Forty minutes into the film Judy, Judy Garland (played by Renée Zellweger) is about to perform at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London. But backstage she is all nerves and trembles. “I can’t,” she rasps. Her voice isn’t what it used to be. What if it gives out? She has to be physically pushed onto the stage, where, as the audience erupts in applause, nervous backstage Judy disappears. She sucks up the room’s energy like a sponge and holds herself up higher to become Judy Garland, the icon.
“I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go my way by myself,” she sings. Her voice starts frail but builds in power as she reaches the crescendo of the song, “By Myself.” At the same time, a look of surprise blooms on Zellweger’s face, as if she can’t believe she was able to get it out.
When Judy was announced, and it was made public that in portraying Garland—known for her warm vibrato—Zellweger was going to do her own singing, some skepticism was voiced. Zellweger, who had done her own singing in Chicago, hired a vocal coach to bring her naturally bright voice down a few octaves. As Judy has been playing at film festivals around the country (it opens wide tomorrow in U.S. movie theatres), audiences have come in not knowing if Zellweger would be able to pull it off—a parallel to the tense state in which audiences watched Garland’s latter-day performances, in which they wondered, is she going to make it?
“I wanted you to know, in your gut, that the actor was climbing a mountain,” says the film’s director, Rupert Goold, by phone from the Toronto Film Festival, where Judy reportedly received a two-minute standing ovation. “It was a single take, live vocal, there’s no post-production. She’s not singing to prerecorded tracks, there are no cutaways, it’s all in one go. I think the movie in that moment is about the extraordinary sense of risk performing can have. Using someone else’s voice would minimize that.”
Judy is partially based on End of the Rainbow, a play by Peter Quilter that played on Broadway in 2012. Tom Edge wrote the screenplay, which tracks the last year of Garland’s life. Low on money and fighting for custody of her children, she agrees to a five-week engagement at Talk of the Town. Onstage, the actor playing Judy has to do her own singing, but for the movie, for which she theoretically could have been dubbed, the choice to have her sing conveys other important information. “Judy Garland in this period was aware she didn’t sound like Judy,” says Goold. Her instrument frayed and faulty after years of drug and alcohol abuse, she struggled through her final concerts, and this is something Zellweger could act as well as sing. Goold concedes, referring to a famously virtuosic Garland concert, “If we were recreating Carnegie Hall, that would have been a different challenge.”
Though Goold hadn’t seen End of the Rainbow onstage, he brings a theatrical sensibility to his work as a seasoned stage director and artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre. He most recently earned a Tony nomination for last season’s Ink, about media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and was a previous Tony nominee for King Charles III. On film, he previously directed the TV film version of his staging of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart. You might say he knows something about larger-than-life personalities.
But directing for the screen is a different beast than directing for the stage, he notes. “The root of an evening of theatre is you’re aware that you’re sitting with a bunch of other people; it’s a public art form,” Goold says. “The argumentative or discursive quality of the play, it’s drama through the evening, do you agree or disagree.” That contrasts with film, where many people now view it on their own, by themselves, at home or on some mobile device, and the emphasis is on visuals more than dialogue; a silent close-up on Garland’s face as she lies on the floor, humiliated after a botched performance, conveys as much as or more than a speech about it could. “That privacy and intimacy—that’s the essence of a feature film. You get lost in the character’s emotional arc. Those are the fundamental starting points: How do you sustain and develop and deepen and enrich the relationship with the main protagonist? A play is about how you keep the argument alive.”
Judy differs from End of the Rainbow in another key area: It incorporates flashbacks from Garland’s younger years, when she was a child actor in The Wizard of Oz, and began to be fed the steady stream of amphetamines and barbiturates which would later kill her at the age of 47. She tries to rebel but is eventually overtaken by a system that views her as something to be monetized rather than as a human being.
Goold wanted these additions to give context to Garland’s seemingly erratic behavior. “Some called her a diva and very troubled and an alcoholic,” he notes, “but the more one looks into her life, she was dealt an impossible hand from a young age. The beginning and the end felt tied.”
If film festivals are any guide, the verdict on Zellweger’s Judy, singing and all, has been ecstatic, and there’s talk of the Oscars. That would mark 2019 as the year film and TV actors portrayed iconic theatrical performers with humanity and verve, a la Michelle Williams’s Emmy for her portrayal of Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon.”
But unlike Verdon, a predominantly theatrical star who is relatively unknown to the general public, most Americans have an image of Garland in their heads: as Dorothy, as Esther, as the inspiration for countless drag performers. The challenge for Judy was to create a portrayal that felt lived in and that didn’t dive too far into mimicry and caricature. It can obviously be done, as Tracie Bennett, who played the role on Broadway, took Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her performance.
In directing the film’s lead turn, Goold took inspiration not from how other actors have approached Garland but from Zellweger herself. “As a director, you’re seeking to create the best version of what the actor is capable of offering,” he says. “You’re drawing out what is there in the land of the actor already rather than imposing.”
It helped that Zellweger, according to Goold, has a similar energy to Garland as a performer. “Renée has this magical combination of confident-like near laughter in her mouth,” he explains. “Her whole face looks like it’s about to giggle, and her eyes carry an innate sadness and poignancy. I think that’s very Judy. If you look at the footage of Judy, she’s lively and quick and whip-smart, but there’s a fearfulness in her; it sits in the back of her eyes.”
Many scenes in Judy take place in a theatre with a live audience. In telling the story of Garland, Goold wanted to explore the alchemy that occurs between artists and audiences. Judy was fed by her audience, though her fame and notoriety exacted a heavy toll on her. She kept coming back, until she couldn’t. And the audience has kept coming back to her, even 50 years after her death.
“This study of what it means to perform, what it costs to perform, why people need audiences, why people have uneasy relationships with audiences—I had borne witness to a lot of people who have been through that emotional mindset,” Goold says. “For Judy, she was unable to have a home. There’s the weird contradiction between her great loneliness and struggle to find love and consistency in her life, coupled to her incredible public persona.”
It’s all there in the performance of “By Myself”: a song about going it alone that reaches the stratosphere thanks to the energy of the crowd.