Renée Zellweger’s career blasted off with hits like Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Cold Mountain and Chicago. She then coasted along in a number of competent but hardly stellar movies and was on the cusp of becoming a Hollywood has-been. Well, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that her first name means “reborn.”

Zellweger’s portrayal of American cultural icon Judy Garland is nothing short of incandescent, and the result of rigorous study and preparation by the actress. Only rarely do we realize we’re watching someone acting. It garnered her a second Oscar (and a fourth nomination). She even does her own singing, uncannily channeling Garland, and the film’s final, heartbreaking song, despite being undiluted Hollywood schmaltz, pulled a few tears from this hardened critic.

As with many recent biopics, this focuses on one brief period in the subject’s life, with a few flashbacks to provide context. In this case, it’s a six-week singing engagement in the late ‘60s at a famed London supper club. Six months later she would be dead of a barbiturate overdose, at age 47.

Intriguingly, the film argues that her problems with drugs and alcohol began at a time when we remember her most fondly. Apparently, on the set of The Wizard of Oz, the predatory Louis B. Mayer decreed that she was to be given little to eat (don’t want a fat Dorothy before filming wrapped) and given uppers to stay awake during the long shoots and then downers to sleep.

As a biopic, this is unremarkable. But Zellweger’s performance boosts it into must-see territory.

(118 min)