If “Judy” doesn’t rocket Renée Zellweger (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) to the top of the Oscar shortlist, there’s no point in even holding the ceremony. Her performance as Judy Garland is a triumph and the towering foundation upon which the movie rests. It’s no simple impersonation or prosthetic guise. Zellweger’s work is a marvel of research, empathy and bravery. This is the performance of the year, one worth all the hype surrounding it.
Though now considered a screen legend for her role as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland and her career were in trouble in 1968, when “Judy” begins. Garland and her young kids are living in hotel rooms as she plays any venue that will take her — Garland’s unreliable reputation has blacklisted her in Hollywood. Substance abuse is also evident; there’s a particularly cutting moment when Garland’s daughter begs her not to “go to sleep” as she takes pills after a show. When Garland’s ex-husband, played by Rufus Sewell (“The Man in The High Castle”), takes her to court for custody of their children, she goes to London to perform dinner theatre so she can pay her debts.
While intriguing, the plot isn’t what makes the movie so phenomenal. It’s who personifies it. Zellweger elevates every scene she’s in with her unbelievable dedication and craft. She fully inhabits Judy Garland in a way few actors ever do. From the accent to the physicality to the classic contralto, she nails it. Her Garland is arresting, and never lets the viewer go until the final cut to black. It is a character both iconic and sympathetic, both exalting and tragic.
The cinematography is bracingly intimate and perfectly captures the polarities of Garland’s life, from sunny Hollywood parties to a cold bathroom floor after a bender. Most recent musical biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” have been nostalgia trips, glossing over issues or complications in favor of sparkling musical numbers and heartwarming epiphanies. While “Judy” sublimely channels Judy Garland’s beauty and talent, it never shies away from what made her so complex.
The nostalgia, mostly present in the lavish costumes, music and production design, never overshadows the complicated reality of Zellweger’s life. “Judy” veers away from mythologizing, presenting the star’s troubles with brutal, unflinching honesty. Garland was an icon, but also suffered from severe psychological issues. Exploring this idea, the film ingeniously blends together moments from Garland’s past during the production of “The Wizard of Oz,” with the main story. These flashbacks aren’t a gimmick — they carry vital narrative weight. Throughout, Garland’s childhood traumas parallel their consequences in her later years, to crushing effect.
Because Zellweger’s Garland is so utterly fantastic, the other characters can’t help but be dimmed by her gigantic star. Certain plot threads, especially concerning Garland’s final husband, played by Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”), either fall flat or end without resolution. Michael Gambon (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) appears, but the legendary actor never has much to do. A plotline with two gay fans who take Garland in for a night does tread the line with sentimentality, seeming a little too sweet, but is tied up in a way that doesn’t threaten the realism of the main story. None of this really matters, though —not when Zellweger is on screen. Judy Garland was a star for the ages, and Zellweger has given her an immortalization to match.