A star is reborn with Renee Zellweger's performance in 'Judy'

Brad Keefe

There have been a few Oscar-bait performances over the years that have led me to joke, “The category is best acting, not most acting.”

Well, Renee Zellweger’s turn in the Judy Garland biopic “Judy” may end up being both this year.

The movie itself has more than its share of flaws, but it’s worth the ticket just to see Zellweger’s commitment to the role.

“Judy” focuses on the waning days in the life of Garland (Zellweger). Three decades after “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland’s star has faded stateside to the point where she’s struggling financially. She’s also fighting for custody of her two younger children, so Garland agrees to a five-week run performing in a London theater.

Director Rupert Goold is largely known for his stage work, and he and Zellweger reach their peak in “Judy” when she’s onstage in moments that range from triumphant to embarrassing.

Zellweger dives deep into Garland’s last days. Addiction to alcohol and barbiturates have rendered Garland wildly unpredictable and undependable as a performer, a factor that also led to her decline in Hollywood years prior.

Zellweger captures both the gigantic personality of Garland and her deep vulnerability. The performance is plenty big, but she also thrives in the small moments.

“Judy” is framed by flashbacks to a young Judy (Darci Shaw) being molded into a star by Hollywood magnate Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).

A teen Judy is worked to the bone while her diet is carefully controlled, mostly consisting of uppers. It’s a childhood that makes her adulthood almost a tragic inevitability.

“Judy” is a loving portrait, to be sure, but moments of movie-of-the-week hokeyness keep it from elevating the film overall.

But even if it’s only a vessel for Zellweger, the performance is a clear shot at another Oscar nod for an actress who took a self-imposed hiatus from acting.

She’s come back to show us what she’s got, and it’s remarkable.

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3 stars out of 5