Renee Zellweger wears Judy Garland's ruby slippers as if they are her own in this exceptional performance — and she might just win her second Oscar for it.
October 17, 2019
Since making her movie debut as "girl in a blue truck" in Dazed and Confused, then popping up in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, Renee Zellweger has enjoyed quite the career. She belted out a tune on a rooftop in Empire Records, told Tom Cruise that he had her at hello in Jerry Maguire and became everyone's favourite romantically challenged Briton in three Bridget Jones flicks. Then, she razzle-dazzled her way to an Oscar nomination in Chicago, before nabbing a coveted statuette for Cold Mountain. It's an impressive resume. So, when we say that Judy may just be Zellweger's best work, we don't make that statement lightly.
Stepping into a famous figure's shoes might be one of acting's most difficult feats, especially when that person is cinema royalty, but Zellweger doesn't ever feel like she's just impersonating Judy Garland. Rather, she wears Garland's ruby slippers as if they're her own — and they fit perfectly. Technically, because Judy is set in the year leading up to the eponymous star's death, Zellweger doesn't literally don that iconic pair of footwear, with the film enlisting newcomer Darci Shaw to do the honours in flashbacks to Garland's teenage years. Zellweger doesn't need glittering shoes to inhabit the part, though; with nuance and intensity simmering through her performance, she shines brighter than any jewel-toned item of clothing ever has.
While the aforementioned leaps back into the past show where Garland started, the expectations placed upon her and the destructive impact of her showbiz childhood, Judy spends the bulk of its duration in 1969. Garland is 46, with more than four decades of experience to her name, but she's scrounging for work. Deemed unemployable by Hollywood's insurance agencies, which nixes her cinema stardom, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star Is Born talent sings and dances through touring stage shows instead. Both broke and homeless, she's trying to provide for two of her children (Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd). So, when she reluctantly takes a long series of gigs in London, it's largely to earn enough cash so she doesn't have to keep travelling away from her kids afterwards.
Given the above state of affairs, plus years of using prescription pills to stay awake and to get to sleep (and drinking as well), Garland isn't in prime physical, emotional or mental health during Judy's period of focus. Remaining in the public eye since she was two has clearly taken its toll, understandably. And, while Garland knows this, she's addicted to the thrill of being in the spotlight — and she has an ego to with it, too, as her interactions with her British minder (Jessie Buckley) demonstrate.
Still, what a joy it is to spend time with Zellweger's version of Garland, and not only when she's wowing crowds while strutting across the stage. In an always hypnotic, often heartbreaking portrayal that illustrates the star's on-stage strength and behind-the-scenes sorrow in tandem, Zellweger turns every scene into a revelation. Watching as Garland dotes over her youngest offspring, attends a party with her twenty-something daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) and falls swiftly for her fifth husband (Finn Wittrock), viewers see the yearning heart of someone who just wants to love and be loved in return. In her messier moments, of which there are many, we feel the kind of aching pain that all the cheering fans in the world can't fix. And, when she's crooning a greatest-hits collection from across her career — including 'Get Happy' and, of course, 'Over the Rainbow' — we understand why she keeps doing what she does even when it's almost killing her.
For existing Garland aficionados, the result is like trotting down the yellow brick road — you can bask in all the glorious details you've ever wanted, while also getting a glimpse behind the curtain at the stark reality behind the magic. And if The Wizard of Oz is your only real frame of reference for Garland, Judy wholeheartedly explains that the now-80-year-old classic was neither the beginning nor the end of her tale.
Accordingly, in adapting stage musical Over the Rainbow for the screen, director Rupert Goold (TV's The Hollow Crown) and writer Tom Edge (The Crown) have hit the biopic jackpot. There's a sense of formula at work in Judy's storytelling, as can happen in showbiz portraits, but it captures its subject in a winning way. And, come next year, Zellweger will likely be winning plenty more awards for her efforts — for such a captivating performance that does justice to a legend, she deserves to.