The most remarkable scene in 1954’s A Star is Born — and arguably of Judy Garland’s career — comes when her character, Esther Blodgett, breaks down over her husband’s alcoholism. Dressed in full costume for the movie she’s filming, Esther becomes almost hysterical as she describes the way she often hates her husband for his addiction only to end up hating herself for feeling that way. Watching the scene, it’s impossible not to wonder how much of Garland’s own addiction struggles fuel her performance, but before the audience can ruminate too much on those real-life parallels, Esther is called back to set and performs a musical number as if nothing were wrong.
Judy, the new film adapted from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow, about Garland’s late 1968 London residency just months before her death, essentially plays that scene over and over, delivering a portrait of the fallen star that’s at turns tragic and transcendent. Adapted by Tom Edge and directed by Rupert Goold, it stars Renée Zellweger, who, with her platinum blonde hair, Southern accent and slightly reedier singing voice, isn’t an obvious choice to play Garland. Yet, while Zellweger may never achieve an exact imitation of Garland, her performance instead feels like a channeling of the late singer that’s close enough to the real thing to create a captivating sense of the uncanny.
Indeed, Zellweger has rightfully attracted Oscar buzz for her work and that’s thanks to how effectively subtle make-up and prosthetics and the actress’s performance recreate the Judy Garland persona. Certainly, the tousled, short, black wig Zellweger wears is an almost exact copy of Garland’s own cut from the period, but the reason it seems so real is because of the way Zellweger grabs the top of it in moments of excitement in the same way Garland did. Sure the crow’s feet and pallid complexion the make-up team gives Zellweger suggests the effects years of substance abuse would have had on Garland by that point, but they wouldn’t work quite so well if Zellweger’s face and even her posture didn’t also project the decades of exhaustion and starvation Garland had been taught to normalize in the studio system.
It’s a full-bodied performance and one that (along with the film itself) is perhaps best approached not as part of a traditional biopic, but as an elaborate drag performance. Zellweger sings rather than lip syncs here and while her voice may not have the timbre of Garland’s, she approximates her phrasing and vibrato such that it’s easy to pretend any differences are signs of Garland’s age. In a similar way to drag performances where popular music is reinterpreted, each number here functions not just as a callback to Garland’s most famous songs, but expressions of the Garland’s current emotional state at that moment. When she sings “For Once in My Life” over images of her marital bliss with final husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), it’s both a sincere display of her joy and ironic given Garland’s previous failed marriages. When she sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” in the film’s final minutes, it’s a middle finger to a public and industry that’s dismissed her as an unreliable drunk. Each song is a tour de force performance from Zellweger and the audience is so excited to see her perform again that it’s easy to ignore how thin the rest of the film is compared to her.
Though the cast is filled with strong actors like Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the theater employee responsible for getting Judy on stage each night or Rufus Sewell as her ex, Sid Luft, they and the storylines that involve them are so minor comparison to Judy’s fragility that it’s hard not to be left wanting more. That’s especially true when the modern-day scenes are contrasted with flashbacks to Judy on the set of Wizard of Oz. Though Darci Shaw is appropriately vulnerable as young Judy, there’s so much about the patterns established in those years that goes unexamined in the later time period, like Garland’s standoffish distrust of the stern women tasked with keeping her in check and the way her relationships with men all mirror the controlling influence of Louis B. Mayer.
That said, Judy does make one meaningful personal connection and it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s with a gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera, whom she befriends at the stage door. Sure, it’s hard to believe that she would go home and share a dinner with these fans and even sing as one tinkles away on the piano, but it’s also fitting that she connect with two members of the audience that helped elevate her to such a legendary status. Judy understands the tragedy that made Garland such an icon to a marginalized group who saw themselves in her struggle. Perhaps it’s fitting the film speak directly to them too.