There have been other biopics of actresses with tragic lives in recent years. Annette Bening did a wonderful job playing Gloria Grahame last year in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” It’s the kind of role that Oscar voters eat up.
Renee Zellweger’s Judy Garland movie “Judy,” has already gotten a substantial amount of press with screenings at Telluride and another premiere set for Toronto. You may think you know Garland’s story– it’s one of those great divas in distress sagas that seems to age pretty well.
Even if you don’t know about Judy Garland’s career starting at age 2, her teen years opposite Mickey Rooney in musical comedies and Andy Hardy movies, her meteoric rise to fame with “The Wizard of Oz,” not to mention the husbands, the highs, and the lows, you will now. That’s because Renee Zellweger is so good in this role she’s going to reignite a new generation of Garland fans.
Renee already has her own Oscar from “Cold Mountain” and plenty of her own iconic roles from “Jerry Maguire” to “Chicago” to the Bridget Jones series. But she recently took a six year break from acting and attended to her own life, before returning in Rupert Goold’s tailor made star vehicle.
We know from her turn in “Chicago” that Renee can sing. And we know she can act. But as Garland I think she’s doing something we’ve never seen before. She pulls all of her talents together. Is she as good as Bening was as Grahame– yes, definitely. But then you get the value added of the singing, and Zellweger does not imitate Garland so much as embody her while still keeping her own Renee-ness accessible. It’s quite a feat.
Goold and his production team make the most of a small budget, that’s for sure. He relies on a lot of close ups– Zellweger really pulls off Judy in her late 40s perfectly even though time has ravaged the character in ways Renee could not imagine for herself. Kudos to the makeup department, set and production design people for being unsparing and sympathetic at the same time.
The movie is based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, adapted here economically by Tom Edge (“The Crown” among other TV scripts). When we see Judy as an adult — Goold cuts back and forth to movie mogul LB Mayer torturing her during the “Oz” shoot — she’s down on her luck. She’s 46 years old, divorced, penniless. Daughter Liza is about 22, and on her own. But Judy has two teenagers with Sid Luft– Lorna and Joey–for whom she’s fighting unsuccessfully for custody.
Into the mix comes the man who will be her final husband, Mickey Deans (an excellent Finn Wittrock) who joins her as she heads to London to make money doing shows in the West End. But Judy is so addled from pills and booze, it’s clear the clock is ticking. Even when she’s most self-destructive, Zellweger has Garland on a tight leash. She’s funny, witty, really, and endearing. And when she has to rise to the occasion and deliver a big number, she can do it.
Zellweger can’t imitate Garland’s specific, multi-colored voice. But she can approximate it enough, adding her own features, that she can find the retreating diva. The performance will earn her lots of nominations and maybe even an Oscar depending on what resources Roadside Attractions puts into a campaign. I often make fun of Roadside, they’re blown a lot of good opportunities. But if they mess this up, they won’t be taken seriously by anyone ever again. And it would be heartbreaking for Zellweger, who really turns what could have been a much told tale into a gem. If anyone ever doubted her place in Hollywood, they’ll be in a for a lovely surprise.