Review: Zellweger stuns as Garland in loving 'Judy'

Oscar winner likely to add another trophy to her collection for her portrayal of screen icon at the end of her life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Renée Zellweger is over the rainbow and out of this world as Judy Garland in "Judy," a sweet, full-hearted tribute to the beloved screen legend's final days.  

Zellweger plays Garland as broken and bruised and just about out of the game, but still able to put on a show when the lights go down. After all, entertaining was in her blood, and at this late stage it was just about all that was left, along with a cocktail of booze and pills.

Renée Zellweger in "Judy."

Zellweger's compassionate, captivating, full-bodied transformation shoots her to the forefront of the Best Actress race, and puts her in line to earn her second Academy Award, following a Best Supporting Actress win for "Cold Mountain."      

"Judy" is based around Garland's 1969 residency at the London nightclub Talk of the Town, where she played sometimes shambolic shows for crowds who were testy and on edge due to Garland's erratic behavior. The star was at this point in steep decline, and she was mere months away from the accidental overdose that would end her life at just 47 years old.

But there were transcendent moments when Garland's muscle memory would kick in, and Zellweger-as-Garland delivers knockouts with songs like "By Myself" and “Come Rain or Come Shine” that build on her fragility and ferocity as a person and as a performer. It's in those moments when "Judy" truly comes alive,and rises above the machinations that threaten to keep it in standard biopic territory. 

There are frequent flashbacks to the set of "The Wizard of Oz" that show the abuse the young Garland (Darci Shaw) suffered at the hands of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who gave her mental scars that would last a lifetime. Director Rupert Goold stages these scenes as overtly sinister and simplistic. And scenes with Mickey Deans (a lightweight Finn Wittrock), who plays Garland's fifth (and final) husband, feel perfunctory. 

But when she's on stage, watch out. 

There's also a deeply sweet sequence where a lonely Garland hangs out with two fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who are always up front at her shows, who are blown away at the prospect of spending time with their idol. It speaks to the nature of stardom and the way we regard celebrities, who sometimes just want to be treated like everyone else, and it's a hoot watching Garland shuffle back to their place for an evening of laughter, warmth and poorly cooked eggs.

Writer Tom Edge based his script on Peter Quilter's book "End of the Rainbow," and it's clear all parties have a deep affection and reverence for Garland. But it's Zellweger's show, and the actress — off-screen for most of the last decade, save for 2016's "Bridget Jones" three-quel — turns in a career-best performance as the little girl lost. Consider her star reborn.



Rated PG-13: for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking

Running time: 118 minutes