By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 10, 2020 at 02:23 AM EST
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Renée Zellweger now has an Oscar for portraying Judy Garland, but this shouldn’t make the Academy’s troubles melt like lemon drops.

Despite dedicating her life to the entertainment industry, Garland’s immeasurable talents and staggering performances were never honored with Oscar gold in her lifetime. In 1940, when she was 17 years old, she was given an Academy Juvenile Award, largely for her contributions to The Wizard of Oz. But when the Academy had the chance to recognize her talents with a competitive award — in 1955 for A Star Is Born and in 1962 for Judgment at Nuremberg — they failed to do so.

It’s such an oversight that for many Grace Kelly’s 1955 victory for The Country Girl is considered the greatest snub in Oscar history. A Star Is Born was Garland’s comeback, after she’d exited her MGM contract on the heels of a suicide attempt in 1950. The film drew on much of Garland’s own biography, including details of the studio’s attempts to get her to lose weight and drastically alter her appearance. There have been few performances so vulnerable, so willing to expose the costs and rewards of stardom. Perhaps most ironically, the film contains a scene where Garland’s Vicki Lester wins an Oscar — even though the actress herself would never receive one.

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Now, Zellweger has an Oscar in Garland’s name. She swept the 2020 awards season for her portrayal of Garland in Judy, a look at the legendary entertainer’s life during her 1968 stint performing at London’s Talk of the Town. Zellweger’s was a victory projected since the film’s first trailers, given the Academy’s predilection for rewarding actors who embody real-life people (among Garland fans the performance was more polarizing and Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli refuses to watch it).

On Sunday night (and throughout awards season), Zellweger claimed her Oscar as a victory for Garland. “Though Judy Garland did not receive this honor in her time, I am certain that this moment is an extension of the celebration of her legacy that began on our film set,” she proclaimed. “Her legacy of unique exceptionalism and inclusivity and generosity of spirit, it transcends any one artistic achievement. Miss Garland, you are certainly among the heroes who unite and define us. This is certainly for you.”

Even some of Garland’s former costars felt Zellweger’s likely victory was a step towards righting the Academy’s long-ago wrong. Meet Me in St. Louis’ Margaret O’Brien previously told EW, “People realize today that was sort of a travesty that [Garland] did not get the award. So I’m hoping that it does not happen to Renée Zellweger and that she gets the award this time to make up a little bit for Judy not getting it.”

But let’s be clear: Hollywood took more from Garland than it ever gave. Putting her on a steady diet of pills as a child and pairing it with a strict diet, MGM warped her young sense of self and set her up for a lifelong struggle with addiction that ultimately took her life. In exchange, she gave them her whole heart, constantly delivering performances that were utterly raw and moving — the reason her star persists is because of her vulnerability. The struggling, lost woman beneath her soaring screen and stage presence was writ large on the screen and in every searing note of the songs that built her legacy.

Just take a look at one of her signature songs, “Get Happy” from Summer Stock — a song that in its message of chasing the blues away perfectly encapsulated Garland’s pursuit of happiness in spite of her struggles. It’s all there the deep melancholy, the pervasive sense of trouble, and the inexhaustible, almost manic desire to chase the love and above all, peace, she desperately craved.

We’re given a glimpse of her ineluctable power in Judy, how her performances and her own public struggles inspired and touched audiences around the world. She poured her soul into her work, and we’re still finding solace and connection in it 80 years down the line.

She gave everything to Hollywood, and it was too much for them to give her a gold-plated statue in return. Garland’s legend is one of comeback after comeback, but would an Oscar victory not have been the ultimate triumph in the Sisyphean trial of her life?

There’s no undoing that. It will always be a black mark on the Academy’s legacy that they failed to recognize Garland’s otherworldly, irreplaceable genius. Zellweger’s win proves that Judy still means so much to so many. But what it doesn’t do is right this wrong. Because while for some, including Zellweger, the dreams that they dare to dream really may come true, Garland never got to stop asking, “Why, oh why, can’t I?”

Related content:

Judy (2019 movie)

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