We don’t envy any actress who takes on the task of portraying Judy Garland. Not just because she was so iconic, so legendary, so singular in her style and persona that it would be nearly impossible for any actor to effectively and accurately capture the whole of her oversized personality and talent, but because Judy Garland has been, for well over fifty years, an absolute mainstay for drag queens who do celebrity female impersonation acts. There is an army of mostly men who have been doing flawless Judy impersonations for so long, that it’s sometimes impossible to separate the real Judy from her countless slightly off-brand clones. And because Judy is such a drag perennial, it must be exceedingly difficult for any actress to find the truth of her larger-than-life persona and laundry list of tics and gestures without lapsing into something broad and borderline farcical.
But when it comes to drag artists doing celebrity female impersonations, there are two opposing ways of getting the job done. You can either slavishly and meticulously recreate the original person to such perfection that it becomes difficult to believe you’re not looking at the real thing, or you can figure out the essence of who she was and use a combination of broad strokes, the effective sprinkling of a few accurate tics or gestures, and that deep understanding of her core to offer up a version that may not fool her family members but gives audience members a distinctly accurate take on who she really was, when you get right down to it. When it comes to portraying iconic figures in biopics, both approaches have their charms, from Joaquin Phoenix’s idiosyncratic take on Johnny Cash in Walk the Line to Michelle Williams’ eerie recreation of Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.
In virtually every way you can think of, Judy is a typical entertainer biopic of this era. It doesn’t show you the whole of Judy Garland’s life, just brief snippets from her early days while focusing the rest of the film on a 5-week period in the last year of her life, when she left her children behind and, with no money and no other opportunities, accepted a gig in London. There’s very little about the story or even the style of filmmaking that would set it apart from a dozen other similar films in the last decade or two. But it has one spectacular tool at its disposal and director Rupert Goold wisely made every use of it: the intense and totally captivating performance by Renee Zellweger.
Now, this is where we eat our crow. When the film’s first image was released, we noted that Zellweger looked too elegant and healthy to be playing Judy at the end of her life. When the trailers dropped, we complained that her essential Zellwegerness couldn’t help coming through, and that her squinty, pursed-lip style of acting seemed a bad fit for the role while her vocals sounded very little like Judy’s recognizable voice. We are happy to admit we’re wrong, but petty enough to assert that the film’s publicity has done its star a bit of a disservice. What you don’t get from the publicity images and trailer is how Zellweger hunches up her shoulders through the film, mimicking Garland’s short stature and curvature of the spine. What you don’t get from the clips shown is how she plays Garland as a hollowed-out entertainer, near the end of the road, with virtually nothing left in her tanks and no confidence that she can access it. What you don’t get is how effectively she mimics Garland’s twitchy energy and charismatic appeal. And what you really don’t get is that electrifying moment when, struggling onstage to find the voice she’s not sure she has anymore, Garland hits the note, finds the emotion, realizes she still has at least some of it, and brings the crowd roaring to their feet. Renee Zellweger sometimes can’t help being Rene Zellweger on film, but there’s no question that in moments like these – and the film is full of them – you aren’t watching the actress struggle to find the person, you’re watching the person struggling to find the persona. You’re watching scared, damaged Frances Gumm reach into herself one last time to find the diva that the world once loved. Renee Zellweger effectively recreates Judy Garland to full, breathing life by not getting too hung up on the mimicry until those moments when the full force of Garland’s persona must come through. She does both kinds of drag, in other words. She finds the heart of the woman and she also manages moments of eerie mimicry when the film really needs her to. It’s a perfectly, exquisitely threaded needle and a testament to the delicacy and intricacy of her performance.
If we have failed to mention other performances or aspects of the film, it’s because it truly is all about the lead actress in the title part. It’s rare for the camera to be off Zellweger for more than a minute or two of time throughout the film. Having said that, Jessie Buckley is marvelous as the officious, but ultimately deeply sympathetic Rosalyn, whose job it is to more or less wrangle Judy throughout her London stay. And while we think the film isn’t nearly as glamorous as the trailers tend to portray, costume designer Jany Temime’s work here is absolutely gorgeous; not just in recreating Judy’s late-in-life look perfectly, but for giving a broad and accurate view of the late ’60s London nightlife and theater scene. By necessity, the production numbers can’t be too perfect, since the story hinges entirely on the fact that Judy was depleted at this point. Nevertheless, Zellweger has some wonderful numbers in which she sometimes channels Garland at her height and sometimes offers a reduced, strained, painful version of her.
One more thing about Renee Zellweger’s astonishing performance: She is also utterly, breathtakingly heartbreaking in this film, in a way that truly caught us off guard. Long ago, in the earliest days of our blogging career, we wrote a post in which we proclaimed that we were two gay men who don’t have what we called “The Judy Gene.” We have an appreciation of her talent and are more than sympathetic to the darker sides of her life and career, but we’ve never been able to call ourselves fans in the ways so many of our gay brethren, especially of earlier generations tend to be. When the film introduced two wide-eyed gay fans and played them for light comedy, we wondered if things hadn’t headed into a cliched direction, but there is an absolutely lovely scene later in the film where she spends a late-night dinner with the couple in their flat which not only perfectly illustrates why Judy meant and still means so much to the gays, but wordlessly shows how both she and they understood each other’s pain in a way no one else in the world did. There is one thing, as non-Judy gays, we absolutely never expected to do while watching this film: cry. But it gently breaks your heart in more than one scene and ends on a moment so maudlin and so perfectly acted that it was impossible for us not to break down. We were not the only critics who walked out with red eyes and wet cheeks.
Our book “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life” is available for pre-order now!
[Photo Credit: David Hindley/Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions]