All you need to win an Oscar is the right compelling narrative, and chameleon Renée Zellweger has a good one. Raised by old-fashioned European parents in Texas, where she excelled at sports before discovering drama, she’s had three Oscar nominations and one win. Her first two were for Best Actress in 2001 romantic comedy “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and in 2002, for Best-Picture winning musical “Chicago.” By her third go-round in 2004, she was overdue: Zellweger took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette for her twangy, gun-totin’ North Carolina farmer in “Cold Mountain.”
Fifteen years later, the 50-year-old Zellweger has a new story to tell. At her Telluride Film Festival tribute, she choked up as she watched clips from her life in pictures, including the iconic moment in “Jerry Maguire” when the 26-year-old actress looked across a roomful of girlfriends at love-professing Tom Cruise and said, “You had me at hello.”
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“It’s like a visual diary,” she said the next day, casual in baseball cap, jeans and sneakers. “All the memories came flooding back quickly, and it was overwhelming. I was mortified because it feels ridiculous to be somehow acknowledged for having been so lucky. I was remembering my friends, the directors on the sets, the hilarity of the struggles behind getting these moments, the difficulty of it, and the collaboration. It’s a life, isn’t it, it’s a life! I didn’t expect to be overcome with emotion like that.”
Now Zellweger is adding a new chapter. After a six-year hiatus from filmmaking, she returned to acting in 2016 with “Bridget Jones’s Baby” ($212 million worldwide). She notched a couple of small indie roles and had a fine time playing deliciously wicked tech mogul Anne Montgomery on the Netflix soap opera “What/If.” “It was so much fun, it was a riot,” she said. “It was the best time, to go to work every day and say the thing you never would — but Anne will! What fun, what a dream! I’d never done that before.”
This fall, she’s back in the awards hunt with her juiciest role in “Judy.” Based on the West End-to-Broadway stage play “End of the Rainbow,” Rupert Goold’s film focuses on Judy Garland’s last London concerts in the weeks before the crooner’s tragic death by overdose in 1969. She was 47. The movie rides Garland’s emotional swells as she struggles with her lifelong addictions, being separated from her two youngest children, and her turbulent final marriage to younger man Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Zellweger channels the fragile, rail-thin, bewigged Garland, performing six of her songs live, from “The Trolley Song” and “You Made Me Love You” to a devastating “Over the Rainbow.”
“Judy” nabbed a huge Toronto response for Zellweger, who is heading toward inevitable SAG, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations. Her comeback narrative, combined with the irresistible Garland songbook, will be catnip to awards voters. Zellweger, like Garland herself, is drawing both admiration and sympathy.
What Zellweger does with Garland is remarkable. She conjures an iconic Hollywood figure but doesn’t disappear inside her. She remains herself, finding both vulnerability and strength inside this driven performer. Director Goold and her hair, makeup, and costume team piled Garland’s look onto Zellweger, including false eyelashes and teeth, as well as a dark brown wig and contacts to cover her light eyes and hair. Then, they pared back to bare essentials.
“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.” (At her tribute, Goold said: “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.”)
In 2010, Zellweger moved to a rural home in the Northeast to hang with friends and family. She also studied at UCLA, traveled, and wrote a Lifetime TV pilot. (“I can’t be idle,” she said. “I am my Swiss father’s daughter.”) But after a decade-long work jag, she said she needed to remind herself of who she really was.
“In the process, you don’t recognize what falls by the wayside, or the toll it takes physically,” she said. “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.”
