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Renee Zellwegger gives an Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Judy’

Judy Garland was one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. A brilliant singer, dancer, and actress, Garland was rarely out of the spotlight after her star turn in The Wizard of Oz at the age of 16. By the time she died of an accidental overdose at 47, she was almost as famous for her off-screen personal troubles as she was for her on-stage virtuosity.

Renee Zellwegger takes on the enormous task of portraying this multi-talented but tormented icon in the new movie, Judy. And for her troubles, Zellwegger is receiving some of the best reviews of her career, with the Oscar buzz only getting louder and louder. She definitely deserves the acclaim.

Zellwegger is a decent singer, witness her starring role in Chicago. And in Judy, she does all her own singing, and according to the director, it was mostly done live on the set. If Jamie Foxx can win an Oscar for Ray without singing, and Rami Malik can win as Freddie Mercury by “blending” his voice with Mercury’s, than Zellwegger certainly can lay claim to “Oscar-worthy.” But clearly, she can’t match Garland’s pipes.

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Smartly, the film is set in the last year of Garland’s life, when Judy was already ravaged by addictions, marital disputes, custody fights, and depression. When she performed at London’s Talk of the Town for a five-week sold-out run in 1968, she was fighting and, for the most part, overcoming her demons. She persevered but it was an energy-sapping struggle. Her voice by this time was not exactly shot but certainly constrained. It’s that voice that Zellwegger can do. When Garland has to “act” her songs as much as “sing” them, that’s Zellwegger’s sweet spot.

That is nowhere better exhibited than in Zellwegger’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”

In most musicals and musical bio-pics, the songs are the highlights and that holds true for Judy. A whole slew of Garland standards, from “The Trolley Song” to “San Francisco” are trotted out in full nightclub style. But tracking the circumstances of her life at the time, the songs are on a downward trajectory. They never quite reach the exhilaration levels that fuel the best musicals because we’re so tense, just hoping she makes it through the number without imploding, which sometimes happens. Instead of classic closing showstoppers — think Liza Minnelli at the end of Cabaret, or Lady Gaga at the end of the most recent A Star is BornJudy gives us a faltering, heartbreaking rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” It’s very moving, but you won’t leave the theater with an extra bounce in your step.

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Rather than expressing the kind of optimistic hopes and dreams of a young Kansas girl, as Garland does in The Wizard of Oz, Zellwegger’s version is more a wistful recognition that those hopes and dreams aren’t ever going to happen in this world.

“The dreams that you dared to dream really do come true.” The sad fact is they never did for Judy.

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