If some critics were put off by a perceived lack of queerness in last year’s blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody, well, a biopic about a cis straight woman is here to pick up the slack with Judy.
Of course, the film’s subject, Judy Garland, is no mere mortal. The girl born Frances Gumm to a vaudeville family in the Midwest went on to become one of the inescapable queer icons of all time before — and fueled in part by — her untimely death at age 47 in 1969 just days before the Stonewall riots (which are connected in the minds of some LGBTQ historical gatekeepers, although others underplay the link).
Regardless, she was enough of a queer touchstone that the phrase “friend of Dorothy” was used as code in the gay community for decades. But more importantly, her tenacity in the face of an alternately oppressive and dismissive society — while battling personal demons and a fraught relationship with her family — all contributed to her being, inarguably, the definitive queer icon of the pre-rock era.
And unlike some biopics that shy away from queerness, Judy gently and heartbreakingly illustrates the way an emotional refugee from the Hollywood studio system uplifted the queer community with her resilience — and how they uplifted her in turn, continuing to carry her voice long after it was hushed.
As any acolyte of Garland knows, the real actress’ affectations — particularly later in life — were a far cry from the doe-eyed, aww shucks optimism she brought to the screen as Dorothy Gale in the immortal 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. And Oscar winner Renée Zellweger’s performance as a late-career Garland mounting a harried but occasionally transcendent series of concerts in London is more astonishing than the one that won her Oscar gold in 2004. There’s the uncertain, quivering mouth that morphs into an unconvincing smile of assurance; the gestures perpetually caught between showbiz posturing and self-doubting timidity; those moments where she seems to be on the verge of a breakdown before pulling it together to deliver a crushing retort or self-effacing read — it’s all there in Zellweger’s performance, which is basically two hours of open-heart surgery for any self-respecting friend of Dorothy.
But it’s a quietly moving portrayal of a greying gay couple in London who, beyond her children, provide the film’s emotional backbone. After a Christmas Eve concert, a lonely Garland invites herself to dinner with a couple (portrayed by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who, with tickets to multiple nights of her run, can’t believe their good luck. One fruitless odyssey and runny omelet later, Garland and Nyman share a moment where he explains there was no way they were going to miss these shows, as his partner was jailed on obscenity charges the last time she hit the town. Garland, looking fragile but guarded as ever, tells him she’s spotted them in the audience before and appreciates the consistent support — “I feel like I have allies,” she says. While a lesser talent might hammer home the clear choice to use the word “allies,” Zellweger tempers the emotionally blunt moment with enough seen-it-all weariness that it feels painfully true.
Later, Nyman plays “Get Happy” on the piano while she sings along. When he breaks down in tears, Garland moves over to the ivories — she’s comforting him, but also surveying the plates, pictures and paraphernalia in the couple’s apartment that pays homage to her. The distance remains; their love for her might be real, but it’s for Judy — not Frances. It’s adoration for, as she puts it later in the film, a person she plays for an hour a day.
That complicated emotional taxonomy plays out in the film’s climax, which is the clearest illustration of her relationship to the queer community… but also a point where the movie’s deft negotiation between heartstring tugging and restraint gets a little muddy.
As she takes the stage for a final U.K. performance to reclaim her dignity, Garland – singing signature tune “Over the Rainbow” for the first time in the film — chokes on her words before arriving at the lyric “why can’t I?”
Lying prostrate and pulling back tears, it looks like her attempted final take will be a flub until the aforementioned couple stands up and leads the crowd in a lilting sing-along of the chorus. A little saccharine? Yeah, but Garland lent her inimitable talent to a fair share of those silver screen moments, too. And it serves as an effective illustration of the way the queer community has carried her voice, and message of hope, long after her voice went silent.