When one examines the trajectory of icons who have emerged in the show biz spotlight, there’s absolutely no doubt that Judy Garland takes the cake when it comes to captivating the masses generation after generation with her grace, her talent and, sadly, her all-too-soon departure. It was only a matter of time before someone took on a major studio biopic about the star. But when director Rupert Goold announced he had secured Renée Zellweger for the titular role in the recently released Judy, the focus shifted from solely a portrait of one of the most influential figures to ever grace the silver screen to a simultaneous storyline about Zellweger’s long-awaited comeback.
The film was adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s Tony Award–winning musical End of the Rainbow, which starred a brilliant Tracie Bennett, who first took the stage in the Guthrie Theater’s regional residency of the production before it headed to Broadway. It flips the lens inward, revealing the infamously methodical nature Garland embodied toward the end of her career and, eventually, her life. But this way of storytelling prevents Zellweger’s Garland from being considered anything but an utter tragedy.
Yes, Garland’s drug use was encouraged as a means of keeping her going. Yes, she was subject to abuse by nearly everyone around her because of who she was and the perks that came along with that. Yes, she dreamed day in and day out of walking away from it all. But if the well-known endgame of Garland’s life is all that an audience is fed throughout the entire film, how is one to leave the theater with any sense of hope?
In Judy, Zellweger shines brightest when she uses her brilliant instrument to infuse effortless emotion into the late icon’s most beloved songs. As she journeys through classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the all-too-familiar “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (sometimes spot on, other times not), the audience can’t help but surrender to the impeccable Garland nuances the seasoned actress defiantly leans into. As a beloved studio sweetheart herself, Zellweger channels a kind of knowingness into her performance that only someone who has experienced the insanity of international fame can convey.
With awards season on the horizon, there’s no doubt Zellweger will get the attention she 100% deserves for her portrayal of the ultimate leading lady. Will she be nominated for the Oscar? Absolutely. Will she win? Most likely not. One thing is for sure though: Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland is the comeback Hollywood has been waiting for. With a role like this ushering in the next phase of the actress’s career, it’s evident there’s a hunger ingrained in her bones — a hunger that only a star who nimbly fits into the category of “icon” can conjure and, ultimately, live with.