While Renée Zellweger presents the Hollywood icons struggle with great care, its the way that she reckons with Garlands star power that makes the performance award-worthy. Zellweger captures Garlands miraculous natural talent — she was a one-woman orchestra whether she was playing a sold-out concert hall or the girl next door.
Oz was only the beginning for Garland, whose career included Technicolor musicals, contemplative black-and-white dramas, meta musical numbers, and recurring collaborations with the likes of Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, and director Vincente Minnelli. On the occasion of Judys release, here are 15 definitive roles from across Garlands filmography.
Will Renée Zellwegers Portrayal of Judy Garland Win an Oscar?
It all started with a football movie: Garland made her feature debut as a scene-stealer with colossal talent in Pigskin Parade, a football-based lark about a hillbilly star quarterback; Garland plays his little sister, who joins him on his ride to college prominence. In the last of her three music sequences, she provides pregame entertainment with the rousing ballad Its Love Im After, and the way she holds that first open vowel in the title lyric proclaims a voice thats mature beyond her years. Even at 14, Garland was already captivating audiences with her full-throated singing and outstretched arms.
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The Wizard of Oz has long held the imagination of moviegoers since its release, with Garland acting in her first feature lead role as Dorothy, a surrogate into the wonders of author Frank L. Baums world. But lingering longer than the films dreaminess is its sense of humanity, which comes directly from Garlands profound innocence and curiosity. Its a stunning display of empathy within Garlands girl-next-door persona — she hangs on every worried word from her new friends, and urgently wants to help. Garland embodies one of the films most famous quotes: A heart is not judged by how much love, but by how much you are loved by others. The performance is all the more impactful, and tragic, given the abusive environment behind the scenes (detailed powerfully in flashbacks in Judy), with The Wizard of Oz inspired by a degree of tenderness that was not afforded Garland in real life.
Anyone who wants to see an especially high-energy Garland show off her silly side should seek out Presenting Lily Mars, which has her playing an underdog actor fumbling to get the attention of curmudgeonly play producer John Thornway (Van Heflin). In this bouncy performance, a blonde Garland shows off her comic fearlessness and is particularly funny when overacting a monologue from Macbeth, or dashing around a party in high heels, chased by an angry Thornway. On two occasions, her character finds herself randomly in front of an orchestra, and in one highlight performs When I Look at You with an array of gauche accents, but a bigness thats all Garland.
For all of her onscreen moments, only once did Garland introduce herself by emerging from under a car chassis, in Girl Crazy, voluminous curls and all. This out West college comedy would mark the final time shed be paired onscreen with Mickey Rooney (after three Andy Hardy movies, Babes in Arms, and more), but Garland is once again the main event, especially as she puts her own touch on George and Ira Gershwin classics like Embraceable You and I Got Rhythm. Rooney plays Danny, an insatiable playboy who settles his gaze on Garlands incredibly charismatic Ginger Gray — not only is she the local postmistress who can fix her own car, shes also one of the few women around. Along with her entrance, Girl Crazy has other delightful moments of Garland kookiness, like the dry comedy-musical number Bidin My Time. Seemingly liberated by her self-amusement, a guitar-carrying Garland sings and saunters with a few other drowsy cowboys, sneaking in different funny faces that culminate in a big smile, and then a wink.
Zellweger's desire to be out of the spotlight saw her quit the movie business for six years from 2010. She has previously said she spent the first year of her hiatus working through something like depression, but the rest was devoted to figuring out who she was and what mattered to her – subjects she'd lost sight of in the frantic years that followed her breakthrough role in Jerry Maguire in 1996.
Garland is but another bright color in the Technicolor palette of Vincente Minnellis period classic Meet Me in St. Louis, but shes at the center of the films best moments, performing the now-classic tunes The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. She even gets away with one of the films cheesiest lines — Oh no, John. I dont hate you. I just hate basketball! — legitimizing it within her characters undeniably wholesome emotional palette. Her best moment is the opening ballad The Boy Next Door, a fitting number for Garland playing yet another girl next door, but injected with a grandiose sense of longing.
