Renée Zellweger’s ‘Judy’ Triumph and Big Hollywood Comeback: This Time ‘It’s Happier’
After the harsh scrutiny and demands of Hollywood sent Zellweger into exile, playing Judy Garland is a hell of a way to return to the spotlight. She tells us how she did it.
When the film Judy finished its first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and the credits began to roll, star Renée Zellweger did exactly the same thing the 2,000 other people in the sold-out audience were doing. She started to cry.
For two full minutes—a length of time, it should be said, that is longer than you think—the audience delivered a standing ovation, whistling and screaming and cheering as Zellweger, wearing a sleek powder blue dress, made her way in front of them, her hand over her heart in shock. The crowd only relented when, after hurriedly wiping tears from her cheeks, she tapped the microphone and humbly scolded: “Y’all better quit it. You’re messing up my makeup!”
The film, out Sept. 27, chronicles Judy Garland’s tumultuous time performing a run of sold-out concerts at London’s famed Talk of the Town. It’s a time defined by the highs of a comeback and the vindication of her talents, and the lows of depression, insomnia, and substance abuse. Garland wouldn’t make it to the end of the year. She died of an overdose in June 1969 at the age of 47.
Judy marks its own kind of comeback for Oscar-winner Zellweger, who has spent the last decade in self-imposed retreat from the public eye, having only appeared as the lead in one wide-release movie, Bridget Jones’s Baby, since 2009. Coming back from that to play Judy Garland, of all fixtures and icons, is the kind of big swing that can’t be oversold.
Yet as the rapturous reception—at TIFF, in reviews, from this journalist—attests, she defies all expectations, no matter how high or low. It’s the kind of performance—not a mimic, but an embodiment—that leaves you completely breathless. Survival instinct kicks in. You must cry; with the tears come more oxygen.
“I didn’t know how to take that,” Zellweger says when we meet a few days before Judy hits theaters. The experience at TIFF was overwhelming, to the point that even now, weeks later, she seems triggered back into astonishment. “Our intention was to celebrate her. I was just so happy that it seemed like we had gotten it right.”
Zellweger has just arrived in New York to begin her dutiful press blitz in support of the film. While early yet, she has already received the ecstatic pronouncement, from those in the industry who do such pronouncing, that she will likely earn her second Oscar for her performance. It’s a hell of a way to be thrust back into the harsh glare of the spotlight: as Judy Garland at the start of a long Best Actress campaign.
Interviews thus far have covered the gamut, from the fascination over the technicalities—how, exactly, did Zellweger get her voice, her posture, and her very being to so cannily resemble Garland?—to the more uncouth fascination over her 10-year absence: What demons was she fighting? Why did she need such a break? What about the crass headlines over her appearance?
“It does feel very different this time around,” she says.
It’s an adjustment to be back doing press, back on the red carpet, back to being vulnerable, and back to all that entails being a major lead actress on a media tour.
“Having stepped away from that for a little while, I have a new perspective and I have different boundaries. A person without boundaries is, I would probably say, less authentic or comfortable in any exchange. So it’s a bit of a happier experience this go-round.” After a beat, she repeats herself. “It’s happier.”
She greets me in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, which she fawns over as she nestles into a large, velvet chair. She’s been coming here since it was new, she says, “like a thousand years ago,” when it was a music venue. “Oh, I have great memories here…” she goes on, smirking and bashfully burying her head in her shoulder, as if afraid of the stories she’d tell.
In a way that for some reason seems remarkable, Zellweger appears to be very comfortable. Maybe it’s projection because of all the stories about her—she has more to say about that—or maybe it’s because I last saw her as Garland in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Either way, it is somehow refreshing.
She greets me dressed in a long-sleeved henley shirt and loose cargo pants, fully made up, with her hair styled in a dramatic, Dolly Parton bouffant. She’s a Texas girl, something that seems to lead her personality, whether it’s the instinct to barrel through pleasantries into real conversations—somehow, the first thing we end up talking about is my friend’s wedding—or the twang in her accent which is much more pronounced in person than some may expect.
