Renée Zellweger performs miracles playing Judy Garland: singing her heart out, baring her bruised soul and acting with a ferocity that ultimately rises to a state of grace. Yes, Judy, the well-meaning but wobbly biopic that can barely contain her take on the late Star Is Born star, is pure Oscarbait — ready made for an Academy campaign and rarely soaring to the level of a portrayal that’s a dazzling, deeply felt tribute from one artist to another. But you’ll want to see this for Zellweger’s bravura turn alone. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
Garland died of an accidental drug overdose in 1969 when she was only 47. But the uppers she took to shed pounds and work-work-work, and the downers she swallowed to sleep, were a part of her life since childhood. Flashbacks to her teen years show a young Garland (a truly stellar Darci Shaw) as a pawn in the hands of studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) who used pills and constant surveillance to make sure his star towed the line during the filming of The Wizard of Oz. That 1939 classic that would send her career over the rainbow — and help drive her personal life into chaos. Many saw this jewel in MGM’s crown as a victim, but not Zellweger, who keeps Garland’s fighting spirit alive and razor-sharp.
Broke from bad investments and worse husbands, Garland accepts a lucrative offer from impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to do a five-week engagement at his posh London nightclub, Talk of the Town. Garland hopes to earn enough to return to Los Angeles and make a home for her two youngest children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd). Her eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), is already grown and forging her own career. The movie focuses on the nervous, tightly-wound Garland dodging rehearsals and performing erratically on stage when she’s not dead-drunk. When she returns to her hotel, our lady Judy is dependent on the kindness of strangers and her fifth and final husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a promoter 13 years her junior. The “happy little bluebirds” that Garland sang about in “Over the Rainbow” are in short supply during this time.
Directed by British stage sensation Rupert Goold (Macbeth, King Lear) and adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge, Judy makes a virtue of its theatrical roots as a play by Peter Quilter called End of the Rainbow. With the help of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s lush camera work and Jany Temime’s eye-catching costumes, Goold keeps the film on a fast track. But the main kudos belong to Zellweger — not only for showing that her Oscar-nominated song-and-dance role in Chicago was hardly a fluke, but for making a virtue of the film’s structural limitations. Though she sings the role with suggestions of Garland’s iconic vibrato, there is no attempt at imitation. And no need: During this time in her life, Garland’s voice was often in shocking disrepair. When she steps on stage holding a mic even she couldn’t tell if she still had the power to hold a note and send it soaring. And when the notes wouldn’t come, audiences would sometimes react by hurling insults or throwing bread rolls, resentful at paying high prices for a declining diva who couldn’t deliver. It’s a portrait of a songbird on the ropes.
Zellweger isn’t the first to slip on those tarnished ruby slippers — Judy Davis won an Emmy for playing Garland in the 2003 miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. But the Jerry Maguire actor digs so deep into the role you can feel her nerve endings. She owns this movie. Tottering on skyscraper high heels, one hand on a mic and the other raised to the heavens, Zellweger shows how this icon took a battle stance on stage and hoped for the best. Part of the rush of watching Garland live was that she was performing without a net. The film’s covered versions of such Garland classics as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Trolley Song” and “By Myself” catch the fragility and the strength of the embattled singer in ways that are nothing less than thrilling. No need for standard biopic padding when there’s a tornado standing on stage.
Sadly, Judy brings the biopic padding regardless. A visit from Garland’s third husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), complete with threats of a custody battle for their two children, feels contrived. And the booze and drug-taking interludes seem staged to telegraph the upcoming tragedy. There is a stunning exception: a scene when Garland accepts the invitation of two fans to have a drink at their flat and enjoys a brief, tender moment of being cared for and understood. Even when the movie slips into conventional patterns, Zellweger continues to paint outside the box, doing a climactic talk-sung version of “Over the Rainbow” that’s an emotional wipeout. It’s moments like that Judy turns into a love letter to Garland’s talent, her tenacity and her warrior’s heart.