Before taking on the reflective characters in later films A Star Is Born and I Could Go on Singing, Garland addressed her star power with an appearance in Ziegfeld Follies, playing a woman billed as The Star. In her flawless ten-minute sequence (titled A Great Lady Has an Interview), Garland toys with an uppity accent and a sarcastic self-importance, embodying the type of movie star that was alien from her own persona. Garland talk-sings through musings about her career, including her screen potential: Id like to be pin-up girl, a cheesecake girl too / and what is Ginger Rodgers that I am not? In a mint-green gown, shes a true Hollywood queen who seemingly hypnotizes the male reporters that circle her, and glides around them while using an Oscar as a prop. The self-referential winking gives the sequence an irresistible playfulness, as if Garland was finally getting ahead of the machine that long controlled her image.
Zellweger has of course had her own share of unfair treatment, particularly at the hands of a media that showed indecent interest in her physical appearance a few years back. She admits the experience played a small part in helping her understand the struggles the character faced.
For her first nonmusical role, Garland displayed the grounded side of being an empathetic girl next door in this two-hander directed by Vincente Minnelli. She stars opposite Robert Walker in this New York romance, where his anxious soldier on leave, Joe, bumps into Garlands Alice at a train station and convinces her to show him around the city. Soon after, he asks her to marry him before he goes back to war. Garlands function is often to merely soothe Walkers inner turmoil, but she comes out as the more nuanced performer, especially with a painful, wordless moment of silence for their ill-fated attempt at marital bliss. The bittersweet undertone in The Clock is thanks to Garland, who reveals the vulnerability of a character that could easily be one-dimensional.
Garland played an Ohioan who joins a team of waitresses in Arizona in the Technicolor Western-comedy The Harvey Girls, which won an Oscar for the now classic tune Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. The film places Garland at the center of some comic gems, including a sequence where she tries to rob a saloon, even though she keeps fumbling with two guns and is still wearing her waitress apron. The Harvey Girls also has the not-too-common spectacle of Garland sharing big scenes with other leading women, as with the gorgeous trio Its a Great Big World with Virginia OBrien and Cyd Charisse, or a main plotline that has her going up against the leader of the enemy dance-hall girls, played by Angela Lansbury. Even in the musicals token romance, in which Garland is paired up with the particularly drab John Hodiak, Garland mines the contrived connection with flashes of sadness and regret, before taking us back into the sunny delights of this underrated romp.
In whats far and away the silliest of the three musicals they made together, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly pulled some gaudy magic out of The Pirate, a Caribbean adventure with Cole Porter songs, directed by Minnelli. The movie is largely steered by Kellys vivacity and silliness, playing an obnoxious actor named Serafin who hypnotizes Garlands Manuela, and pretends to be the fugitive pirate that she adores. Garland eventually gets the upper hand when she finds out the actors true identity, and the two practically try to out-ham each other in a scene where an angry Garland tries to smash every vase in the room over Kellys head. Their best moment comes at the very end with the slap-happy song Be a Clown, with Garland kicking up her heels in clown makeup. The film is essentially a disaster, but Garlands work has a hammy enthusiasm thats tough to beat.
Easter Parade is one of Garlands more grandiose MGM musicals, featuring her only onscreen collaboration with Fred Astaire. The two have infectious fun with its ridiculous premise — Astaires Broadway fixture Don Hewes thinks he can make anyone into a star, and is lucky to stumble upon Garlands Hannah Brown. As they build their act, they shine with catchy gems like Snookey Ookums, and charm in raggedy clothes and dirty, smiley faces in A Couple of Swells. Hannah upgrades their relationship from dance partners to lovers when she sings It Only Happens When I Dance With You to Astaire. Its a top-notch ballad, delivered poignantly in Garlands sensitive performance, as she resists eye contact with Astaires loving gaze until the final measure.
"We just started trying things and then one thing led to the next and we never actually made the declaration 'now we're going to do this', it just sort of took over."
The most iconic aspect of Summer Stock arrives at the end — a rendition of Come On, Get Happy performed by Garland in a tuxedo, a slanted fedora, and salacious black nylons. But before that, Garland doles out her charisma as a farmer with a penchant for song-and-dance, like in the musical number Howdy, Neighbor (Happy Harvest), which has Garland singing her heart out while driving a tractor. When Gene Kellys theater director comes to her barn with his troupe, Summer Stock unlocks the chance for a spontaneous tap-dance duet between Kelly and Garland, The Portland Fancy. The two keep the movie light on its feet, especially with its sunny culture clash of theater kids being thrown into farm life. Garland is a constant delight, especially with the wistful ballad Friendly Star, which is snuck in between Kellys more bombastic numbers.