Her resting position is to cross her legs and fold over, leaning in close to the person she’s talking to—a warring body language that telegraphs someone who’s guarded, but also eager to draw you into their intimate space. Barely speaking above a whisper, she tells me she loves New York City, almost as if she’s sharing a secret.
“I always forget that every now and then you need an infusion of that energy, you know? Just talking to people in the street,” she says, suddenly uncoiling and letting out a startling, loud guffaw. “You know you’re from out of town when you’re talking to people in the street.”
At face value, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a performer playing Judy Garland is garnering awards attention, especially when they’re chronicling such an explosive period of her life.
Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard won Emmys for their work in the 2001 miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Tracie Bennett was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Garland in the 2012 play, End of the Rainbow, which serves as the source material for Judy.
You may think you know what you’re in for when you buy a ticket to the film: the brassiness, the jerking mannerisms, the mania as she pops pills and swills booze. But Zellweger defies all of that by infusing a period of Garland’s life we all associate with tragedy with a dazzling, infectious warmth. It’s a shade of the rainbow, so to speak, we’re not used to seeing when it comes to Garland. For some viewers, it may even be a revelation.
It fascinated Zellweger that, after Garland passed, people described that period of her life with such darkness.
“That leaves very little room to consider her humanity,” she says. “It’s not as simple as the salacious bits of a person’s experience. There’s so much that’s in between the lines, that’s not spoken, that’s not addressed. That changes the truth of the picture and people’s perception in a way that I think is often very unfair. Those omissions are essential to understanding what is truthful to the person’s experience.”
It’s fair to say she’s speaking from a place of authority. The omissions, what we didn’t know, are very much a part of Zellweger’s own story.
It’s a story we’ve all been rather obsessed with, even during her self-imposed exile. She attained a level of celebrity that kicked off with a rocket launch after 1996’s Jerry Maguire—she had us at hello—and burnt fuel in the stratosphere for more than a decade: the Bridget Jones movies, Chicago, Cold Mountain, Nurse Betty.
Life entailed running from film sets to photo shoots to red carpets to awards podiums and back again, a kind of merry-go-round. Except, instead of whimsical music tinkling in the background, people shout demands and criticisms of everything from your performances to your looks. After a string of misfires and misses in the early 2010s, the carousel finally slowed and Zellweger took the opportunity to step away.
A chance to breathe meant a chance to realize how unhealthy she had been, and how neglectful she was of her personal well-being. She started to see a therapist, who helped her realize she was depressed.
There was a path to self-healing afforded by a return to relative anonymity, now that every day of her schedule wasn’t planned two years in advance. She could travel. She took classes in international policy at a university in Los Angeles.
It was an opportunity to recalibrate on her own terms, an opportunity that was nearly crushed by an anvil after a rare public appearance she made at 2014’s Elle Women in Hollywood Awards.
The crudest savagery of the media rose up ravenously, as commentary about her face, which critics wondered had been altered through plastic surgery, drove up page views and magazine sales. She addressed it all in an essay for HuffPost titled, “We Can Do Better.”
She speaks about the whole experience again in a New York magazine profile, first laughing, “Nothing like international humiliation to set your perspective right!” But then she wonders what the cost is of this scrutiny: “The implication that I somehow needed to change what was going on because it wasn’t working. That makes me sad. I don’t look at beauty in that way. And I don’t think of myself in that way. I like my weird quirkiness, my off-kilter mix of things. It enables me to do what I do.”
There’s no reason to gossip about it more here, except that it is the question I’ve been asked most by friends and colleagues who knew I was meeting Zellweger. She looked great: extremely pretty, very youthful, and palpably happy.
Her eyes sparkled through that squint as we talked. She’s in constant, lively motion, like embers crackling off a fire. In this case, that fire is the barn-burner of a performance she gives in Judy.
It’s a reflex of the media to construct a narrative when it comes to major cultural moments like this. With Judy, that’s meant drawing parallels between what Garland was going through during that time in her career and Zellweger’s own journey these past 10 years.
When I ask her what she thinks of those comparisons, she crosses her hands on her legs and leans forward. “Well, I haven’t read anything, so I don’t specifically know what you’re referring to.”
