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Renée Zellweger on fame, ‘ferocious’ Judy Garland and the ‘courage’ of LGBTQ people

The Golden Globe-winning star of 'Judy' opens up about her connection with the late star and the community who supported her.

By Will Stroude

This article was first published in Attitude issue 314, October 2019

Words: Cliff Joannou

Renée Zellweger had a simple solution to tackle the responsibility — and trepidation — that came with playing Judy Garland. “Denial. Lots of denial,” she says, eyes squinting as her petite pout curves into a smile. “I never really thought of it as a formal undertaking or stopped exploring the possibilities. It was an exploration, and we kept adding things,” she elaborates of the process that led to her rather impressive take on one of cinema’s greatest icons

Garland’s life story is extreme even by Hollywood standards, and offers the kind of challenge only the most formidable actors could take on. It’s one that Renée pulls off with convincing aplomb, telling the story of the acting legend’s famous headlining run at Talk of the Town, at London’s Hippodrome, just a few months before her death in 1969, at the age of 47.

It’s a dream role for Renée, who effortlessly reminds us that she’s damn fine at her job, making it impossible to imagine any of her contemporaries delivering a performance of equal measure. It was a no-brainer for the woman best known for bringing Bridget Jones to the big screen, who she says may still return one day. “That would be fun. But I’m always the last to know,” she laughs.

When it comes to her new project, Judy, there was no question of what persuaded her to take the lead role.

“Everything,” Renée says with glee. “Judy Garland’s raw talent, the way she connected and reached out to people. The way people related to her and her music, her performances, and the fact that she was misunderstood.”

Garland’s humanity is what Renée identifies as most central to her enduring appeal 50 years after her death. “She had a vulnerability and a tenacity. There was a sense that she was ferocious in the way that she sang her songs. She wasn’t going to be beaten, she wasn’t going to give up. Not in life, not in love. Not ever. It’s inspirational.”

In the past year, we have seen the lives of music superstars Freddie Mercury and Elton John transformed into big-budget Hollywood spectacles. Now, Judy tells the story of Garland’s final months.

Desperate for money, Garland, somewhat reluctantly, headlined a run of shows at the popular London nightspot, leaving her children behind in the US, in the care of ex-husband Sidney Luft, played in the film by Rufus Sewell. Racked by nerves, tormented by a dependency to barbiturates and excessive drinking, her time in the capital would see Garland marry her younger manager, and proceed to dazzle and disappoint on stage in equal measures.

In the shadow of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman’s critical and commercial success, Renée is coy about Judy’s reception.

I suggest she should consider preparing her Golden Globe speech for best actress in a musical or comedy. “You flatter me. You’re very sweet,” she blushes. “No, I haven’t thought about that stuff yet.”

Renée watched hours of footage of Garland’s performances and TV interviews and met with Rosalyn Wilder — played by Jessie Buckley — who managed the legend’s London shows.

“She’s immaculate, even now. Oh my goodness. The jewels, the nails,” Renée says of Rosalyn, who also commented on how she wished that there had been more people around to take care of Garland. The star found herself alone in her latter years, facing an uncertain future, effectively homeless and struggling to maintain a roof over her head R and for her youngest children, Joey and Lorna Luft.

“After having worked and given and performed on that level for such an extensive period of time, you don’t imagine that that person would find herself in dire circumstances,” Renée says. “Certainly not financially, certainly not without a place to live and without legions of friends and relationships to support her.”

Renée didn’t speak to either Lorna and Joey — neither of whom have endorsed the film — or to Garland’s first child Liza Minnelli, about playing their mother. The only version Lorna recognises of her mother’s life is the one she tells in her own book, and the TV miniseries that followed.

However, Renée admits she would have liked to have engaged with them. “But only to ask what they would hope [for] from this project and to assure them that I had no interest in doing anything that was disrespectful or might lampoon their mother.

“I feel like at this point, that if they haven’t shared it, then who am I to ask? It feels as if it belongs to them and it’s their treasure. I hope they will be happy with the film,” she adds.

Aware of a shared responsibility to do justice to the story of a revered Hollywood star, Renée trusted director Rupert Goold’s vision, and although the film is sympathetic to Garland’s troubles, Renée underscores that it doesn’t represent the happiest time in her life.

“It focuses not on the shining star years of the Judy that most people know and adore. It’s this chapter in her life that accentuates how extraordinary she was. When you understand what she was struggling with for so many years and how it came to be that she landed in these circumstances, then it really does shine a spotlight on her magnificence, that she was able to deliver in spite of the circumstances and that she was determined to carry on.”

