Renée Zellweger has won the Best Actress Academy Award at the 2020 Oscars Sunday night in Los Angeles for her celebrated turn as Judy Garland in “Judy.” Zellweger beat out Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet,” Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story,” Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women,” and Charlize Theron in “Bombshell” for tonight’s win. Her victory marks Zellweger’s second Academy Award win, as she previously received Best Supporting Actress for “Cold Mountain” in 2004. She also previously received Oscar nominations for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” in 2002 and “Chicago” in 2003.
Zellweger’s Oscar win arrives on the heels of a virtual awards-season sweep, having previously picked up the EE BAFTA Award for Best Leading Actress, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, and the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, amid myriad other accolades along the way. Her Best Actress Oscar triumph on Sunday night therefore came as no surprise among most awards pundits. “Judy” was also nominated for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling at the 2020 Oscars, but lost to “Bombshell.”
Directed by Rupert Goold from a screenplay by Tom Edge based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow,” “Judy” has been heralded as something of a comeback for Zellweger since premiering in Colorado at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Zellweger has mainly stayed out of the limelight for the past decade, outside of a reprisal of her iconic comic role in “Bridget Jones’s Baby” in 2016, and a recent role on Netflix’s soapy series “What/If.”
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“Judy” centers on the last stretch of ill-fated Garland’s life as a screen and stage star, as the actress arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts despite lingering addictions to alcohol and drugs that began in her early days as a movie starlet under the intense pressures of the studio system. The film co-stars Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, and Michael Gambon, all playing key figures who come in and out of Garland’s life. Zellweger convincingly channels the brittle, rail-thin Garland at the end of her tether, performing six of her songs live, from “The Trolley Song” and “You Made Me Love You” to a devastating rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
In an IndieWire interview last year, Zellweger said she felt liberated by the decision not to sing exactly as Garland did. “There was liberation in that. I recognized in the interviews the pain that she was masking, definitely, and the humor. I sang the songs for the character, also understanding what Rupert wanted — he wanted the humanity in it, not the perfection of it,” she said.
Director Goold said of the star, “With the look, the voice, the exceptional theatricality, like all great actors, the more other she became, and the more the role she became, the more I felt I was seeing something of herself, her own soul.” Zellweger said it was important to both her and Goold to strike a balance of recreating Garland physically, but also providing a human dimension that pushed Zellweger’s transformation beyond mere stunt. “He extracted and minimized,” said Zellweger. “He didn’t want a makeup-chair shoot, constantly doing maintenance and worrying about distracting people with what looked false. He felt the more we did, the less authentic it would be. We’d be looking at artifice instead of something connected to emotion.”
“Judy,” which is now available on home video and streaming, has in total earned more than $39 million at the global box office, and should propel Zellweger to greater heights in this next phase of her career. Regarding her time away from the screen, Zellweger said it was critical to take time to rediscover who she was as a person in real life rather than an actress on a screen. “In the process, you don’t recognize what falls by the wayside, or the toll it takes physically,” she told IndieWire. “I never recognized it. I looked at the great joy of it, the creative collaborations. They seemed to be fuel. You think you are filling your soul without depleting it, when in fact you can’t have one without the other, until there was quite a bit of chaos that you can only mask for so long. I chose to stop doing that. I was very lucky to have a support system around me who could say, ‘Where did you go?’ I met my family again, watched my niece and nephew grow up, and nurtured my soul a little bit.”