Famous people playing other famous people can be a tricky business. At its worst, the exercise yields nothing but an embarrassing impersonation, but there’s always the hope for that moment of transcendence, in which one legend disappears into the skin of another. In recent years, Michael Douglas managed it, playing Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra,” and a pre-“Black Panther” Chadwick Boseman accomplished it twice, as Jackie Robinson in “42” and James Brown in “Get On Up.”
To that list, we must add Renee Zellweger in “Judy,” giving the kind of masterful performance that requires that we forget everything we think we know about Zellweger as an actor. For 118 minutes, she becomes Judy Garland, which is no easy task — Garland is one of the 20th century’s greatest icons, and while any number of drag queens over the years have paid her varying degrees of homage, she was a singular entertainer and deeply empathetic performer.
Somehow, through the alchemy of acting and makeup and lighting and costuming, all traces of Zellweger are erased, and only Judy remains. I recognized elements of Garland’s onstage movements, particularly from her 1960s CBS variety show — the way she would sling the microphone cable over one shoulder; her habit of extending her non-mic-holding hand upward, then cocking her elbow and bringing a fist to the top of her head — but Zellweger makes these movements as organic for herself as they were for Garland. There’s never a feeling that she’s “doing” Judy; she’s being Judy.
The film takes place after the cancellation of that variety show: It’s 1968, and Garland is struggling to keep a roof over her head and those of her young children Lorna (Bella Ramsey, “Game of Thrones”) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd, “The Aeronauts”). When they’re kicked out of their L.A. hotel, she is forced to let the children’s father, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), take them in so she can accept the one gig that will pay enough for her to regain eventual custody — playing London’s Talk of the Town nightclub.
This Judy is fragile, wracked with insecurities, and addicted to prescription drugs; in flashback, we see young Judy (Darci Shaw) being plied with diet pills and sleeping pills by abusive MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery, “The Wife”) during the shoot of “The Wizard of Oz.” But no matter how erratic Judy might be in her life, she is magnetic and dynamic on the stage, even if she’s depressed afterward, wondering if she’ll be able to do it all again the next night.
Zellweger is singing here as well, and it’s true, as a singer, she’s no Judy Garland. However, that is like saying she can’t run a three-minute mile; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Her vocals do make the performance all that much more lived-in; it might not be the singing voice that came out of Judy, but it’s the voice that comes out of Zellweger’s Judy, and once I realized that’s what the movie was giving me, it worked just fine.
“Judy” itself doesn’t really rewrite the biopic rules, although the film is more than just a jewel box to display Zellweger’s work. Director Rupert Goold (“True Story”) and screenwriter Tom Edge (Netflix’s “Lovesick”), adapting Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow,” find lovely interactions for Judy, whether it’s with her harried London assistant Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, “Wild Rose”) or a fleeting encounter with daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux, “The Tudors”) at a Hollywood party. Even if the scenes with Garland’s husbands Luft and Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) teeter into cliché, there’s genuine heartbreak — but never overdone pathos — in Judy’s quieter moments with Lorna and Joey, or with a gay fan (Andy Nyman, Amazon’s “Hanna”). (The latter serves as a reminder of the high regard and affection that Garland and her gay fanbase had for each other.)
The period details all feel just right: Legendary costumer Jany Temime gets Garland’s latter-day look just right, down to the Travilla pantsuit Judy took with her off the set of “Valley of the Dolls,” and Kave Quinn’s production design captures both the swanky supper clubs and Carnaby Street mod explosion of 1968 London.
“Judy” could have gone wrong in so many ways, particularly in milking its heroine’s tragedy for easy tears. But the Judy Garland that the film, and Zellweger in particular, give us is a fighter and a lover, a woman who wants to do right by her family and who believes that great opportunities still lie ahead. Garland would, tragically, die six months after the events of the film, but as “Judy” reminds us, she went down swinging.