Academy Awards voters can rarely resist a celebrity impersonation, judging by some of the star turns that have won Oscars in recent years. These aren't just performances; they're jaw-dropping feats of mimicry. Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill! Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury!
The new film Judy is being sold along similar lines: Renée Zellweger is Judy Garland! To judge by the breathless hype that has greeted the movie so far, the approach seems to be paying off.
What makes Judy unusually fascinating for an otherwise-standard celebrity biopic is that Zellweger isn't Judy Garland: Her transformation is impressive but hardly definitive. Even with the help of a dark wig and skillful makeup and prosthetics, she doesn't exactly disappear into the role of the beloved singer and actress who captivated the public in movies like The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis.
But even if you don't always believe you're in the presence of Garland, Zellweger nearly makes up in raw emotional commitment what she lacks in verisimilitude. Her intensely felt, go-for-broke performance sometimes runs the risk of overwhelming this sturdy screen adaptation of Peter Quilter's stage play, End of the Rainbow.
Judy begins with one of several flashbacks to the teenage Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz, showing us how the industry created and destroyed her in the same breath. Her body and image are ruthlessly controlled by the powerful MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who puts her on a strict diet and gives her barbiturates and amphetamines, setting in motion the substance-abuse problem that she will struggle with for the rest of her life.
But most of the movie is set in 1969, long after her Hollywood heyday and mere months before her death at the age of 47. Judy is now broke and virtually homeless, dragging herself from one crummy LA club performance to another. We meet her eldest child, Liza Minnelli, at a house party, and also Judy's third husband, Sidney Luft, who takes custody of their two young children while she reluctantly books a gig at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Although she's devastated at being separated from her kids, Judy has little choice but to work overseas, where her fans can still be counted on to turn out in full force.
In London, Judy's depression and insomnia quickly take over: She pops pills, skips rehearsals and nearly misses opening night. But once she stumbles into the spotlight and starts crooning "By Myself" and "The Trolley Song," her confidence comes surging back and she enjoys having an appreciative crowd again.
One night after a show, Judy, feeling lonely, befriends an adoring couple, Stan and Dan, and joins them for a late dinner at their apartment. In a touching scene, Dan, played by Andy Nyman, reminds Judy how much she means to her many gay fans.
The director, Rupert Goold, has a deft way with actors. He gets a lovely performance from Jessie Buckley as Judy's London handler, Rosalyn Wilder, always there to lend an ear and keep her on schedule. Finn Wittrock plays the aggressively charming music entrepreneur Mickey Deans, who becomes Judy's fifth and final husband. Their tempestuous union does a number on Judy, who suffers a few drunken onstage meltdowns before rebounding with a climactic performance of "Over the Rainbow" that might just reduce you to tears.
It's a dazzling showcase for Zellweger, whose commitment is astonishing even when the illusion doesn't always seize hold. While the actress has a sweetly quavering singing voice, she makes no effort to match Garland's warm, velvety contralto — reportedly at the instruction of the director himself, who rightly guessed that it would be smarter to channel Garland than to imitate her. Curiously, Zellweger's physical resemblance to Garland is most pronounced when the camera catches her in profile; she wears the character like a mask that keeps slipping. There's something poignant about that, since Garland herself struggled to live up to a persona constructed for an audience that could love her one minute and turn on her the next.
Zellweger herself knows something about what it's like to be chewed up and spat out by the industry machine. After her earlier triumphs in movies like Chicago and Cold Mountain (the latter for which she won an Oscar), she struggled for the next decade to find decent roles. She endured much sexist mockery from the entertainment press and only recently returned to filmmaking after a six-year hiatus. Her empathy for her subject is apparent in every scene. Renée Zellweger may not be Judy Garland, but she reminds us that technical perfection is no match for emotional truth.