Renee Zellweger has given a lot of memorable performances over the course of her 30-year career, as a packed house at the Telluride Film Festival’s Palm Theatre was reminded during a tribute to the actress — in Jerry Maguire, Chicago, Cold Mountain, Nurse Betty, Miss Potter and Bridget Jones‘ Diary, to name just a few.
But those who stuck around after the tribute for the world premiere of Judy, Rupert Goold‘s portrait of Judy Garland in the last year of her troubled life, may have seen Zellweger’s best work yet — work certainly strong enough to garner her a fourth Oscar nomination, in the category of best actress, which would be her first since she took home the gold for Cold Mountain 16 years ago.
During the pre-screening tribute, Zellweger — toasted by her director as “the nicest person I’ve ever met” — spoke about her decision to take some time away from the business before returning only recently in, among other projects, Judy: “I needed to live a little bit, and not in another person’s shoes.” When she returned to acting, she said, “I just felt like a more authentic person. I didn’t feel like I was faking things.”
Whatever she did, it worked. Zellweger is not only made up to look eerily like Garland did late in her life — when, thanks to drink and drugs, the troubled product of the Hollywood studio system was “unreliable and uninsurable,” as her character puts it — but also nails everything else about the showbiz trouper and tragedy.
On full display, as Garland’s life crumbles and she is forced to leave her young children for a gig in London, is her unmistakable peacocked preening (“Mah-velous” and “Dah-ling”), heartbroken eyes (and well-practiced smile) and distinctive performance style (both sober and drunk). Zellweger reportedly also sings all of the songs in the film, including an absolute showstopper, “By Myself.”
Like two other recent films about fallen stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017), Judy is an example of a passable film elevated enormously by one remarkable performance. I don’t think Zellweger has ever been better, and my guess is that Academy members — people who know Garland’s story and work better than anyone, and, in some cases, actually knew the woman herself — will agree.