For an actress, the role of Judy Garland courts comparison to climbing Mount Everest. Close, but it's more like scaling Everest while Everest crumbles beneath your feet. And you have to lug a floor mike up the crumbling mountain with all the rest of your gear, whether you're lip-syncing those famous songs or not.
In the new film "Judy" Renee Zellweger does not lip-sync. She sings. (Among notable previous portrayals, Judy Davis lip-synced to Garland recordings in the 2001 TV miniseries.) Zellweger's voice isn't much like Garland's; it's higher, smaller, tighter. But you buy it as part of a fascinating, fully committed performance. The movie's pretty good; though she's hardly alone, Zellweger makes it worth seeing.
"The slippery slope to a fade-out": That's how the real Garland characterized her dreaded, worst-case career path, after MGM dropped her in the middle of filming "Annie Get Your Gun" (Betty Hutton took over, guns-a-blazing). "Judy" takes place at slope's bottom. It's a small film about a huge personality, set in December 1968 and early 1969, a few months before Garland's fatal accidental overdose.
We're in London. The superstar, 46 at the time, has booked a badly needed engagement at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Garland, an erratic vagabond of a performer and a mother, needs the money; she has set her sights on winning a custody battle with her ex-husband and ex-manager, Sid Luft, played with subtle exasperation and no little affection by Rufus Sewell.
Garland's oldest child, Liza Minnelli (played in a stateside cameo by Gemma-Leah Devereux), is grown-up. Young Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and brother Joey (Lewin Lloyd), on the other hand, are still children, craving some steadiness, reliability, calm.
"Judy" has four key relationships on its agenda. One involves Garland's fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whose love for Judy, like his business acumen, seems suspect to many in her temporary London surroundings. Another spoke in the movie's wheel connects Judy to her handler, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, lately in the superb HBO "Chernobyl" and fantastically natural and true here), a no-nonsense Englishwoman temperamentally unsuited to dealing with an infamously unpredictable diva.
A third spoke connects present-day Garland to memories of a tough, debilitating, chemically addled adolescence. Flashbacks to the filming of "The Wizard of Oz" depict a menacing Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), whom Garland later claimed groped her repeatedly, trying to bring his young box office attraction to heel. Darci Shaw plays the teenage Garland.
The flashbacks work well enough, but "Judy" fares best when it concentrates on Zellweger's turn. We see Judy preparing for (or avoiding) her imminent nightclub opening, going over material with her musical director (Royce Pierreson), grappling with her various demons and insecurities. Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira go to town as two of screenwriter Tom Edge's fictional creations, a gay couple ardently devoted to Garland and, to their astonishment, her fast friends.
Directed with modestly budget flair by Rupert Goold, who heads the Almeida Theatre in London, "Judy" is a frankly theatrical movie, equal parts backstage drama and onstage drama. It comes from a 2005 play with music, "End of the Rainbow." The physical transformation of Zellweger is quite remarkable; she holds her shoulders a whole new way (Garland had spine troubles her entire life), and without getting into heavy-duty prosthetics, the actress evokes the ultra-stylized, flailing-nerve-endings performance details with real assurance.
"Judy" reinvents no wheels, and climbs no cinematic summits. It's going out into the marketplace without much of a marketing budget. I don't want to make grand claims for it; I also hope people find it. With excellent support from Buckley and Sewell, among others, Zellweger's film _ and it is hers _ creates an intimate illusion that feels authentic, witty and affecting.