The new film is bound to cause controversy among classic movie fans but Zellweger’s performance is Oscar-worthy.
Winter 1968: Showbiz legend Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) arrives in London to perform in a sell-out run at Talk of the Town. It’s been decades since she shot to global stardom in The Wizard of Oz and many other MGM classics and if her spectacular voice has weakened, its dramatic intensity has only grown.
As Judy prepares for the show, battles with management, charms musicians, and reminisces with friends and adoring fans, her wit and warmth shine through. Even her dreams of romance seem undimmed as she embarks on a courtship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband. And yet Judy is fragile. After working for 45 of her 47 years, she is exhausted — haunted by memories of a childhood lost to Hollywood and gripped by a desire to be back home with her kids. Will she have the strength to go on?
Being a classic movie fanatic, I admit that I was skeptical about this film, but I have to say that British director Rupert Goold has created something quite remarkable. There are definitely some factual items that Judy’s diehard fans will take issue with along with some timeline inaccuracies, but as far as I’m concerned, Renée Zellweger’s performance is one for the ages. She captures late 1960s Judy Garland in a way I never dreamed possible, tapping into Garland’s humor, intelligence, and pathos with exquisite sensitivity and compassion.
Having worked for several years on a book with Meredith Ponedel about her aunt, Dottie Ponedel, Judy’s personal makeup artist and one of her closest friends, I have been steeped in first-person stories of Judy and I believe those stories mesh beautifully with the woman I see in this film.
I was delighted to sit down with Rupert Goold for Classic Movie Hub to talk about the joys and challenges of telling this story.
Danny Miller: In my classic movie circles, Judy Garland is hallowed territory. How nervous were you about taking on someone who is so revered by so many people?
Rupert Goold: Oh, quite nervous, I assure you! Judy Garland is also very disputed territory. I recognized that Judy has this aura among many people as being kind of like a secular saint. And there are definitely these Calvary-like qualities in this last period of her life, someone who feels abandoned at the hour of her departure. But I tried to move away from the idea that we were making a movie about the mythology. I had to. When I approached Judy as a character to be developed it finally helped me stop losing sleep over questions like “What if we don’t get the voice right?” “What if the hair is wrong?”
And yet the recreation, while not exact, is phenomenal, I thought it really conveyed the essense of Judy.
We had many extremely talented people in the tapestry working very hard to get their bit right: the costumes, hair, voice, makeup, posture. We figured all that out, but there was so much more we had to do. I remember one of our tests when we had finally all those pieces in place, and Renée was great — but I could see her kind of doing an impression of Judy. We worked to get away from that. In the end, we both felt that we needed to make this person a human character and not feel enslaved to a specific representation.
Which is why I think her performance is so extraordinary. As much as she gets Judy’s look and mannerisms down, in my view she never succumbs to the stereotypical depictions of the myth, she seems like a real person with that wonderful humor and intelligence and vulnerability intact. It’s such a remarkable performance. I wondered if all of your work with Shakespeare in the theater may have informed your work on this film.
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think it may have in the sense of how Shakespeare looks at life. To see a great life on the wheel and those who bear witness to it.
Maybe it’s the other way around — maybe your work here will inform your future Shakespeare projects.
Yes, I think it might! (Laughs.) Working on this film certainly made me think of the years I spent in rehearsal rooms with great actors. It’s a weird thing when you direct opera or theater — you see things in the rehearsal room that you may never see on the stage.
Like a certain kind of vulnerability as the actor strives to find the character?
Yes, and also just extraordinary performances. In my opinion, no performance is greater than one of discovery. I remember doing a Pinter play with Michael Gambon a few years ago. We were all a bit worried, Mike was getting on a bit, and then I remember one rehearsal where the room just collapsed, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It’s such a privilege to bear witness to that. For me, a big motivation for doing this film was that I wanted to make a love letter to what it means to be a performer. No one knew how to do that better than Judy Garland.
