“Judy” is not exactly Renee Zellweger’s comeback vehicle, but it might as well be. And delivering a devastating, heart-breaking performance as a woman who made a career out of comebacks is the best kind of poetic justice.
Nominated for acting Oscars for three consecutive years (she won for “Cold Mountain” in 2004), Zellweger surprised Hollywood a short time later by taking a self-imposed six-year hiatus, practically a lifetime in movie business terms.
Zellweger has done several films since her return, but none had the impact that her performance in “Judy” is sure to have. Though the film itself is pretty much standard fare, her work in it not only reminds how impressive the actress has been but extends and deepens her range.
It is, as noted, somehow fitting that Zellweger does this playing Judy Garland, a movie star who became the cynosure of all eyes playing Dorothy and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in “The Wizard of Oz.”
A ton of personal turmoil followed in Garland’s wake but she never totally lost the voice that “A Star Is Born” costar James Mason said could “wring tears out of hearts of rock.”
The Garland Zellweger plays is far from the Garland of her prime, but rather at a kind of nadir near the end, less than a year before her 1969 death at age 47 at the hands of the barbiturates she was addicted to.
The fragile Garland of this period is a familiar popular culture figure. It’s the time when the singer, plagued by moments of unreliability, went to London to take a final stab at the kind of public performance that both transfigured and terrified her.
Roughly the same age as the singer and unafraid of looking ravaged as well as thin to the point of emaciation, Zellweger gives a deep dive of a performance that is ferociously all in.
The pain, the sadness, the insecurity, the vulnerability, the bad behavior — it’s all here, as is Garland’s resilience and her never-dimmed hopefulness that things might get better.
The triumph of this performance is that Zellweger is not so much presenting a Garland we’ve never known as portraying the one we’ve read about with the kind of nuance and depth that insures hearts go out to her, as they always have.
As proved by her Oscar-nominated work in “Chicago,” Zellweger is also a striking singer, and her performance benefits from her effective renditions of several of Garland’s classics, sung live no less, including “By Myself,” “For Once in My Life” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
The actress also likely was helped by director Rupert Goold, in charge of London’s Almeida Theatre and a director whose respected career has largely been on the stage.
While his film sense is acceptable, because “Judy” is based on “End of the Rainbow,” a play by Peter Quilter, it is not unexpected that the production has a stagey, standard-issue feeling to it.
Screenwriter Tom Edge (Netflix’s “Lovesick,” “The Crown”) has not lacked for ambition, but the broadening out of the story to include a look back at Garland as a beleaguered teenage actress (Darci Shaw) is inevitably not as compelling as Zellweger’s scenes.
“Judy” goes back and forth between the older and the young Garland, a 16-year-old manipulated by a stage mother who fed her all kinds of pills and a surprisingly WASPy Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who insisted that she could have no private life because “it’s your job to give these people dreams.”
We first meet the adult singer in Los Angeles, trying to check into the hotel where she lives with children Lorna and Joey but getting turned away because her payments have fallen too far behind.
With nowhere else to go, she shows up at the Brentwood home of the children’s father, producer Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Though no longer married, the couple continue to needle each other, but Garland still leaves her children there because she has no choice.
Next comes a party given by daughter Liza Minnelli, where Garland gets chatted up by boyish manager Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whose interest in her seems part opportunistic, part sincere.
Dead broke but determined to get her children back, Garland agrees to go to London, where entrepreneur Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) offers her very good money to headline for five weeks at his The Talk of the Town supper club.
The challenge of keeping the anxious, troubled singer on track falls to Delfont’s capable assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), a woman who is still alive and consulted with the production on what working with Garland was like.
Totally invented, on the other hand, are Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira), a gay couple who are hard-core Garland fans.
Garland’s predicaments, of course, were terribly real, and one of the most moving scenes is from a British talk-show interview where she says plaintively, “I’m only Judy Garland for an hour a night. I only want what everyone else wants. I just seem to have a harder time getting it.”
Another key moment has Garland almost pleading with an audience, “You won’t forget me, will you? Promise me you won’t.” Though the rest of “Judy” doesn’t rise to the heights of its star, the singer’s singular career and Zellweger’s bravura performance assure that won’t happen anytime soon.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release