Renée Zellweger is no stranger to transforming herself for film roles. After all, as the beloved titular character in the three Bridget Jones movies, she gained weight, adjusted her accent and even smoked cigarettes in order to play the part. So, when the chameleon-like actress got the chance to play screen legend Judy Garland, it perhaps came as no surprise that she made a similarly stunning change for the part. And her transformation is rather shocking, too.
But in the movie Judy, Zellweger won’t star as the angelic Garland that most would recognize from her early films – The Wizard of Oz among them. Instead, she’s playing the performer in her later years, during which she suffered from exhaustion, anxiety and addiction.
Of course, Zellweger’s embodiment of a fragile, frazzled Garland at this point in her life required plenty of physicality. But her mannerisms were only one way through which she morphed into the famous actress. In addition, Zellweger spent hours in hair and makeup in order to fully become Garland. And the results, as shown in Judy’s first trailer, are unbelievable.
For her part, Renée Zellweger found her way into acting while studying English at the University of Texas at Austin. She enrolled in a drama class as an elective, and from there she was hooked. While still in the Lone Star State, then, she earned her Screen Actors Guild card thanks to a part that she had in a Coors Light commercial.
Then the 1994 film Love and a .45 pushed Zellweger to finally make the move from Texas to Los Angeles. She had actually put off the decision as she didn’t think she had what it took to make it in Hollywood. However, the response to her performance in the crime comedy said differently. You see, Zellweger ultimately won an Independent Spirit Award for her part in the movie.
And Zellweger had been wrong about her career prospects in LA. Indeed, in 1995, she landed a part in Empire Records, with critics going on to laud her work. The actress’ big break would come the year after that, when she starred as Tom Cruise’s love interest in Jerry Maguire – a hit with both film reviewers and audiences.
Post-Jerry Maguire, Zellweger worked steadily in a slew of dramatic, romantic and comedic flicks. In 2000, for example, she starred in Nurse Betty, in which she played a woman in the midst of a breakdown after watching her husband’s murder. Consequently, the darkly comedic role earned Zellweger her first Golden Globe Award.
Then the next year, Zellweger nabbed what might be the most iconic role of her career: the titular character in Bridget Jones’s Diary. At first, however, it didn’t seem as though the actress would get the part. Casting directors told her, for instance, that she didn’t have the right body type to play Jones, nor did she have an English accent, as the character does. On top of that, Zellweger didn’t smoke, either.
So, Zellweger set out to prove that she could handle such a transformation. To that end, then, she gained 20 pounds and honed her English accent with a voice coach. The star also started puffing on herbal cigarettes and did a work placement in publishing to better understand the character’s career. In the end, she got the part, and she fully embodied the essence of Bridget Jones.
And Bridget Jones’s Diary was not only a commercial success, but it also proved to be a professional milestone for Zellweger. She earned her first Academy Award nomination for playing the beloved character, after all, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. And from there, her career continued to flourish.
In the year after Bridget Jones’s Diary, Zellweger starred in the film adaptation of the musical Chicago. The flick won the award for Best Picture at the Oscars after its release, and Zellweger garnered a nomination for Best Actress. Little did she know then that she’d soon be bringing home one of the coveted statuettes.
Then in 2003 Zellweger appeared in Cold Mountain – a Civil War drama also starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. And for her supporting role, the star took home her first Academy Award as well as a SAG Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA. The rest of the early 2000s saw her reprising the famous singleton of the Bridget Jones series, voicing a character in the animated Shark Tale and playing author Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter.
By 2010, though, Zellweger felt ready to take a break from the spotlight and rediscover her love for her craft. She later told Vogue, “I found anonymity, so I could have exchanges with people on a human level and be seen and heard…. You cannot be a good storyteller if you don’t have life experiences and you can’t relate to people.”
Still, Zellweger was drawn out of her six-year acting hiatus to play one character: Bridget Jones, of course. She reprised the part in 2016 and so kick-started her second run in Hollywood. Since then, Zellweger has only taken on a handful of roles. But perhaps the most exciting one of all is yet to come in 2019’s Judy – a biopic about acclaimed performer Judy Garland.
Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922, started her show business career when she was just two and a half years old. Even then, she already had an obvious flair for singing and dancing. And while Garland began by performing in vaudeville acts alongside her sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy, she would ultimately reach superstardom on her own.
In her teens, Garland signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and went on to star in more than 20 of the studio’s films. Her iconic turn as Dorothy Gale in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz counts as just one of the notable performances she logged with MGM. She also starred in Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade and Summer Stock among other famous flicks.
By 1950, though, the cracks in Garland’s silver-screen facade started to show. That year, MGM released her from her contract, as her poor mental health left her unable to uphold her end of the deal. And Garland had long struggled with such issues. It hadn’t helped her self-esteem, either, when studio executives had told her that she wasn’t attractive enough to be a movie star.
On top of that, Garland’s mother, Ethel Gumm, had spent years pushing her daughter to become a celebrity. The actress later said that her mom had given her sleeping pills from the age of ten so that the child actress could sleep on the road. Garland would also compare her mother to the Wicked Witch of the West – the infamous villain in The Wizard of Oz.
And in a 1967 interview with Barbara Walters, Garland detailed some of the verbal abuse that Gumm had allegedly put her though. The actress said, “She was very jealous because she had absolutely no talent. She would stand in the wings… and if I didn’t feel good… she’d say, ‘You get out and sing, or I’ll wrap you around the bedpost and break you off short!’ So I’d go out and sing.”
As such, Garland’s mental health started to deteriorate in her teens. By the time that she lost her contract with MGM, in fact, she had experienced a mental breakdown and had attempted suicide once. The actress had also developed addictions to both prescription sleeping pills and alcohol – a combination that can very well become lethal.
