By Vic Gerami
If you had asked me a year ago to name actresses who would play Judy Garland, I probably would not have thought of Renee Zellweger. But after last night’s premiere of ‘Judy’, a film about the last six months of the legendary performer’s life, I can’t imagine anyone else playing her.
Judy is based on Peter Quilter’s renowned play, ‘End of the Rainbow‘, and directed by Rupert Goold. Not since David O. Selznick picked Vivien Leigh to play Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, has there been a casting so perfect in Hollywood.
I presume that portraying a legendary icon like Garland requires a laser-sharp balance to meet the bar set by her signature persona, enduring legacy and army of fans. Yet remarkably, Zellweger even managed to raise that bar with her incredible performance. Her subtle choices captured the beloved star with truth and authenticity, but devoid of clichés and exaggerations. The Oscar winner showed us the complexities of Garland, from her exceptional talents and the love for her children, while not shying away from her shortcomings and defects of character-all without compromising the story or offending the audience.
As I sat in the audience last tonight, it occurred to me that the toughest critics of Zellweger’s performance would not be from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap or the New York Times. Expectantly, she has received glowing reviews from some of the most respected film critics at aforementioned esteemed publications. However, the group that would be watching Zellweger with a microscope, examining every twitch, brow-lift and arm movement, does not belong to a press association, Rotten Tomatoes or a guild. They are the LGBTQIA+ community, especially gay men who have loved and adored Garland ever since she walked the yellow brick road in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, perhaps the anthem of the modern LGBTQIA+movement. After all, before there was Lady Gaga, Madonna, or even Cher (the single greatest gay icon of all time), there was Judy Garland. She is the original gay icon.
So how has the queer community reacted to Zellweger’s portrayal? I wasn’t at the Telluride Film Festival or the Toronto International Film Festival where she received standing ovations, but I read about them. As an exceptionally stoic gay man who rarely displays extreme emotions, I choked up twice during the film and had goosebumps every time she sang. I could hear people sniffling around me throughout the film. Zellweger sings all the songs herself and shines in a way that very few actresses in similar roles have succeeded in the past. A lot of singers can’t act and a lot of actors can’ sing, but Zellweger embodies every element that was Garland with effortless perfection.
Then I went on social media, to see the reaction of friends and acquaintances that were in the audience, only to see their feeds raving about Zellweger’s performance. Die-hard Garland fans were memorized and elated, bestowing her with praise non-stop.
Even though it is a myth that Garland’s death sparked the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the timing of this film could not be more perfect as it is the 50th anniversary of what is widely considered the official start of the LGBTQIA+ movement. The first major incident happened in Los Angeles two years before Stonewall, at the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset, in 1967. The filmmakers recognize Garland’s popularity in the queer community by writing two characters that play a super-fan gay couple.
I had seen the play, ‘End of the Rainbow’ at the Mark Taper Forum and wondered how Goold would handle the ending. I was hoping that he had taken a different perspective, and indeed he had. The ending was just as perfect as Zellweger’s performance.
Renee Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Any star that can capture and pay tribute to Garland so brilliantly, and take us way up high, is indeed an icon in her own right.