In her performance, Zellweger alternates between the warmth and laugh-out-loud wit that made Garland such a magnetic star, and the sadness and loneliness the singer experienced and sometimes succumbed to which, along with the pills, rendered her unable to perform at all. Acting aside, there were also a lot of songs that needed to be sung. The action of Judy centers around the late 1968–early 1969 run of sold-out shows Garland did in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub during some of the final months of her life, in order to earn enough money to provide her two youngest children with a stable home. Zellweger says she couldnt sing the songs at the beginning, but she learned to. In the movie, she sang and performed the choreography for all of Garlands hit songs herself.
At the Toronto International Film Festival last week, Zellweger reportedly received a three-minute standing ovation that brought her to tears. Here, she tells WSJ. about the mood on set, working with director Rupert Goold and how she prepared to sing the belters.
Meanwhile, while having a nibble at a nearby banquette, I was joined by and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who turned out to be the actor Warren Berlinger. An Academy member, he told me that he was appearing on the West End in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying when Garland was doing her rocky run at the Talk of the Town (at which much of Judy is set), and he went to see her there one night. On the basis of that, and a subsequent performance of hers that he caught at the Hollywood Bowl, he felt Zellweger nailed Garland and deserves at least a best actress nomination. Bill Goldstein of the music branch, who I ran into on my way out, seconded that — and said he "loved" the movie, too.
Video: Judy: Why Renée Zellweger Had to Actually Sing in the Garland Biopic
When I read the script, I was intrigued about why David Livingstone, the producer, and Rupert Goold, the director, wanted to make the film. I was curious about what they were hoping to achieve and why they sent it to me. That was it initially. I was curious.
They were hoping to bring context to the circumstances surrounding [Judy Garlands] life in her final months. While her life ended prematurely, and there was clearly difficulty in it, she was a joyful person and ever hopeful. She continued, despite the challenges, to achieve extraordinary things. She continued to deliver to the audiences who had come to expect so much from her through the decades.
Thank goodness there was a vast collection of archival footage on the internet from her television shows [and] her interviews. I read all the biographies I could find. Thats where I began. I got more and more greedy as we went along. One thing made me curious about another thing, and one performance made me want to see another performance, and there was very little sleeping. I wanted to know how she walked. I wanted to see what her laugh sounds like on television versus in private moments. I could find that and then there would be the next thing: How does she carry herself when shes nervous? How does she carry herself when shes comfortable? When shes with her children?
When the film let out, attendees made their way downstairs to the lobby, where a buffet supper was laid out, but where, instead of eating, many immediately crowded around Zellweger as original Judy Garland tunes played over the loudspeaker. Zellweger gamely chatted and/or smiled for photos with all comers, including actor Clifton Collins Jr. and Call Me By Your Name producer Howard Rosenman, both Academy members.
I couldnt sing [her] songs when we started. Ive never really tried to sing belters before, so it was a process, working towards being able to manipulate my voice that way. I methodically tried to break it down and look at it from a stylistic perspective: Oh, this is the recognizable sort of quality of Judys performance, and she bows this way and holds her face this way. Like that. I tried to intellectualize it a little bit because it seems much less daunting. And then there were certain things I couldnt figure out [at first]. I couldnt figure out the differences in her facial expressions that would change in her cheeks and her eyebrows.
Everyone was motivated by this shared adoration for Judy, and it felt like this active celebration of her every day. [Director Rupert Goold] is such a deeply thoughtful person. Ive known him for such a long time now. He had a really interesting process in finding the best of the material and the subtext in the narrative. It was as if he wants emotion not to be cerebral but physically felt. So when we were, for example, working on By Myself, which is the first song in the film…theres a lot of fear and anger and self-realization in the words of that song, also this determination to triumph. So in the rehearsal space, he would have me leaning into this baby grand and trying to push it across the room as Im singing the song. Because he wanted it to come from my entire body, this performance.
Another time, in a rehearsal space on the soundstages, he scattered these chairs all around and I had to stay there. They were metal and plastic chairs—important to note that. Not priceless, hand-carved antiques. He would have me kick them or throw them on the moment of emphasis, where he [wanted me to] show the truth of what shes feeling so that [it] would translate into the choreography later on. Creatively, I couldnt be more spoiled in terms of exploring a project.