She left Hollywood after making a string of of poorly reviewed movies including “My One and Only” and “Case 39.” Four years later, her appearance at an Elle Magazine Women in Hollywood event spawned relentless critiques of her look, amid speculation that plastic surgery was to blame for her absence. She didn’t return to work until “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
“I don’t know that it’s just Hollywood,” she said. “Humor evolves and entertainment evolves from generation to generation. If you look back at the comics who made us laugh in the ’40s, it’s not the same as today or five years ago. It evolves quickly. We went through a moment when snark was hilarious and fun, without consequence, especially now with anonymity at the computer. You can inject chaos into a person’s life through ridicule, for sport, with no consequence to yourself, and no accountability, no care really, because why would you be aware of the effect of your actions? It’s just funny. I understand that. I know it’s not personal. It’s an attack on a projection [and] it’s often a misconception about the truth of a person. There’s this persona out there who I’ve never met who evokes a certain response from certain people. I’d rather she take it than me.”
For now, she quotes Katharine Hepburn: “I don’t care what is written about me as long as it isn’t true.”
So when the time came for Zellweger to dig into Judy Garland, who was criticized for her looks and weight from an early age by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who controlled her life, forbade her to eat, and gave her diet pills, the actress had plenty to draw from, personally and professionally.
Although Zellweger never trained as a musical player, she convinced everyone of her Broadway chops as murderous Roxie Hart in Rob Marshall’s “Chicago.” “I was always drawn to musicals,” she said. “I never did any musicals, it was only because Rob Marshall thought it was possible that I thought I would try.”
When the director first invited her to dinner in New York, “at the end, everyone was sharing different show tunes,” she said. “He was having us sing. It was just for fun at a dinner. It didn’t occur to me — duh! — that he was auditioning me in a booth in NYC. He had us sing ‘Over the Rainbow.'”
She landed the part, and was later enrolled for a month in Marshall’s “Chicago” boot camp in a Toronto warehouse transformed into a makeshift soundstage. Zellweger toggled between singing rehearsals in the rear piano room to the main dance area. “It was compressed, much quicker than this experience,” she said. “It flew by, I learned the songs, and I worked.”
Unlike “Judy,” the “Chicago” numbers were pre-recorded. “Such complicated choreography,” she remembered. “When they both reach for the gun, there’s no room for a moment of improvisation, you cannot hold the note a little longer today: ‘I got 20 actors, and actors on bungies. You have to start over because it’s not going to cut.'”
With “Judy” she had much more prep; she also had the benefit of portraying a performer who was well past her prime. Zellweger was struck by something Bono said in the documentary “Pavarotti,” expressing his frustration to director Ron Howard. “When Bono is interviewed, he’s exasperated: ‘You don’t understand singing at all, you don’t get it. Now, he can sing the songs, because now, he has lived the songs. Now, he connects to the pain and the life written into the songs. Now is when you see magic of his gift, not when he was perfect.'”
Similarly, singing just like Garland was not the goal. “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.” That said, “Live-singing every song was hard, scary hard. We were on a pretty swift schedule to get everything.”
Zellweger is unlike Garland in one profound way. She’s always professional. “I love going to work,” she said. “I don’t take it for granted. It’s a special thing we get to do, I never want to be blasé about that.”
And like any performer, Zellweger soaks up the love when it comes — at Telluride, when attendees came over to her at dinner to get their picture taken (“it was a wonderful moment, very cool”) or at Toronto, when she wept at the effusive three-minute standing ovation.
She’s going to have to get used to it.
Zellweger will face some competition for the Oscar, including never-nominated “Marriage Story” star Scarlett Johansson as an actress divorcing her director husband, “Harriet,” starring rising British actress-singer Cynthia Erivo as heroic ex-slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, once-nominated Alfre Woodard as a prison warden in “Clemency,” Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o in Jordan Peele’s latest brainy horror thriller, “Us,” and Awkwafina, breakout star of the Sundance hit of the year, Lulu Wang’s Mandarin-language family dramedy “The Farewell.”
More movies with promising actress contenders are still to come, including “Lady Bird” Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (December 25, Sony), and Oscar-winners Charlize Theron in Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes takedown drama “Bombshell” (December 20, Lionsgate) and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella in Tom Hooper’s musical “Cats” (December 20, Universal).