There's no doubt that Renée Zellweger took the titular role of Judy Garland to show the world she's not done yet. And, truly, watching her play a woman riddled with addiction and doubt gives viewers a front-row seat onto one of the Oscar winner's greatest performances of all time. Judy opens Friday at select theaters.
Zellweger knows the harsh realities of the spotlight all too well, not releasing a film from 2011 to 2016 while riding a wave of criticism for facial plastic surgery gone awry. Watching her play Garland in Judy, which tells a comeback tale of sorts, is us seeing Zellweger make a comeback too.
The film wrongly begins in a flashback to the Wizard of Oz set with Garland as a teenager explaining to MGM head Louis B. Mayer that she's good enough to land Dorothy, stalling the drama from the get-go. Minutes in, the movie finally moves to California in the 1960s, where Garland is recently divorced, trying to care for her two younger children and essentially homeless. Broke, she's persuaded to go to London for a series of concerts, and this, thankfully, is where the action begins.
See, Garland, with that glorious husky alto (and vibrato you can drive a truck through), has stage fright. When her handler, played by a wonderful Jessie Buckley, finally shoves her out for that first performance, relief comes. This play between "will she go on stage or won't she?" brings the most tension to the film. You want her to succeed but know things can only go one way when she's often out under the spotlight drunk and high, fighting with a hostile audience.
That this is based on a play — End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter — makes sense. Parts of this color-saturated film feel like vignettes. A scene with two fans making her dinner in their apartment is particularly beautiful (even if it's seemingly thrown in to remind us she's a gay icon). Another where she calls her young daughter (Bella Ramsey, who slayed as Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones!) from a payphone will make you weep. Director Rupert Goold, who's mostly made TV movies in the past, aptly lets scenes breathe: from Garland meeting and fighting with her fifth husband, to focusing on Zellweger as she displays all the correct dance mannerisms and latter-year body twitches.
Garland died six months after the events of the film conclude, succumbing to a barbiturate overdose. As we learn throughout Judy, the film studio got her hooked on pills in the first place. When they needed her to work 18-hour days, there were uppers. To get her to sleep: downers. She later discovers booze and men. None of it made her happy. Her body in the end was ravaged, wrinkled and thin (kudos to the makeup and wardrobe people for getting it so right here). She was 47 years old. To put that in perspective, stars like Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson are that same age.
Despite Judy's imperfections (why so many flashbacks?), the film serves one grand purpose: Listening to Zellweger sing, and she does it well — as you knew she would, hello, Chicago — should make you itch to hear the real thing. This biopic should cause people to dig out the old songs and movies and revel, now 50 years after her death, in Garland's heart-felt mastery.
At the end of the film, after an entirely moving and broken rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Garland says to her London audience, "You won't forget me, will you? Promise you won't." It may as well be Zellweger herself.