If it’s taken so long for a bigscreen biopic of Judy Garland to come to fruition, perhaps it’s because the lady herself warned off any attempts with one of her most famous quotes: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” It is not, admittedly, a saying that has deterred Hollywood from its ongoing fascination with famous people playing other famous people, though it’s a practice that yields more successful Oscar campaigns than for-the-ages performances: Prosthetically enhanced impersonation, for the most part, isn’t a repeatedly dazzling trick. Yet director Rupert Goold and resurgent star Renée Zellweger have pulled off something unusual and affecting in “Judy”: a biographical portrait in which performer and subject meet halfway, illuminating something of each other in the process.
Set in the final year before Garland’s death in 1969, “Judy” covers the shambolic London concert residency that was never supposed to be her last hurrah. Zellweger offers an all-singing, all-dancing, all-collapsing performance of the star at her lowest physical and psychological ebb: It’s gutsy, can’t-look-away work, yet it might not enthrall those who evaluate biopic turns as Olympian feats of technical mimicry. With the help of some expert makeup, hairstyling and costuming, her inhabitation of Garland is persuasive without being exhaustive; it’s a very different feat from the eerie, brilliant channeling that Judy Davis achieved to Emmy-winning effect in the 2003 miniseries “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”
That’s no bad thing. If it feels as if there’s as much of Zellweger — her distinctive, endearing expressions and mannerisms — in this study as there is of Garland, it’s because “Judy” appears to seek authenticity through empathy rather than mere imitation. Three years after “Bridget Jones’ Baby” ended Zellweger’s six-year acting hiatus, “Judy” plays as one star working through the ups and downs of her own Hollywood story via another’s. And while Goold’s film is a star vehicle of the most devoted and generous variety, first-time feature scribe Tom Edge’s lucid, thoughtful screenplay holds up its end of the bargain. Steering away from lurid fallen-angel cliché, it recontextualizes Garland’s story for a post-#MeToo audience mindful of women abused and disempowered by the industry.
“I used to have ambition. I found it gave me the most terrible headache,” Garland drolly notes at the outset of the film, at a point where any headache of hers had a more obvious, self-inflicted cause. “Judy” introduces its heroine in full trainwreck mode, looking older and frailer than her 46 years: Broke, substance-addled and all but unemployable, she’s barred from the latest of the swanky Los Angeles hotels that serve as her only home, and forced to leave her young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), with her unforgiving ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
When an invitation comes from London theater impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to perform a nightly five-week engagement at his glitzy Talk of the Town nightclub, she has no choice but to take it. (“They’re crazy for you in London,” her agent brightly reminds her. “That’s because the English are insane,” Garland spits back.) Yet it’s not long before the wheels come off across the pond, too: Eschewing rehearsals, turning up late and drunk to her own shows, and fixating mostly on her new, much younger lover Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), Garland gradually tests the polite goodwill of Delfont and her young, bright-eyed minder Rosalyn (“Wild Rose” star Jessie Buckley, who’d make a fine young Garland herself) to breaking point.
Working from Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play “End of the Rainbow,” Edge and Goold’s smartest structural ploy is the insertion of multiple cannily timed flashbacks to the formative days of the teenage Garland (Darci Shaw, excellent) on the MGM lot. With each rewind, the extent to which the girl’s studio masters eventually seized control of her time, mind and body — whether putting her on diet pills or dictating her romances — are shown in ways from which the battered fortysomething trouper has never quite freed herself. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, in Hollywood, it takes one to ruin her: “Judy” makes the point with mounting, acute sadness.
Which is not to say the film is a slab of tabloid miserablism, either. Acclaimed stage director Goold, a far better fit for this material than he was for his 2015 debut “True Story,” ensures flashes of celebratory joy and theatrical razzle-dazzle, too. There are sustained numbers where Garland’s one-of-a-kind stage presence suddenly catches fire, through a glittering synthesis of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s rich, gold-flecked lensing, Jany Temime’s dead-on costumes and, of course, Zellweger’s sheer, defiant moxie. The star is, needless to say, no vocal match for prime Garland; neither, however, was end-of-the-line Garland, and “Judy’s” most moving interludes see her trying to find other ways to make up the difference and connect with her public.
A climactic performance of “Over the Rainbow” is superbly played by Zellweger as part stream-of-consciousness confessional, part return-to-innocence reset; rarely since its original “Wizard of Oz” incarnation has the old chestnut been so stirringly used on screen. Even around the time she was hoofing to Oscar-nominated effect in “Chicago” — and sure enough, you can draw a jagged line from the stage-hungry striver Zellweger played there to her spotlight-trained, love-starved Garland — it would have been near-impossible to imagine the actress in this role. Nearly two decades later, the casting makes bittersweet sense: A onetime American sweetheart who relinquished the burdensome title, she plays Garland, with palpable affection and feeling, as one who’s been over the rainbow and back again.