age three, who was exploited by her monster stage mother and the Hollywood studio system. Who was prescribed amphetamines as a young girl to keep her weight down and keep her going through 18 hour filming days. Who was given barbiturates to put her to sleep. Who was beautiful and had a voice that could call down angels, but was told she was ugly and unremarkable by a system that wanted to control her. Who by her forties was considered unhirable in Hollywood. Who after a string of failed marriages and financial fraud by her managers had no choice but to keep putting herself out there as a cabaret singer when she should have been in a hospital. Who died in middle age.
The cult of Judy is the veneration of a martyr,
a saint. A universal human who suffered for the sake of an uncaring world. The
least we can do is honor her memory—she died for our sins.
There is a lovely scene in the film where she has an impromptu dinner in the house of two of her fans, a gay couple. They have purchased tickets to every one of her performances at the Talk of the Town in London. They missed her when she came through the UK a few years before because one of them was in prison for gross indecency. That is, for being gay. Judy tells them the world just rejects anyone who’s different. She puts her arms around one of them when he breaks down in tears while trying to accompany her to “Get Happy.” She looks up and sees a shelf full of Judy Garland collectables. There’s no evidence this meeting ever happened, but it shows how gay men felt about Judy Garland—the Mother Protector who needed protecting herself.
If I could, I would force every gay below the age of 35 to put down their phones and watch this film. (No Grindr or Snapchat for two hours, boys) They have to understand what Judy meant to our people. They have to know why “Over the Rainbow” is the queer national anthem. When we were despised and rejected, Judy loved us. You knew that through her songs, through her self-deprecating humor, hell, you knew that through her substance abuse. When there was no Drag Race, when there was no Ellen, when our existence was a crime and national security threat, she was there. She led us in song as we sang for our souls in the outer circle of social hell. The children must know.
There’s so many layers to the meta-event of Judy. Here is Renee Zelweger, known for playing the same kind of quirky misfit roles Judy might have played, making her big comeback by playing the singer just at the point when the careening train of her life was about to go off the cliff.
You hold your breath for Renee to get through the highwire act of this performance just as Judy’s fans held their breath to see if she could fight through the chemical haze to pull one more grand performance out of her dusty bag of jazz standards.
And then there’s the magnificent failure of Zelweger’s singing. It’s not that Renee is a bad singer. On the contrary, she’s got a crooner’s style and can swing. But she’s no Judy Garland. Nobody living is Judy Garland. Renee is trying to do the literally impossible, but she soldiers on with complete commitment.
Behind the magnificent failure of Renee’s singing is an element of camp, just as behind the magnificent failure of Judy’s life was an element of camp. Years from now, I foresee drag queens doing performances of Renee Zelweger doing a performance of Judy Garland.
That being said, Renee does a magnificent job with Judy as a character. There’s the quirks and twitches of her physical presence. The bone-dry wit delivered half under her breath. The explosions of temper and thrown highball glasses in hotel rooms. The playfulness with her children, who knew she was a train wreck but adored her nonetheless.
But Jim Bailey could do all that. Zelweger seems to have gotten something about Judy—her sense of rejection from the Hollywood in-crowd, the nasty comments about appearance in an industry based on surfaces. She’s taken on the pathos of her own show business life and created Judy as a fully-realized person.
This is why in several parts I found myself tearing up. I don’t tear up at movies, but this one got to me. You knew that she would sing “Over the Rainbow” before it was all over. In this case, the director made the brilliant choice of shooting Judy/Zelweger in closeup, but with a wide lens, so it looked like she was looking right at the movie audience as she performed. By then the tragedy of Judy’s life—America’s abused and exploited sweetheart, the five failed marriages, the mother who only wanted a normal life with her children but could never make it work, the junkie who was about to overdose at the age of forty-seven—had been spelled out. And when she sings in that close-up it hits you, hits her too, like a ton of bricks. That’s why you’re crying at the end.