After a four-year hiatus, Garland returned to the silver screen at full force in George Cukors remake of A Star Is Born. Her role as Esther Blodgett, a star with that little something extra reaching Hollywood prominence after getting support from actor Norman Maine (James Mason), is a pure celebration of Garlands gifts; massive, intricate show numbers like Born in a Trunk and Swanee pulse with her innate energy. The storys emphasis on contrasting authentic talent with the phoniness of Hollywood allowed Garland to shrug off the unabashed schmaltz of her earlier work. The film has everything viewers loved most about Garland, while providing her more of a chance to bare the complicated soul behind behind the master entertainer.
She was only onscreen for approximately 18 minutes, and yet Garland is one of the most memorable characters of the powerhouse cast in Stanley Kramers three-hour Judgment at Nuremberg. Garland plays a German woman named Irene Hoffman, who is brought to the post–World War II military tribunal to testify in a miscegenation case involving an elderly Jewish man during Nazi-era Germany. She begins her testimony stoically, but shes progressively broken down during her two trips to the stand. In her last scene, Garland radiates sadness and fear — her answers carefully doled out while being cross-examined by a comparatively over-the-top defense attorney played by Maximilian Schell. Schell won an Oscar for the role, and Garland was nominated, with even her brief screen time proving her potency as a dramatic actress. Hollywood missed an opportunity in not casting her in similar roles.
Garland gave one her most somber performances in John Cassavetess A Child Is Waiting as a concert pianist who starts working at a school for mentally challenged children. After failing to help one boy named Reuben (whose mother is played by Gena Rowlands, in a standout scene), shes persuaded by the headmaster (Burt Lancaster) to use her skills to lead a musical. Toward the end of the film, she guides the children in a singalong, playing the melody note by note, her fingers forcefully pressing each piano key, accompanied by an urgency in her voice. A Child Is Waiting is by no means a musical, but it includes one of the greatest examples of Garlands alternating delicacy and forcefulness performing any scene or song.
Garlands last film role was a meta sendoff, the character of Jenny Bowman being not so different from her: a popular singer and actor playing sold-out shows in London, but whose emotional emptiness renders her vulnerable offstage. In the movie (the time period in which Judy is set), Bowman tries to gain some autonomy and reconnect with her estranged son in London. Despite her drug and alcohol use, when she is onstage, she dominates with bombastic, perfect musical numbers. This is a performance built from the raw parts of Garlands charisma while offering a less-bleak look at Garlands true strife. In musical numbers like Hello Bluebird and especially the grand finale, By Myself, her voice defies her characters pain in a way thats equally gorgeous and heartbreaking. She appears onstage — on the last occasion, dangerously late — gives the crowd every note shes got inside of her, and then returns to a life far less rosy than her songs would suggest.
The TV show was written by Danny Brocklehurst and “This Is England” star Joe Gilgun, who was in “Pride” alongside Dominic West. “Dominic said [to me], ‘You have to hear these stories that Joe Gilgun has got…You should make a TV series out of them,” Livingstone explained. “I said: ‘I will if you will be in it.’” West duly obliged and stars in the show, about a group of working class friends in northern England. It has been one of pay-TV platform Sky’s biggest comedy launches.
Zellweger won an Academy Award for Supporting Actress in “Cold Mountain” and was nominated in the Best Actress category for “Chicago” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” She has been the focus of awards conversation this year for her work as Judy Garland in LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions’ “Judy.”
“Ms. Zellweger has always displayed a deep commitment and discipline in her performances which has always made me root for her and admire her deeply. In Judy, she adds a ferocity that solidifies her as one of the greatest actors of her time,” said Santa Barbara International Film Festival Executive Director, Roger Durling.
“Judy” is set in 1968 when Garland arrived in London to perform a five-week sold-out run at The Talk of the Town, 30 years after she broke out in “Wizard of Oz.”
The American Riviera Award was established to recognize actors who have made a significant contribution to American cinema. Previous recipients include Viggo Mortenson, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Robert Redford, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Annette Bening, Sandra Bullock, Mickey Rourke, Tommy Lee Jones, Forrest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane.
The 35th Santa Barbara International Film Festival will take place from Jan. 15 to Jan. 25. Zellweger is set to make her television debut starring in Netflix’s “What/If.”