It turned out, though, that MGM had armed Garland with these damaging drugs. The film studio wanted her working as much as possible, meaning she’d often log 18-hour days six days a week. And to get Garland through, execs gave her energizing amphetamines followed by sleeping pills to help her unwind afterwards.
Nonetheless, Garland continued to have Hollywood success post-MGM. For instance, she earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for the 1954 version of A Star is Born and for her supporting role in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. In that same year, she also became the first woman to ever win the Grammy for Album of the Year for Judy at Carnegie Hall.
The incredible scope of what Garland had achieved at just 39 years old earned her the Cecil B. DeMille Award, given to performers for their lifetime achievement in film. She remains the youngest person to ever receive the honor, which was given to her in 1962 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
But five years later, Garland found herself in a much different place. Her managers had mishandled and embezzled her money, leaving her in such debt that she sold her home. That same year, she told McCall’s, “Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland? And for me to live with me? I’ve had to do it – and what more unkind life can you think of than the one I’ve lived?”
As Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, later recalled in her book Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir, the end of the actress’ career saw her fame disappearing along with her financial resources. Luft wrote that Garland had become “homeless broke,” singing in bars to collect a mere $100 every night.
Yet Garland made a grand comeback in 1967 when she hosted a 27-performance run at the Palace Theatre in New York City. And the series of shows – during which she wore a sparkly sequined jumpsuit – saw her rake in upwards of $200,000. But on closing night, federal tax agents appeared and seized most of her earnings to pay back her debts.
Two years later, Garland helmed what would be her last show: a five-week concert series at London’s Talk of the Town. At that time, her health had begun to worsen, and she struggled with being an ocean away from her young children, who were staying in California during the run.
But Garland still found some happiness during this time. For years, she had searched for love, and she had four failed marriages behind her by early 1969. That year, though, she married nightclub manager Mickey Deans, whom she truly felt was the one. According to the Los Angeles Times, she said of the marriage, “Finally, finally, I am loved.”
Sadly, Garland’s union to Deans would last only three months. On June 22, 1969, the businessman discovered his new wife’s dead body in the bathroom of their London home; Garland had overdosed on barbiturates. And although she had attempted suicide before, the coroner stated that she hadn’t died purposefully.
Indeed, as Garland had finally found love in Deans, many believed that she wouldn’t have ended her life. Instead, it seemed as though she had died from barbiturates after taking them for a long time. Plus, she had unopened pill bottles at her London home, indicating that she hadn’t ingested all of the medication that she could have if she had wanted to commit suicide.
Of course, Garland’s enduring legacy is not her death but her talent. Architectural Digest’s Gerald Clarke said in 1992 that she was “probably the greatest American entertainer of the 20th century.” HuffPost contributor Joan E. Dowlin claimed, meanwhile, that she “[exemplified] the star quality of charisma, musical talent [and] natural acting ability.” And for those reasons and more, Garland continues to gain fans both young and old.
Now, it’s Zellweger’s turn to share Garland’s story with the masses. In Judy, she will bring to life the singer’s last showcase – her five-week run at London’s Talk of the Town. The film begins with her arrival to the English capital, and it covers all of the personal and professional struggles that awaited her there.
Of course, Zellweger doesn’t look much like Garland, but the Judy trailer reveals just how much of a transformation that the actress can make. It turns out that Zellweger spent two hours every day becoming the film’s titular character. Makeup artists used prosthetics, contact lenses and wigs to give her an uncanny resemblance to Garland.
On top of that, Zellweger will show off her vocal abilities in Judy, too, although she sang in previous roles in Chicago and My Own Love Song. In this movie, she will perform some of Garland’s most iconic songs, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in her own style inspired by the star.
As Zellweger told Town & Country, she has really spent her entire life preparing to play Garland. She recalled growing up in Texas and listening to Garland on her parents’ record player. And while on the international press tour for Bridget Jones’s Diary, she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a karaoke night. Zellweger concluded, “Life is Judy Garland.”
Plus, as Zellweger put it, she – and many others – could relate to the problems that Garland faced in her career. After all, people have commented on everything from Zellweger’s body to her relationships, and such speculation had also plagued The Wizard of Oz’s heroine. The Judy actress added, “Everybody felt that she was talking to them personally – that she somehow related to their pain.”
And to Judy’s director Rupert Goold, it was clear just how much Zellweger had connected to Garland. He said, “She has this deep, remote interior quality. She absolutely sparkles in her smile, and yet her eyes contain great reservoirs of experience and sadness.” Zellweger’s ability to capture that has Goold excited for the world to see his movie, and she’s generating some Oscar buzz for her performance, too.
Yet even though the screen adaptation of Garland’s life is yet to hit movie theaters, it has already met with criticism. Most notably, the singer’s daughter Liza Minnelli took to Facebook to share her disapproval for the picture. There, Minnelli wrote, “I have never met nor spoken to Renée Zellweger. I don’t know how these stories get started, but I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way.”
Still, it appears that Zellweger doesn’t take her role in Judy lightly. Indeed, she expressed just how much Garland meant to her and to others during her Vanity Fair interview. The star said, “The combination of gifts that [Garland] was born with are just indescribably important in terms of what she inspires in other artists.”
And Zellweger told People magazine that she hopes her portrayal will open people’s eyes to who Garland really was. In May 2019 the actress explained that she had noted what the screen legend had had to overcome “in a time when women didn’t necessarily feel that they had power over their own lives in the way that we do today.” She added, “[That] stayed with me, and I hope folks will be moved by that as well.”