In my head, I go through the examples I’ve read: that they’re performers who took hard hits from an industry that expected too much of them and treated them unfairly; that critics felt entitled to scrutinize and belittle them as if they weren’t real people; that at moments when each was discounted, they triumphed with resilience. Would she like me to tell her about these, for context?
With a sense of comedic timing that could only be ascribed to a summoning of Garland herself, she deadpans, “No.”
Laughter explodes from her with such a volcanic force, the chandeliers hanging at the Bowery Hotel nearly melt. She throws her entire body back into her chair as she cackles. It’s no giggle, but a loud, throaty, brash laugh.
It’s like when her friends text her to alert her to something they read about her and she deletes the message before finishing the first sentence. “I’ve got plenty of reasons not to sleep at night,” she says. “That does not need to be one of them. And believe me, I will punish myself plenty about the choices I’ve made or don’t make. You don’t even know.”
She lets out that familiar sigh of someone who has nearly exhausted themselves in a fit of laughter, finally calmed down. “But I can imagine that there are certain things that I might be able to empathize with in a more substantial way than I might have earlier in my life.”
The most striking commentary that Judy makes about celebrity is the loneliness one feels amidst all that fame.
For all the people who are watching you, who buy tickets to your show, and who surround you to make sure you get from point A to point B, it just seems so isolating.
Zellweger’s Garland portrays that to heartbreaking effect. A mother missing her kids. A woman starved for love who enters yet another unhappy marriage. A celebrity so in need of human interaction that, in the film’s tenderest scene, she asks two gay fans to join her for dinner after a concert. Did Zellweger identify with that?
“I understand other people's projections and assumptions, I know that,” she says. “And I understand that as a person’s persona gets bigger, it takes up more space and it becomes more difficult to have authentic exchanges with people. Because they don’t really meet you. They meet a projection of you.”
She knows she’s not alone in feeling that way. “It’s universal. You look at Janis Joplin, who I always assumed desperately wanted to be seen and wanted to be enough. I thought the irony was that the bigger her star grew, the bigger the shadow she stood in. It’s a hard thing, I guess.”
The goal of the movie was for Judy Garland to be seen as a full person, not to be defined by the troubles and tribulations that make up a juicy story and the stuff of legend. Through her performance as Garland, that’s now what we’re witnessing with Renée Zellweger, too.
We’re back to talking about all that crying that happens at the end of the film. In the last scene, Zellweger as Judy performs a gutting rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the final night of Garland’s Talk of the Town dates.
Garland is so overcome by emotion she can barely get out the notes through her quivering throat, so the audience joins her in a singalong. She stands in shell-shocked tears as she takes in the ovation—an incredible art imitating life moment when one considers Zellweger’s own experience at TIFF. “Don’t forget me,” Garland says. “Promise me you won’t.”
One can’t possibly imagine what it must be like to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in those circumstances, with that much emotional weight behind it, with that audience, and, for the love of Liza, dressed as Judy Garland, to boot. What must that be like?
Zellweger takes in a breath so deep it’s as if she’s imbibing all the air of Manhattan, clutching her chest and relaxing into a serene smile. “Probably just what you imagine,” she says.
The performance was filmed on the last of five days of shooting the movie’s musical numbers. In between takes, the extras in the audience would share stories about and memories of Garland. Some had seen her perform themselves. Each time Zellweger would sing the song, she would combust with emotion, thinking about what it must have meant to Garland, and what it must have taken to maintain what may have seemed like an unattainable optimism.
I tell her it sounds like an amazing experience. “Well,” she says, flitting her eyes to the side like she’s about to deliver a bawdy dare, “why don’t you try it some time?”
We both collapse in laughter again. She says she never wants to stop talking about what it was like to perform that song. It’s a kind of vibrancy and genuine appreciation I can’t recall ever seeing while interviewing an actor this famous. Maybe this isn’t a comeback, I think, in that it’s not a return at all. Maybe it’s someone finally living the way she was meant to.
“That moment, it was like the seal on the love letter,” she says. “She never quit. She never gave up.”