On set, I like to figure out where it is were trying to go on that day and stay [in character] there rather than start over all the time. It wasnt a Method thing or anything like that. [Id] go home and FaceTime the vocal coach to discuss tomorrows work and where we intended to go tomorrow with the dialect.
From what I gather, and plus you can only speculate, I felt hope [was driving Garland at that time]. I felt loneliness and longing, but also joy in moments and tenacity. Determination, maybe, but always hope and love. Love for work and love for children, love for the many possibilities. I think its one thing to be a persona with this unparalleled God-given talent, and its quite another thing to overcome what seems to be insurmountable difficulty in order to continue to perform. And I think in that context, Judy was heroic. She continued to inspire and share so much with the audiences who adored her, and I think that really sets her apart. I think that was the hope [of the movie], to celebrate her and the legacy of extraordinary work that shes left for generations.
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Preparing to play the iconic performer involved throwing chairs, FaceTiming nightly with her vocal coach and staying in character on set
Its in this moment of Judy Garlands career, as a struggling performer in the final years of her life, that the biopic Judy sets its stage. Played by Renée Zellweger in a performance that ultimately speaks more to Zellwegers charms than her ability to fully inhabit a persona whose theatrics are as well known as Garlands, Judy follows the actress during her notorious run of shows at Londons Talk of the Town club. Shes virtually penniless, kicked out of the hotel room shes been using as a home, and forced to drop off her two youngest children with their father, former manager Sidney Luft.
The scope of Judy, adapted from the play End of the Rainbow, is small; this is not a sprawling, definitive biopic of the star. And theres the mess to be expected: Garland drinks too much, she pops uppers and downers like candy, and shes racked with stage fright when its time to actually take the stage and sing. But through it all, Zellweger makes her extremely charming. Shes so quippy, the movie is a comedy rather than a serious portrayal of an artist in the darkest last days of her life. We cant have the worlds greatest entertainer out here without a drink, says her future fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Frank Sinatras here? she says, dryly. When she arrives at show rehearsal and wanders around the studio, evading actually singing, clearing her throat with a fake illness, you laugh, not pity her.
A generous read is that the goofy lightness of the films script is a way to remind people of Garlands outlook on her own life, that she was not simply a tragedy but someone who knew how to put on a dazzling show. But as a largely comic performer herself, Zellweger ends up wearing Garlands eccentricities like a suit thats just not quite right, her own mannerisms (the pursed lips, the Bridget Jones-anxiety) bubbling up underneath. The movie is saddled with way too many scenes of Zellweger singing Garlands hits, lip-syncing the kind of canned, overly auto-tuned vocals you hear in these kinds of musical biopics. Zellwegers singing is capable, but it doesnt warrant the dramatic, sweeping camera work these scenes entail. She might not capture Garland, but Zellweger captures her over-the-top magnetism as a tireless entertainer.
Theres a totally different pull to the movies flashback scenes, which ground Garlands tics (her eating disorder, her inability to sleep without pills) in context as a former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ingenue. Director Rupert Goold shoots them like a surreal fever dream, as Garlands actual memories reveal themselves to take place on elaborate film sets, the contours of her real life and her stage life bleeding into one another. In one scene, while on a date with the actor Mickey Rooney, a young Garland is yelled at by a handler who tells her the studio forbids her from eating, one of the extreme diets MGM put her on to keep her thin. The camera pans out to reveal the diner is a movie set, and a bite of hamburger is caught by a crowd of inexplicably placed paparazzi. In other scenes, Louis B. Mayer is depicted as a looming villain always in shadow, telling Garland shes nothing, intimidatingly reminding her of the deal she made with him as if hes Satan himself.
What Goold is doing visually in these flashback scenes is way more interesting than how he films Garlands story in the present, as if theres art house potential lurking in the corners of Judy, and its a shame the whole movie doesnt carry that feeling. But even as these scenes flicker in and out of the movie, the weight of that early childhood fame carries throughout without turning Garland into a sob story. Judy, for all its flaws, is an earnest snapshot of an artist who has lived their life constantly performing, and the intense highs and lows of being on stage and off it.
Here's Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in a New TrailerI Guess Renée Zellweger Does Look Like Judy Garland After AllSomeone's Spreading Rumors About Liza MinnelliAbout the authorHazel CillsHazel CillsPop Culture Reporter, Jezebel