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'Judy' review: Renee Zellweger gives the performance of her lifetime as Judy Garland

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in "Judy."

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in "Judy." Photo Credit: LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions/David Hindley

PLOT In 1969, a fading Judy Garland attempts a five-week stand at a London nightclub.

CAST Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley

RATED PG-13 (adult themes)

LENGTH 1:58

BOTTOM LINE A heart-stopping performance by Zellweger, who leaves it all on the floorboards as one of Hollywood’s most dazzling and tragic stars.

Renee Zellweger seems likely to win the Oscar that eluded Judy Garland, the once-radiant star she plays in Rupert Goold's biopic, "Judy." Zellweger gives the performance of a lifetime as a woman who arguably gave several during her career and paid the price in exhaustion, isolation and drug addiction. To use the excitable language of the old Hollywood movie trailers: Renee Zellweger IS Judy Garland.

"Judy" gives us the human side of an entertainer whose death by barbiturate overdose at the age of 47 has made her a byword for show-biz tragedy. The movie places more than a little blame on Hollywood, where a teenage Garland (Darci Shaw, in her film debut) is fed flattery by movie-mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and drugs by her handlers. That toxic cocktail has taken its toll by the time we meet Zellweger's Garland in the late 1960s. Cash-poor, effectively homeless and facing a custody battle with ex-husband No. 3 (Rufus Sewell as the producer Sid Luft), Garland books a five-week gig at one of the only places that will still have her: a London cabaret called Talk of the Town.

That set-up requires Zellweger to "do" Garland but also play a real person with real feelings. In both modes, she's terrific. As Garland the performer, Zellweger absolutely electrifies, grabbing hold of standards like "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "By Myself" (performed in a single astounding take) with every ounce of Garland's pit-bull ferocity. (The scene in which she's pelted with bread rolls by the audience -- yes, it really happened – is as heartbreaking as anything in "Pagliacci.") Zellweger is also deeply moving as Garland the desperate mother, whose youngest children (Lewin Lloyd and Bella Ramsey as Joey and Lorna Luft) are drifting away from her. "Don't ever have children," she says. "It's like having your heart on the outside of your body."

Like "My Week with Marilyn" and "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," "Judy" mines a little-known slice of a famous life for insights, details and maximum drama, but to far greater effect than those films. "Judy" benefits from Tom Edge's sensitive script (inspired by Peter Quilter's play "End of the Rainbow"), astute direction from British theater veteran Goold and an excellent supporting cast, notably Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans, Garland's much-younger beau, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, her real-life London assistant. Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira, as gay fans who provide Garland with a little warmth on a lonely evening, help salute the fan-base that stuck with the star even through her collapse.

We know how this story ends, but here's a surprise: "Judy" never feels like a downer. Even as the closing credits roll, Zellweger's vividly alive performance still resonates. 

FOUR MORE

Her film career began with a bit of fluff called "Pigskin Parade" (1936) and ended with a little-remembered musical called "I Could Go On Singing" (1963). But in between, Judy Garland made some of the top-ranked films of Hollywood's Golden Age. Here are four examples, one from each of the decades she appeared on the silver screen.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Dorothy Gale, the little girl from Kansas who enters a magical kingdom, remains Garland's best-known film role, thanks in no small part to her moving rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." She was 17 upon the film's release.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) Vincente Minnelli's Technicolor musical about a Missouri family living in the early 20th Century features Garland singing one of her great signature tunes, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." She later married the director.

A STAR IS BORN (1954) By now Garland had become a troubled soul and a professional liability, but this musical marks what is arguably her greatest film performance, as a small-town girl swept up in Hollywood's star-maker machinery. Garland narrowly lost the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl."

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) Stanley Kramer's drama featured Garland in the unexpected role of Irene Hoffmann-Wallner, a woman facing difficult choices during the post-war Nuremberg trials. A nomination for Best Supporting Actress seemed to signal a comeback, but Garland's film career stalled. She died in 1969. — RAFER GUZMAN

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