Fed pills from a young age to help her sleep, lose weight and, at other times, stay awake during unrelenting shoot schedules, Garland is one of the greatest performers of Hollywood’s golden age, if also one of the greatest victims of an abusive system. But Renée was determined that the film wouldn’t portray Garland as onedimensional, despite the darkness of her early years.

“The circumstances that led to her problems are tragic. But she never quit despite the deck being stacked against her from the time she was a tiny child,” Renée observes.

“And it was what’s between the lines that was so interesting to me, the omissions of her critics, understanding the human experience of trying to navigate those circumstances and still delivering on the highest levels. What that must have been like, to have to keep going on, not have the option to stop when your body is telling you that you ought to.”

What Judy portrays is its subject’s unmistakeable resilience and an unfaltering hope and joy even in despair, through which Renée found empathy. “She was just really naughty. She had a dark sense of humour. I love it. She was playful. She was so funny, so quick.

“Did you see the Jack Paar Show? Her first TV chat-show appearance? She’s so gorgeous and so witty. And then she gets up and sings. She was a superstar.”

Garland’s outsider status is as much a part of the appeal to her fan base as her acting and singing. “I wonder if that’s a common thread for most of her fans because that is what is so pronounced in her performances and what she shares with her audiences.”

This tremendous resilience in the face of the film studio’s disregard for her well-being is a massive part of why so many queer people deify Garland, who was found dead of an accidental overdose during a break in a concert in Chelsea, West London.

“It becomes a necessary tool sometimes. Not quite fitting in. And there are certain things about the experiences of living with a public persona that are really challenging.” Renée could easily be talking about the obstacles LGBTQ people face in coming out, but in this context she’s talking about an experience closer to her own — fame.

“The normalcy, or the grappling for normalcy. When you walk away from the arena in which people recognise you,” Renée says, perhaps self-referentially, having stepped away from the spotlight at the height of her own career, often considered career suicide for any actor, and in particular for women.

“I recognised that it was necessary. And yeah, the chaos that was on the inside was terrible. I needed to step away and get a new perspective. I was bored with myself and as a performer. I felt I was just drawing on these same regurgitated emotional experiences.

“I would hear the words coming out of my mouth, when I was saying the dialogue, and it felt as if I was watching myself and giving a critique of the disingenuous nature of what I was doing, creatively.

“I just felt: ‘Oh, shut up’.”

Finding herself stifled, Renée sought to escape the Hollywood machine. “I hadn’t learned anything new in ages, except what was relating, or pertaining, to the character I was going to play.

“I needed to learn something for myself, something that I was interested in. Intellectually, I needed to grow, to mature. There were things I wasn’t comfortable with.”

It was a bold move for a person exposed to the degree of stardom that Renée had been, because there is never a guarantee that those exciting roles will be there when you return. “But I did that. It was a beautiful dream-come-true chapter in my life,” she enthuses.

“At that point there was really nothing to lose because the things I needed at the time were separate from my profession.”

Does that in some way echo Garland’s story, becoming a robot wheeled out to perform, deliver interviews and do the media circus on repeat?

“Fly there, plug it in, be shiny. On paper, it works, but it doesn’t often take into account your humanity. But like any job, it has its challenges. It’s just that sometimes you have to allow for other things and I was lucky I didn’t have kids. But I did have a savings account so I could take a minute. I didn’t stop working because you can’t be idle; just in a different capacity.”

The time away taught Renée the importance of boundaries. “I can say no and still be responsible in my work. I can hold my end up and keep my professional promises and obligations, and not let people down yet still allow myself to be a variable in the equation, where I hadn’t done that before.”

A return to the red carpet in 2014 threw Renée back into the spotlight when people highlighted her very different-looking face. It must have been somewhat disappointing to experience the personal growth she desired, only to be once again subjected to people’s opinions about her image and the ensuing social-media storm.

“I don’t seek it out, so it’s rarely something that I have to consider,” she says about the gossip. “On occasion, it’s really bad and someone asks me if I want to respond.

“I usually don’t because what’s the point of that? It just becomes one side of an argument that I don’t want to participate in.”

To that effect, Renée takes a rather bold approach of not engaging with any social media platforms. “I would feel so empty if I was feeling this obligation to feed that. Not to knock it, I see my friends have a lot of fun with it, and I see the value of it.

“It’s changed the world in many positive ways but I don’t think it suits my personality. And I don’t read anything, so I don’t ever stumble on something accidentally that might hurt to look at. It’s just a waste of energy to me, it’s just haemorrhaging energy and why have all these negative thoughts in your head?”

The release of Judy comes hot on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, in which the star’s funeral played a small part, if somewhat incidentally.

The story goes that the Stonewall Inn was screening Garland films on the night the police descended on the bar. It’s wrong to say that the patrons reacted because it was the day of Judy Garland’s funeral, but a cocktail of that situation, a hot June night and an overwhelming frustration with decades of political and social oppression all played their part in the fight back against the infamous raid that went on to inspire the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and the world’s first Pride parade a year later.

