(Reuters) - How do you play a Hollywood icon like Judy Garland? For Renee Zellweger, getting under her skin was like falling in love.
Zellweger, 50, has won rave reviews for her heartbreaking portrait of Garland in “Judy,” out in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, and awards pundits are already predicting a fourth Oscar nomination.
“Judy” focuses on the period when Garland struggled with alcohol, prescription drug use and her broken finances on a trip to London in late 1968 for a series of concerts. The “Wizard of Oz” star died at age 47 of an accidental drug overdose in June 1969.
Zellweger took voice lessons for a year before filming started and worked with a choreographer to capture Garland’s mannerisms in the final year of her life.
“I put the music on and then I started digging for the books and I ordered the books and then I dug around on the Internet every day and I just took in very greedily everything I could find. I was just in love and I got more and more greedy,” Zellweger told Reuters Television.
“I didn’t want to be away from it,” she added.
Zellweger’s transformation from the blond actress who played British singleton “Bridget Jones,” sang in movie musical “Chicago” and won a supporting actress Oscar for drama “Cold Mountain” has been called a career best performance by critics.
While the actress “hardly seems like a natural doppelganger for Garland, she subsumes herself completely in the role, without ever tipping over into some kind of gestural Judy drag,” wrote Entertainment Weekly.
Zellweger’s co-stars were also amazed.
“She was rarely not Judy. She had so much to do. She was often working before I got there and she was still working after I left. I rarely saw her outside of the character and so I kind of forgot who Renee was,” said Finn Wittrock, who plays Garland’s fifth and last husband Mickey Deans.
While Garland’s children - Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Joey Luft - were not involved in the making of the film, Zellweger hopes they will see that “our intention to celebrate her is evident.”
“When you understand what it is that she was able to overcome in order to continue to deliver and continue to perform for her audiences, and connect with people and move them in the way that she did, is to then really understand how extraordinary she was,” she said.
Writing by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Marguerita Choy