Even Judy Garland would have to marvel at Renee Zellweger’s performance in “Judy.”
Capturing all of the “Wizard of Oz” star’s mannerisms and vocal tics, Zellweger storms through the singer’s final days and gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to achieve stardom so early in life.
Mixing flashbacks to her MGM days with an account of a concert stint in London, director Rupert Goold offers plenty of reasons why she never felt comfortable in her skin. She was “Judy Garland one hour a day,” but Frances Gumm the other 23.
The beaten and battered Oscar winner has to work because bills (and a contentious divorce) have left her on the edge. When she’s told she has no place to live, she turns to the one thing she can rely on – her star power – and survives.
Zellweger doesn’t approach the role with pity or sorrow but wit and charm. Even when she’s swearing at an audience after too much to drink, she’s a woman who knows her strengths.
When she sings, the emotion bleeds through.
Zellweger doesn’t always sound like Garland, but she has the phrasing and performance down. A great black wig and Judy-specific costumes help her achieve the look.
Although no one is given a role quite as big, folks like Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell check in as authority figures – men trying to reign in the queen.
A young man with big ideas (a great Finn Wittrock) breezes into her life and offers momentary hope. They have a quick relationship, marry in a minute and look poised for happiness.
Reality, however, has a way of seeping in.
Through it all, Zellweger performs Garland’s classics, saving “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the end. When she does it as an apology, she can’t get through it and for a brief moment gets a chance to realize what it – and she – meant to millions.
Goold stages those musical scenes like a 1960s TV special, letting Zellweger work a microphone cord like a lasso.
While Jessie Buckley has a utilitarian role (she’s the handler who tries to keep Garland in check), she doesn’t go through the motions. A tea party she arranges before Garland leaves London has real heart and a nice tie to those early years of torment.
"Judy" isn't the tribute Garland deserves but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Zellweger puts her heart into the project and comes away with an appreciation for her work and the woman's she's portraying.