The life of Judy Garland might be so far outside of the view of modern-day audiences that younger people may have no idea who she is. The same can be said for Renee Zellweger, who hasn’t appeared in a hit film in at least a decade. Due to some bad press and some unflattering paparazzi shots that suggested botched plastic surgery, it’s understandable she would want to take some time off. But her performance in Rupert Goold’s Judy seems to suggest a Zellweg-issance. And I’m here for every second of it.
Through flashbacks, we see 15-year-old Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) as she’s filming what would turn out to be the iconic performance of her career, in The Wizard of Oz. She’s subjected to terrible treatment from the people in charge, and this, unfortunately, would set the tone for her whole life. These flashbacks intercut with 1968 Judy (Zellweger), who is flat broke after having her entire fortune stolen by various vultures in her life. She agrees to play a series of concerts in London to make enough money to reclaim custody of her children and give them the future they deserve.
Renee Zellweger gives the kind of performance where you genuinely forget you’re watching an actor. This is so often the problem when we have a star playing a star. Regardless of the actor’s talent, they never entirely disappear into the role. Whatever Zellweger went through in her time away from the screen was worth it, because she delivers the best performance of her career. Audiences seem to have forgotten she’s an actual singer, as she proved in her Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago. Singing live, she’s good here, but she doesn’t sound like Judy Garland. Then again, who does?
Stepping into the shoes of such an icon must be an incredibly daunting prospect for an actor to face. Zellweger never seems nervous or like she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing. It’s a fool’s game to make awards predictions this early in the year, but I would be surprised if she did not end up on the final list of nominated performances at the Oscars.
Zellweger is giving a performance this film doesn’t quite deserve. The rest of the movie is fine, but it’s nowhere on her level. Everything going on around her that isn’t quite working is elevated by intensely devoted, devastating performance. I wouldn’t say the film going on around her is a mess. There are bits of the flashback structure that feel creatively uninspired. It makes a difference that we do not hear young Judy sing, although everyone around her is telling her what a gift her singing voice is. Of course, we know.
We have some reliable players in the supporting cast, as well. We have American Horror Story alum Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans, an unlikely love interest. He’s kind of underused (anyone who has seen him on AHS knows how talented he is), and he’s wearing a bad toupee. We also have Jessie Buckley, playing an assistant helping Judy in London. Having recently seen Buckley’s powerhouse turn in Wild Rose, I wish she had a bit more to do here, but her character definitely has an interesting dynamic with Judy.
In the end, Judy is an emotionally stirring portrait of one of the great 20th century screen legends. The structure may be a bit safe and conventional, and while bits and pieces are a bit uneven, the character study of Garland at this point in her life is never anything less than compelling, and that’s all because of Zellweger. Yes, the biopic around her is just fine, but Zellweger’s extraordinary, knockout performance is more than enough to carry Judy over the rainbow.