For all the problems she was having at this point in her life, magic could happen when she was out on that stage.
Absolutely. It’s so fascinating to me. I remember some doctor once did this study with heart monitors and he concluded that when someone goes out to perform in front of an audience it’s the equivalent of going through a 40 mile-per-hour car crash. My favorite line in the film is when Renée finishes her incredible opening night performance at Talk of the Town and Jessie (Buckley, who plays her London assistant Rosalyn Wilder) tells her how great she was and Renée turns to her and says, “What if I can’t do it again?” That’s based on something Olivier said to Ralph Richardson, and it’s something I think most performers can relate to — the fear and the bewilderment about why it worked that night.
Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any film the alchemy that is shown during that first performance at Talk of the Town. Judy is absolutely terrified and not on the top of her game, and then we slowly see her being fed by the audience to the point of giving an electric, killer performance. Renée did such a fantastic job in that scene. How nerve-wracking was that to shoot?
Oh God, there was a pin in that day for the whole schedule. I knew that if we didn’t get it just right, we didn’t have a film.
And I assume she was performing that live on the set?
Yes, it was a live vocal. We ended up doing nine takes which was pushing it, and quite exhausting. Everything about it was challenging. We built the whole scene around this very complicated crane shot but when we got the crane in, we realized it was too heavy for the floor. We lost the first three hours of the day figuring out how to make it work. Renée had the orchestra playing in her ear and during one of her best performances the feed cut out. She sang perfectly but the timing was just a bit off so we couldn’t use it. It was a very difficult day.
And yet the take you use in the film is just extraordinary. I was one of the people who was initially horrified that you weren’t using Judy Garland’s actual voice. But after seeing the film, I think I was wrong. It didn’t matter that Renée didn’t sound exactly like Judy Garland, what mattered was the overall performance and her relationship to it.
Exactly. And one thing I kept saying to Renée is that I bet Judy herself would have gone out on that stage in 1968 knowing that she no longer sounded like she used to. She only had about an octave left at the end of her life, it really wasn’t the voice people were accustomed to back in the day.
But because of her amazing performances and the history she brought with her, I imagine people listened to her through their own memories of what that voice was. It was still incredibly powerful and emotional, and wildly entertaining, just like Renée’s performance in that scene. But what a task she had for that day. Was Renée very nervous going in?
But, of course, in this case those emotions could be used in the scene.
Absolutely. It was a bit of a risk doing that song because Renée sings Garland’s bluesy repertoire much better. She sang the hell out of “The Man That Got Away” even though we didn’t end up using it in the film, and she also sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” so beautifully, some of those songs fit her range perfectly. But I really wanted to use “By Myself.” It has this aria-like quality to it and I just loved the lyrics.
Every word of that song has a double meaning to where Judy was in her life at that time.
Definitely. It builds and builds and is wonderfully theatrical, but it was a real stretch for her, we rehearsed the hell out of it!
I can totally see both Judy AND Renée saying after that scene, “What if I can’t do it again?” I was quite nervous about her performing “Over the Rainbow” before seeing the film, it almost seemed like some kind of sacrilege, and yet I admit my wife and I both sobbed during that scene, she so perfectly nailed the emotions in that moment.
Yeah. I remember the orchestrator really wanted to put strings in the song and I resisted. We had a bit of a wrestle about it, I just felt it would be too synthetic, too MGM for this moment which needed to feel more delicate, more intimate.
I’m glad you won out. It was more about that exact time in her life.
Yes. And, in a way, the impossibility of hope that we still cling to. Renée was very nervous about doing that song, of course, from the beginning. But I think it helped that it came right off of “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Her adrenaline was pumping and then she just went down into it. I remember when she got to the line “That’s where you’ll find me” she was reaching for the note and it came out a bit cracky. I found that so moving.
I thought it was perfect. I think when Judy Garland sang that song towards the end of her career it had a different emotional resonance every single time based on what was happening in her life. I think Renée Zellweger did Judy proud with that rendition.
— Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.