In the last moments of Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” Miss Garland herself (Renée Zellweger) tells (or perhaps implores) her audience: “You won’t forget me, promise me you won’t.” The film does make sure of that, preserving the iconic star in amber, though it’s not as the soft, golden-voiced teen we know so well.
This is not Judy in her prime but at one of her lowest points, at her most real and raw, and in a transformed and transfixing performance, Zellweger captures Judy as her flawed, vulnerable, sweet, charming and deeply human self.
Based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “The End of the Rainbow,” adapted by Tom Edge for the screen, “Judy” takes place during a run of shows in 1969 at London’s Talk of the Town dinner club.
A destitute Judy Garland reluctantly takes the gig in hopes of earning enough money to regain custody of her children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey, from her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
During the contained period, the film unspools what makes the famous Garland tick. Yes, it is indeed the uppers, downers, booze, insomnia, anorexia and deep-rooted trauma inflicted by a childhood spent laboring under the watch of a controlling, verbally abusive Louis B. Mayer.
But what we learn is Judy is driven equally by her desires as she is by her demons. All she wants is to be loved. And, every night, if she chooses, she can receive that love, in droves, from her audience.
Zellweger embodies Garland’s brittleness, twitchy and strained, hardened by years of drugs and her rough upbringing of long workdays and forced diet pills. Judy has crystallized, thin as glass, ready to shatter at any moment.
She works because she must, and because she loves her children, but also because it’s all she’s ever known, to get up onstage and sing. It’s how she earns her living, her love, her existence.
Goold’s film is unshowy, merely a platform for Zellweger’s virtuosic performance. Goold is smart to simply give breathing room to Zellweger, and to the musical numbers, letting her stalk the stage in anger, glory and confusion without cutting away.
Zellweger ably reminds us all that her ability to act while singing is unparalleled. And in “Judy,” she proves she may well be the best singing actor of her generation (lest we forgot “Chicago” or her spunky performance of “Sugar High” in “Empire Records”).
Her first performance at Talk of the Town is riveting. Zellweger never blinks (literally) as Judy switches into performance-mode like a woman possessed by her own talent, relying on sheer adrenaline, muscle memory and the uncut adoration of an audience. That’s her real addiction, the high she’s always chasing.
Zellweger is a force of nature onstage, but she finds the softness and sweetness in the fragile Judy, her wry humor and loving nature. We witness these moments in the hushed exclamation of “oh, that’s good” over a bite of cake she allows herself, out of politeness to her hosts, and in a shy invitation to dinner to a couple of fans waiting for her after her show, the only folks in London happy for her company.
It’s a nuanced, complex, nakedly emotional performance that digs into the darkest psychology of one of our most beloved stars and demands that, even in her lowest moments, we could never count Judy Garland out. The same goes for Renée Zellweger.
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