Playing Judy Garland, Zellweger did her own singing and dancing in the film’s depiction of the Hollywood legend’s notorious five-week run of shows at Talk of the Town in London not long before she would die at age 47 in 1969.
In accepting the award, Zellweger acknowledged her family — “My immigrant folks, who came here with nothing but each other and a belief in the American dream” — before speaking about the legacy of Garland.
“I have to say,” Zellweger said, “this past year of conversations celebrating Judy Garland, across generations and across cultures has been a really cool reminder that our heroes unite us, the best among us who inspire us to find the best in ourselves.”
Name-checking a list of heroes that included Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Dolores Huerta, Venus and Serena Williams, Selena, Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, Fred Rogers and Harriet Tubman, Zellweger added, “When we celebrate our heroes, we’re reminded of who we are as one people, united. And though Judy Garland did not receive this honor in her time, I am certain that this moment is an extension of the celebration of her legacy that began on our film set and is also representative of the fact that her legacy of unique exceptionalism and inclusivity and generosity of spirit, it transcends any one artistic achievement.
From the moment the first photo of Zellweger as Garland was released in March 2018, the performance seemed tipped for an Oscar. It has been a remarkable awards season run for Zellweger, especially for a film that made barely an awards ripple otherwise, though it did also earn an Oscar nomination for makeup and hairstyling. Directed by Rupert Goold and based on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow,” the movie, released by Roadside Attractions, has earned just over $24 million at the domestic box office.
As part of a roundtable conversation for The Envelope, Zellweger spoke of her intensive preparations for the part, saying: “I didn’t know a lot about what she was experiencing at that time in her life. And I felt like a lot that was written about her sort of blanketed that final chapter in tragedy in some way. And I just wanted to understand it better and more deeply.”
After a handful of roles in smaller films, Zellweger shot to fame with 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” and would go on to be among the biggest stars of the early 2000s thanks to the successful “Bridget Jones” movies.
The intersections between the ups and downs of Garland’s career and Zellweger’s own comings and goings from the spotlight did not go unnoticed. As Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote in his review of the film, “‘Judy’ is not exactly Renée Zellweger’s comeback vehicle, but it might as well be. And delivering a devastating, heart-breaking performance as a woman who made a career out of comebacks is the best kind of poetic justice.”
Also nominated in the category were previous Oscar winner Charlize Theron for “Bombshell,” potential EGOT winner Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet,” double nominee this year Scarlett Johansson for “Marriage Story” and four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan for “Little Women.”