<< spoilers throughout; proceed with caution >>
It's hard enough evaluating 'even' films, so judging 'uneven' films is extra tricky. That's certainly the case here, in which much of the acting is 'pretty good' but the film itself is quite lumpy.
I guess the second thing to share is my visceral reaction, which can only be categorized as 'devastation.' Judy Garland's life was one of outright torment, and Judy does a fair job capturing that! Granted, it's not Schindler's List devastating, but it is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking in its own way, that way mainly being the observation of a very public woman in a tailspin throughout her brief, stormy, tumultuous life.
Before the film, I had absolutely no idea that Ms. Garland died at the all-too-young age of 47 (five months before my birth, in fact). I suppose that in the back of my mind, Judy and Liza [Minnelli] were palling around like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, perhaps even sharing a bungalow in the Hollywood Hills! As it turns out, Liza was one of three children from five marriages (!), and when they shared the same house in the early years, they lived in separate wings...Liza not catching on that her mother was stoned most of the time.
[Childhood] sexual harassment, assault, insecurity, insomnia, eating disorder(s), depression, alcohol and drug abuse rode Judy's back like a two-ton gargoyle her entire life, barbiturates being the specific cause of death just three months after her fifth (and final) marriage.
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Remember 1997's Life Is Beautiful, for which Roberto Benigni giddily pranced across red velvet chairs to collect his Academy Award for Best Actor? I sure do, in large part because the film found a way—through tone, connection, and outright love—to portray beauty amidst devastation.
I would have loved, in my childlike heart, for Judy to have somehow characterized or captured such ebullience, but doing so would clearly have been a lie. It appears her life was devoid of the joys often derived from connection and true love, most people wanting/taking something from her and treating her as little more than a pretty piggy bank.
It would seem that for all her talent, fame, and early success, Judy Garland was inarguably a shooting star but the innocent child behind her mask (born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922) was a shattered, emptied, lost, bankrupt, forever fragile 4' 11 ½” girl who rarely weighed more than 98 lbs in four blurry decades.
Like I said, devastating, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking.
There is a scene (that takes place in the final year of her life) in which her doctor says, "Judy, you really must take care of yourself," and Zellweger's Garland smiles, squints her eyes, and nods her head as if to say, "You betcha, Doc!" Once the doctor is gone, the camera pans back slowly and widely to capture Garland as she slumps forward like a defeated rag doll, her hospital gown a dozen sizes too small, dangling toes barely touching the step-stool before her. She clearly does not have the wherewithal to do such a life-sustaining thing. Wouldn't know how if she tried, and believe you me, she tried.
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Six months before her death, we see one final show in London (where she completed her career) during which she feebly and only partially completes her signature, typically show-stopping Over the Rainbow, but cannot muster the juice to get through it. Anxiety, fear, fatigue, hollowness, and a voice that has failed her leave her stocking-footed and crumpled on the floor, high heels in hand. For 45 of her 47 years, she has performed reliably like the cymbals-clanging monkey and carried the show, but here, right after whispering "If birds can fly over over the rainbow" but before "Then why, then why can't I" she falters, unable to get the words out. One by one, audience members slowly rise to their feet as if summoned by thrice-clicked ruby slippers to finish her tune for her and deliver her home.
I would love nothing more than to be able to say it was rapturous, cathartic, healing, restorative, beautiful. To be able to say "And she lived happily ever after."
Maybe somewhere that's true. I shall pray it's the case. That somewhere, up and over the rainbow she conjured for each of us so selflessly, she's finally struck a deal to rest in peace.