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Judy Woodruff: We're still months away from awards season in Hollywood, but one film already is getting buzz. It's "Judy," a biography about legendary actress Judy Garland.
From the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the movie and its star, as part of our Canvas series on arts and culture.
Jeffrey Brown: In the new film "Judy," we meet one of the 20th century's greatest entertainers in freefall near the end of her life.
Renee Zellweger: I can't.
Actress: You will be fine.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a study of Hollywood both magic and tragic, the girl who is forever Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," the woman who dazzled with her singing and screen performances, the great Judy Garland, played by Renee Zellweger.
Renee Zellweger: It's impossible not to appreciate just how truly extraordinary she was.
Jeffrey Brown: What did she have? And what did you see in her?
Renee Zellweger: Hope, joy, tenacity, and just raw, God-given talent. Her ability to transcend. She gets inside a song. She breaks it apart. She lives and feels the content of whatever it is that's speaking to human emotion. And every person who sees her feels that she's singing to me.
Jeffrey Brown: Rupert Goold directed the new film. He's best known for his work in London theater.
Rupert Goold: I spent my life in rehearsal rooms, and had the privilege of being incredibly close to all sorts of actors and singers. And I was just really interested in trying to capture what it is to perform, sort of intuitively in the body, emotionally, psychologically.
And Garland was, like, an incredible performer. And in some senses, this film is a study of what that means and the cost of that.
Jeffrey Brown: The film shows flashbacks to the teenaged Frances Gumm, her given name, from a small town in Minnesota, as she becomes the national darling Judy Garland, part of the star-making MGM Studio machine, groomed for fame, but fed pills to stay slim, others to stay awake for grueling 18-hour shoots, still others to sleep.
Rupert Goold: Judy Garland literally grew up on camera. She was the first person who had that experience. Her entire life was in the public eye.
And she was incubated by the studio, and I'm sure that had lots of triumphs and joys in that. But there was also a lot of very punishing, difficult times for her, particularly in her youth.
Jeffrey Brown: But the real focus here is much later, in 1969, the final year of her life, when, all but broke, homeless, and unemployable in Hollywood, Garland took on a series of stage performances in a London nightclub.
Zellweger says that, while much has changed in the film world, she found ways to connect.
Renee Zellweger: Well, I probably understand a little bit of it, from personal experience.
There's an awareness among most people in our business that we're lucky to be doing what we're doing. So there's a certain level of gratitude that then translates into a sense of responsibility, that you want to hold up your end of the deal.
And for someone like Judy, for example, who was made to feel constantly that she was lucky, and -- but lucky and replaceable, and that there's a million girls who can take your place, what wouldn't you do in order to hold onto your place, when this is your joy?
Jeffrey Brown: You have to make a decision about how to play her, right, an iconic person. Do you end up coming to feel that you are impersonating her, playing her?
Renee Zellweger: Oh, I hope not.
Jeffrey Brown: No?
Renee Zellweger: I hope not.
No, it felt -- I don't know. It just felt -- I just wanted to express what it was I was feeling. It was a search for finding that moment, that opportunity to tell that point of that emotional experience, and a celebration.
Rupert Goold: It was funny. I remember, in the early part of the shoot, we talked about whether we'd refer to Judy or Renee in between takes or in filming.
Jeffrey Brown: Oh, really?
Rupert Goold: And I think, as it went on, which often happens, I think, with actors in a role, it just becomes a she. She's this, she's that.
And the she, of course, is Judy Garland, but, of course, it's also what we're doing on the day in the performance. And the she becomes sort of like a dream state, which, hopefully, if you have done the work beforehand, that there is enough Judy in there.
Jeffrey Brown: Oh, goodness. Were you in this dream state, too? Judy, Renee, Judy, Renee, Renee, Judy?
Renee Zellweger: Hopefully not cognizant of what's happening in the moment, in the surroundings, but trying to stay connected to whatever it was that we had collected and discussed and, again, conjured, bring this energy, bring this emotion, bring this moment in the telling of her story.
Jeffrey Brown: Some of the interest in this film, too, is seeing Zellweger herself, now 50, return to the screen. A star since her 20s in films like "Jerry Maguire," "Maguire," "Chicago," "Bridget Jones," and "Cold Mountain," for which she won an Oscar for best supporting actress, she stepped away from the movies for six years, and has spoken openly of the emotional stress and depression she battled.
Part of it, she told me in Toronto, was her own Hollywood bubble, estranged from life itself.
Renee Zellweger: And I'd learned about this process. But I don't think that you can authentically tell stories when you don't have authentic exchanges with people.
And most of my exchanges were as a different character, or talking about the character that I had played. So, you know, where's home, and who are your friends, and what do you like to do now, and why don't you learn something new, and why don't you grow as a person?
It just seemed essential to me, or I was boring myself. You know, kill, I would hear myself speaking the lines. That's no good.
Jeffrey Brown: "Judy," one of today's stars taking on one of the greatest ever, is quite a comeback performance.
And Zellweger did her own singing and dancing.
Renee Zellweger: That's his fault.
Jeffrey Brown: That's his fault?
Rupert Goold: I wasn't the one singing.
Jeffrey Brown: What do you mean?
He made you do it? Yes?
Renee Zellweger: Well, I didn't show up going, hey, guys, I have a good idea.
Rupert Goold: She's a great singer.
Jeffrey Brown: But you went for it, huh?
Rupert Goold: And then some.
Renee Zellweger: You won't forget me, will you?
Promise you won't.
Jeffrey Brown: Judy Garland was just 47 when she died.
The new film "Judy" opens this weekend.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Judy Woodruff: That's got to be quite a film.
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