Essays · Movies

The Triumph of Renée Zellweger’s Performance in ‘Judy’

The 2019 Judy Garland biopic should have been a one-woman show. It kind of is anyway.
Renée Zellweger Judy
Roadside Attractions
By  · Published on September 29th, 2019

There’s a scene towards the end of Judy in which Judy Garland can’t seem to continue performing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during a concert and the audience stands up and helps her finish the song. I’m not sure if that actually ever happened. I doubt it. But I’m not going to check because I don’t care about that sort of authenticity in biopics. Either way, it’s an eye-rolling moment, severely damaging to a movie that is, until that scene, just fine. It’s also a moment that briefly turns a focus toward the people who love Garland, which doesn’t so much remind us that this movie isn’t in fact a one-woman show as remind us that it ought to be.

Renée Zellweger portraying Garland is the only reason to see Judy, and it’s a phenomenal performance. Every little detail of her expression and mannerism, whether broadly acted or nuanced, is captivating. And everything else in the movie, which is based on the Tony-nominated music-infused stage play End of a Rainbow, is a distraction from that. Depicting the Hollywood icon’s final months while booked at a dinner theatre in London, Judy shows us Garland’s struggle with substance abuse, a lack of confidence, financial troubles, the battle for custody for her younger children, and a rocky marriage to her fifth husband, with all of it summed up in flashbacks to her early days at MGM, where Louis B. Mayer’s strictness and verbal cruelty with the teenage star of The Wizard of Oz messed her up for life.

Without showing us all of the events on screen, Judy wouldn’t be much of a movie, at least not the kind that mainstream moviegoers want to see. But its Zellweger’s reactions to everything that happens or is told about or is remembering that carries the movie anyway. For my money, this could have been a silent film with no other characters and just the single actress in close-up like another Renée (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or shot only wide enough to just capture all of her performance, from head to toe, as she’s walking or sitting or singing and dancing. Of course, Judy is about a musical star and some of her final concerts (no mention of her European tour or her actual last performance being in Copenhagen — sorry, again, I don’t care about the whole truth in these movies, nevermind) so it’d have to be a “silent” movie with a soundtrack at least.

But that wouldn’t be too different from what we get as far as the singing is concerned. Another one of the problems that kept taking me out of the movie was the way the visual performance and the songs feel detached. Zellweger did sing all the songs on the soundtrack herself. She even sang them live on set while the cameras were rolling. But it doesn’t seem that way, and I guess the singing we actually hear is maybe what she recorded beforehand in a studio for the soundtrack album. It sounds as such, and it’s not that the songs are too good or overproduced since we can listen to some of the real Garland’s final performances and they sound great there as well. But the way they’re mixed for the scenes, Zellweger appears to be lip-synching, regardless of whether it’s to her own voice and indeed sung along to during filming.

Would it have mattered or been better if they’d used Garland’s voice instead? No. Since this a movie of Zellweger as Garland, it’s best that it’s Zellweger’s voice. You can definitely hear Zellweger in the recordings and that makes it fit the visual more than the alternative. It just doesn’t sound like it’s in the room with her, and that’s an extra obstacle to Zellweger’s physical performance. The first time we see and hear Garland in the movie, in her first date at The Talk of the Town theater, it’s in a single take of the whole rendition of “By Myself.” Apparently the director of photography, Ole Bratt Birkeland, had the idea to shoot it that way to honor the performance and not break it up with cuts to the audience or anything else. But then it should also look and sound like the vocals are performed live, too. At least it does otherwise really showcase Zellweger’s work.

I actually don’t want to harp on the vocals because there was live singing on set and maybe it’s a mix of that and the recording, and anyway films you can see of Garland performing the song live also have a similar sense of detached audio to them, and maybe it depends on the exhibition of the movie as well. The point is that I found myself dismissing the songs in subsequent scenes and zoning in on the rest of Zellweger’s performance. It’s a portrayal that is so thoughtful and precise that it overcomes issues with the soundtrack and comes through in spite of the prosthetics and fake teeth and contacts, which could have been a burden on Zellweger. I watched and enjoyed the performance so focally that it was if no one else was in the scenes with her — not difficult given the comparative blandness of the writing and acting of those supporting characters.

When a whole movie comes together with an ensemble that fits and all the performances are on the same level, that has a lot to do with the director. When a mediocre movie features a standout performance, that’s mostly thanks to the performer. We’ve seen it lately with such Oscar-nominated efforts as Glenn Close in The Wife and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years and Meryl Streep in a number of movies (some of Streep’s are a bit too over the top). And it’s not a fault to stand out so much if you’re the centerpiece anyway, as Zellweger in Judy certainly is. She inhabits the role throughout, navigating around sappy bits with the children and frustrating meetings with her ex and overly tense fights with the new husband and caricatural scenes with a gay couple (who probably didn’t exist) that represents her “friends of Dorothy” fanbase, and she prevails every second.

Everyone else could have been kept off-screen and we’d just watch her — we are likely doing that anyway when it’s her and anyone else in the same shot. And the same goes for cutaways to another time. The flashbacks to young Garland as she’s psychologically beaten by Mayer are cartoonishly detached from the rest of the movie and are unnecessary. Especially in their repetitive quantity. We get it. She was abused and she began with the diet and sleeping pills back then. But those scenes do nothing that Zellweger’s own face doesn’t reflect. I felt a sadness throughout Judy that is not earned by Rupert Goold‘s doing as director — when the title comes up at the end about Garland’s death, there should be tears in the audience’s eyes, but the movie itself doesn’t move us. Zellweger’s performance alone is what provokes an emotional response.

Is it enough to recommend the movie? Not all great performances do enough to make up for the movie they’re in (ex: Close in The Wife) and the cinematic shell becomes just a delivery system for awards contention. Outside of the aforementioned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” scene, Judy has no other absolutely terrible moments. Just not any very good ones that aren’t thanks to Zellweger. You shouldn’t ever see a biopic for the definite real story anyway and with this one, you shouldn’t see it for any scripted scenes informing about Garland’s pain or the system that gave her that pain. You should see it for a performance that would be amazing even if in a vacuum, and you should appreciate it even more because it’s not.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.