Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland: The Triumph and the Tragedy

Renée Zellweger is already being discussed as frontrunner to take home the best actress Academy Award when the Oscar statuettes are handed out come February. The buzz is due to her take on Judy Garland in the biopic “Judy,” in which she embodies the beloved, if tragic star of movies such as “Wizard of Oz” and “A Star Is Born.”

“Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier … the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood hero, absolutely,” Zellweger told Variety at the film’s premiere in California. Zellweger has also talked of representing the “joy” Garland received from her audiences, even though the film’s subject matter deals with a difficult period – both emotionally and physically ­– in the performer’s life.

Directed by Rupert Goold, “Judy” centers around the six-week run of sold-out shows Garland performed at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub in early 1969. At that time, Garland was deeply in debt due to mismanagement of her affairs, and was struggling to get any work in the United States. She had lost custody of her two children to ex-husband Sidney Luft, was addicted to prescription pills, soon to be married for the fifth time, and had been in and out of hospital due to illness and suicide attempts. Six months following her residency at Talk of the Town, Garland would be found dead from an accidental drug overdose at age 47.

The singer whose trademark songs were “Get Happy” and “Over the Rainbow” would appear to spend her life searching for the very things the lyrics of those songs espoused. On-screen and off, it’s difficult to separate Garland the icon from the tragedies that seemed to dominate her life.

Making her debut public performance at age two and a half, The “Meet Me in St. Louis” star would persevere in life despite a pushy stage mother she would eventually label “the real Wicked Witch of the West,” international stardom as an MGM performer where her appearance would come under constant scrutiny, and a studio system where she was placed on a stick diet and administered pills to boost her energy, suppress her appetite and ensure she could be relied upon to perform long days on the studio lot.

By the end of 1968, years of heavy alcohol consumption and addiction to upper and downer medications had impacted Garland’s body and voice. Her continued substance abuse was noted on and off stage during her run at Talk of the Town, where she regularly smoked and drank during performances which were often interupted by hecklers in the audience.

Garland was consistently tardy for showtime, demanding more and more pills to overcome her stage fright. Her speech was often slurred, and after keeping one audience waiting more than an hour, she was pelted with dinner rolls, cigarette boxes and had a glass thrown at her.

In “Judy,” Zellweger avoids outright mimicry of the diminutive performer, instead inhabiting the role of Garland through well-known physical traits and small prosthetic additions. Zellweger also performs all the songs in the film, saying she spent months working with vocal coaches and listening to Garland nonstop.

The biopic gives Zellweger a chance to “fill in the blanks between public conjecture and [Garland’s] critic’s omissions,” Zellweger told The Toronto Star, adding that one of the wonderful things about telling the icon’s story is to show her life “was not completely tragic.” Even with everything she was facing at that time in her life, Garland, Zellweger says, “was hopeful and she got so much joy out of connecting with her audience and performing and she never gave up.”

Back in the spotlight after a six-year hiatus from appearing in front of the camera, Zellweger’s turn in “Judy” has parallels to her own life. “I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was the last thing on my list of priorities,” she said to New York Magazine of the point she reached before stepping away from her Hollywood fame.

Like Garland, Zellweger’s physical appearance had been constantly scrutinized in the media, and the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Chicago” star says she was “depressed” and had trouble separating the public and private sides of her life, just like Garland. “There was so much that was not allowed for,” she said to New York about Garland’s life. “You’re not allowed to be human. There’s no room on the schedule for her sanity – the choices that were made for her and how she was exploited and … robbed, basically.”

Unlike Garland, Zellweger appears to have regained her equilibrium. “I had a good five-year period where I was joyful and in a new chapter that no one was even aware of,” Zellweger says of her time away from Hollywood.

“Judy” opens nationally on September 27 and Zellweger can also be seen in the thriller “What/If,” currently streaming on Netflix.

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