Of her own connection to the LGBTQ community, Renée is cautious not to sound condescending about how queer people have always been a part of her life. “I never know how to answer that because I don’t really sub-divide my friends. I don’t think: ‘Those are the gay ones’.

“When I talk about my parents’ best friends, Mark and Jerry, everyone thinks that Jerry’s a lady, he’s not. I don’t clarify they’re gay when I talk about them. They’re just Mark and Jerry.”

Of the many LGBTQ people she has known, she remembers how in 12th grade she had a friend who had a difficult relationship with his dad who wasn’t willing to accept who his son was.

“He changed his name and everything, which I guess in the late Eighties was quite brave. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t have friendships [with LGBTQ people]. It’s difficult to say because again, I’m separating them… in some way, it feels uncomfortable. I like originals, I like people who are authentically themselves.”

Is this authenticity perhaps what gay men identify most with Garland, who won a Golden Globe for her performance in the 1954 version of A Star is Born?

“A friend said perhaps it was that she was misunderstood but she refused to be made to feel defeated,” explains Renée.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about without going back again to that same worry that you’re sub-dividing based on sexual preference or identity,” she continues. “But to watch my friends be kicked out of their homes or lose family members because they came out, or to be disenfranchised because of who they are, or to know people who think in some way that it’s blasphemy in the eyes of their religion, or somehow that it’s a choice or affliction that needs to be righted, I admire that courage.

“To overcome that and choose to live authentically, despite the difficulty that you will face, even today when there are a million and-a-half people at Pride, you must be of extraordinary character.” It’s no spoiler to say that the film features a scene in which Garland is welcomed into the lives of two gay admirers.

Although the scene is fictional, Renée says the director added it as a representation of how she interacted with her LGBTQ fans.

“It’s a sad moment but at the same time, it’s quite uplifting. It’s emotionally complicated. It was just a mutual understanding and support and acceptance.”

The intense isolation and subsequent fall into addiction that Garland experienced is something Renée sees can be easily exasperated by fame. “Yes, certainly. But with Judy, she didn’t even fall into it.

“She didn’t have a choice until her body became so dependent on it that she had to have it. She’d have seizures if she overslept and didn’t take the medication.”

Has anything really changed in the decades since the end of Hollywood’s golden age? Eighty years after the release of The Wizard of Oz, arguably Garland’s most famous film, the #MeToo movement has highlighted how the mistreatment of women continues to this day.

“It’s extraordinary that it’s taken such a long time but it’s been pervasive in our society, not just in the entertainment business,” Renée says, citing the Access Hollywood video in which Donald Trump made his infamous misogynistic comments about women.

“It was really interesting because being a young actress who was sent to be their escort back to the set, she’s an accomplished, professional woman who worked hard to develop her talent, to earn that part. Everyone talked about what he said, and what the other gentleman [TV host Billy Bush] said. It went back and forth about who was responsible, ‘he said this, he said that’.

“Nobody talked about what she said and how graceful she was in getting herself out of an uncomfortable situation without offending him, because he was the important guest at the show.

“And what was going to happen if the guy gets upset because she said, ‘Keep your hands off, don’t talk to me like that’. Nobody talked about how quickly she deflected the situation and continued to do that all the way down the hall and into the studio. And that didn’t come from nowhere. It wasn’t an improvised skill that just arrived when it was necessary. That was something that she would have honed over years of improvised experience.

“It made me think, ‘Wow, that’s just something boys do. That’s something that we have not required that they not do’. So instead of requiring that they not do it, we’ve developed a defence mechanism to get us out of potentially dangerous situations.

“It made me think about every woman and what their first experience was and at what age did they start practising that. I was seven. It’s years, a lifetime. I would be interested to know [about] your sister, your mother. My mom talked about it as if [women] didn’t see it as harassment.”

As women began to speak out against other incidences of inappropriate behaviour and more high-profile men were implicated, Renée found herself the subject of salacious comments from Harvey Weinstein who alleged how she and other female actors performed sexual favours in exchange for film roles.

Renée brushes off his comments by choosing not to descend to his level. “I guess you react as you would with any other unbelievable revelation, there’s nothing to really say.”

While Garland, who has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, struck a lonely figure in an old movie system that devalued a woman’s rights over her body and treated her abilities as a commodity, Renée believes that the world is gradually moving on. “I hope that it would be different today, especially for a child. That there would be more protections in place than back in Judy’s day.

“And we know more about the dangers of medicating unnecessarily, about addiction and disordered eating and all of the things that Judy stumbled into because of being made to feel that she didn’t deserve what came from her talent.”