We remember the wide-eyed optimism Judy Garland brought to Over the Rainbow, Get Happy, and The Trolley Song. Behind those wide eyes, though, was one of the most tragic figures ever to grace Hollywood. Few actresses lit up the screen or stage like Garland did, but she was destroyed by the very industry that made her famous. It’s no secret that Garland’s career was cut short due to substance abuse, although it was a different kind of abuse that sent her down such a dark path. In Rupert Goold’s adaptation of End of the Rainbow, the Emerald Curtain is pulled back to reveal how this legendary performer strayed away from the yellow brick road.
The success of a biopic like this all boils down to one question: who’s playing Judy? The answer is fortunately Renée Zellweger. Upon hearing this casting choice, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts. After all, Zellweger doesn’t look like Garland and she hasn’t had much singing experience since Chicago. Those reservations were almost immediately dashed within the film’s first minutes. The makeup team might transform Zellweger into Garland, but this portrayal goes beyond a physical makeover. Zellweger captures Garland’s fascial mannerisms to the point where we completely forget she’s covered in makeup. What’s more, we forget about the actress wearing the makeup. We just see Garland incarnate.
In flashbacks, we’re given glimpses of a teenage Garland (Darci Shaw) as she’s bullied and fat shamed by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Garland is restricted to a pill diet, which leaves her starving, sleep deprived, and emotionally drained. By the time Garland is in her late 40s, she looks more like somebody her in late 60s. Up to her neck in debt and desperate to provide for her children, Garland agrees to a concert tour in London. Although her stardom is seemingly hanging on by a thread, Garland finds that there are still many who adore her. A romance even begins to blossom between Garland and her fifth/final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Every time Garland reenters the spotlight, though, the pills and alcohol bring her one step closer to the final curtain.
The film features solid supporting performances from Jessie Buckley as the woman entrusted with keeping Garland under control and Royce Pierreson as the pianist who must keep her in rhythm. Gemma-Leah Devereux also turns in a spot-on Liza Minnelli in a cameo appearance. Of course, Judy belongs to Zellweger, who delivers one of the most authentic interpretations of a Hollywood icon ever put to film. Zellweger seamlessly transitions between Garland’s natural showmanship and the vulnerability she attempted to conceal. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the film’s musical performances, which is where Zellweger really demonstrates the practice and research she put into this role. Zellweger sings with the passion of a woman who was born to be a star. At the same time, we can see that star fizzling out with every breath she takes.
Like Garland, Zellweger’s career has been full of highs, but she’s also been in and out of the public eye. From 2010 to 2016, her filmography was virtually a ghost town. Just as Garland made a roaring comeback in a Star Is Born, Zellweger has reclaimed her A-list status with Judy. Garland infamously lost the Best Actress Oscar for Grace Kelly, an injustice that the Academy will never live down. Zellweger could very well win her second Oscar, however, for her astounding acting feat here. Garland may be somewhere over the rainbow, but she finally gets to take a final bow through Zellweger.