Fifty years after her untimely death of an accidental drug overdose, a star is reborn—not as yet another campy drag impersonation, but rather as a conflicted mother struggling to support her children.
Renee Zellweger IS (emphasis added) Judy Garland, offering an Oscar-worthy performance in Rupert Goold’s new film, “Judy,” opening in theaters this weekend.
Based on the stage musical “End of the Rainbow,” the film focuses on the last months of the entertainer’s life during the winter of 1968. Her life is seemingly in freefall: She’s broke and homeless, can’t keep a job and is battling for custody of her children with fourth husband Sid Luft.
Garland reluctantly leaves her children behind to accept a five-week gig at a London theater and embarks on a whirlwind romance with fifth hubby Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). A triumphant reception and some romantic moments, however, can’t trump her self-esteem issues and addiction to drugs and alcohol. And, her children have grown accustomed to the normalcy of life with their father.
While Zellweger’s performance transcends the relatively traditional format of this film—complete with requisite flashbacks to Garland’s childhood on the M-G-M set and her relationship with stern studio exec Louis Mayer—the illusion is still nearly complete.
Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to those over-the-top drag caricatures at the bars, but Zellweger still manages to sing, strut and scowl at her audience, all while belting out “Be Myself” and “The Trolley Song.”
The most moving musical moment comes as Garland makes her farewell after a disastrous show the night before. She begins an emotional performance of “Over the Rainbow,” but is unable to finish. One by one, the audience members stand and join in the anthem to all seeking a happier place in life, a tear-jerking tribute to both the little girl who captured hearts in “The Wizard of Oz” and the timeless entertainer haunted by that early success.
A sentimental nod to her standing as a gay icon also occurs in one of the most emotional scenes of the film. Garland is greeted late at the stage door by a pair of star-struck gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who wind up cooking dinner for their idol in their nearby flat and recounting how her music helped them cope with the intolerance of the era. (One served a prison sentence for “buggery.”)
“Judy” is a poignant, yet fast-paced reminder of the power of music to inspire and empower the human spirit. While Garland was certainly an imperfect person, her legacy has endured for generations and likely will continue thanks to this cinematic tribute and Zellweger’s reverent performance.
“Judy,” starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 27. Check local listings for theaters and show times.