Film & Television

In ‘Judy,’ Zellweger’s Performance is Dazzling, Heartbreaking, and Oscar-Worthy

But naturally the star of Judy is the actress portraying Judy herself, Renée Zellweger. Hers has been hailed as the role and performance of a lifetime, and I have to agree. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences might as well start engraving the Best Actress Oscar now. Of course, Zellweger is no stranger to the red carpet. She won the Oscar (and numerous other prizes) 15 years ago for Cold Mountain, and was nominated for both Chicago and for Bridget Jones’s Diary.

For nearly two hours, Zellweger embodies the essence of Garland. From the star’s gestures and mannerisms, the purse of her lips, her posture, and how she handles her microphone onstage, to flashes of self-deprecating humor, Zellweger captures the familiar without falling into parody. A doctor asks, “Have you ever taken anything for depression?” “Yes,” she responds slyly, “Four husbands.”

Yet her performance is not simply an impersonation, per se. That’s something better suited for a drag bar (most famously by Jim Bailey, who died a few years ago, and Peter Mac, who was endorsed by Garland’s onscreen little sister Margaret O’Brien). Zellweger is richer, more textured, and impossible to turn away from. At times, she dominates a crowded theatre (and our screen). At other times, she seems as frail and fragile as glass.

Zellweger does her own singing in Judy‘s musical numbers — and there are many. She doesn’t sound exactly like Garland, but her voice is solid and believable, and absolutely appropriate for the film. In fact, given the timeframe of Judy, the audience shouldn’t expect to hear Garland in her prime. Instead, she is someone who was once great and is desperately trying to be great still, against multiple odds. We share her very real fear that she won’t live up to her own legend. When she struggles, it breaks your heart. When she captures her former magic, it feels like a gift. Had Zellweger lip-synched to Garland’s recordings, her performances in London — and the movie as a whole — wouldn’t have been nearly as touching.

Garland teeters between show-stopping verve and paralyzing fear. Her London run is erratic; triumphant, crowd-pleasing evenings are followed by breakdowns, onstage and off. At one ill-fated show, the audience not only heckled and booed, they threw dinner rolls at her. Here, and in other scenes, Zellweger’s Garland seems genuinely dumbfounded by how cruel people can be.

A fictitious, I’m assuming, nod to the LGBTQ community (“friends of Dorothy” has long been a euphemism for gay men) provides a sweet moment of human connection, as well as a break from the near constant anxiety afflicting the star. Two men attend her shows every night and wait loyally at the stage door. When she invites them to dinner (they eventually share an omelet at the men’s flat), they are struck dumb and tears well up.

The final act of Garland’s life cannot be described as a “happy ending.” Judy does offer some reassurance, though. As deeply damaged as the star was, she could still inspire love. And her wonder and gratitude for that are palpable. 

Her final words to her London audience are almost shy. “You’ll remember me, won’t you?”

Oh yes, Judy. We remember you.


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