As I mentioned at the end of our Clubland Q&A, today would have been the hundredth birthday of Judy Garland, born June 10th 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She died in London a few days after her forty-seventh birthday, and half-a-century later those last months of a short life became the subject of a hit film that won its leading lady the Academy Award. Here is what I had to say about Judy back in 2019:
Is there any more over-tilled soil than the price of fame? I see even HRH The Duchess of Sussex and Congresswoman AOC are reduced to working this exhausted seam. But the public is not terribly sympathetic, especially without the minimum qualifying tug on their heartstrings of an early or early-ish death. And even then it is necessary to have left something behind that stands in bleak and telling contrast to the pitiful demise. The play on which the film Judy is based grasped the essentials in its title: End of the Rainbow. The reality of Judy Garland's final act affronts the myth of Judy Garland's beginnings.
Liza Minnelli says she won't be going to see the new picture. Once, back in the days when she was kind enough to look in on my telly shows, she confided to me offstage that she disliked books and dramas about her mom because they all portrayed her as a doomed and tragic figure - whereas, in the memory of Liza and others who knew her, she was a grand, rounded, life-affirming presence with a gleeful sense of humor who one otherwise routine day in Belgravia made the mistake of taking a couple of Seconal too many.
Both the play and the film telescope Judy Garland's life into a final year spent mostly in London punctuated by a handful of flashbacks to her MGM childhood: There is the rainbow, and what's over it - and nothing in between. The film discloses that she has split from her third and least worst husband, Sid Luft, but not that a fourth, Mark Herron, has also come and gone. For more on the execrable Mr Herron, see my piece on his very temporary son-in-law:
[Peter Allen] found himself (more or less simultaneously) Judy's pianist, her husband's lover, and her daughter's husband. Back in the mid-Forties, Miss Garland had come home one day and found her then husband, Vincente Minnelli, in bed with another man. There followed her first suicide attempt. Two decades later, Liza Minnelli could top that: she caught Peter Allen, her new husband, in bed with his boyfriend on their wedding night. Peter had been recommended to Judy by her fourth husband, Mark Herron. And Judy in turn pressed him on Liza. And Herron and Allen carried on a sexual relationship during their respective marriages to Judy and Liza. One is all for being broad-minded and tolerant about these things and Peter Allen was certainly a good-looking lad in those days, but, how heartless does a guy have to be to screw his stepdaughter's husband?
We are a few years on from the above events: It's the late sixties, Judy is broke and homeless, unreliable and thus uninsurable, and dragging her two young kids from one fleapit appearance to another in return for 150 bucks in cash. From London, where the bookers are not quite as au fait with Miss Garland's diminished status, comes a life-savingly generous offer: The impresario Bernard Delfont wants her for a residency at the Talk of the Town, and the money she'd have by the end of the run would be enough to buy her a house and thus present as sufficiently stable to gain custody of her children.
So she hops a flight to Heathrow, and a loving recreation of the lost London of the Swingin' Sixties - Carnaby Street, alarmingly groovy decor, dolly birds in the streets and sweet middle-aged poofters at the stage door... As the above précis suggests, this is bare-bones biography boiled down to the essence: A guest on the make at a Hollywood party of twentysomething chums of Liza says no one told him the world's greatest entertainer was coming. "Frank Sinatra is here?" replies Judy, simultaneously amused and mocking, and self-aware, lonely, needy. But, if you didn't know anything about Judy Garland before you settled into your seat, you certainly won't learn it here.
The film stands or falls then on its central performance. Renée Zellweger was born round about when the events of this tale were taking place, which is to say she is now three years older than Judy Garland was at the time of her death. Yet I would imagine considerable time in makeup was expended in painting on Miss Zellweger the crow's feet and laugh lines of the prematurely aged Miss Garland. When first we glimpse the leading lady, she is an almost uncanny simulacrum of late Garland. Like Judy, with the yo-yo-ing weight that eventually did for her at MGM, Renée's size has been an object of tabloid fascination, although, in contrast to Garland, the press seems to prefer her with puppy fat and chipmunk cheeks to her latterday emaciation. It serves her well here, though, enabling her to mimic to perfection the Judy of the Sixties "Judy Garland Show", wobbling precariously on the fine line between petite and shrunken, fragile and haggard. She has the same floral-print cocktail dresses and trouser suits as her character, and she wears them as Judy did, down to the permanent hunch of her non-singing stance and that faintly unfocused look as if smoke's got in her eyes permanently.
The danger obviously is that such attention to detail becomes mere impersonation: Who even knows these days whether it's makeup and mimicry? Could all be done with CGI. What else can an actress do? Well, she can choose to sing her own songs instead of simply lip-synching. This is a straight film, if Friends of Dorothy will forgive the expression, and it keeps us waiting for the music, till Judy's opening at the Talk of the Town, and then it's not "Over the Rainbow" or some such but Schwartz & Dietz's "By Myself". Fred Astaire introduced it in the Thirties as a stoic ballad ruefully reflecting on lost love. Garland took it up a generation later in one of those up-tempo extended-outro arrangements that turn life's vicissitudes into a cry of defiance. Miss Zellweger's performance cranks it up a notch further, upping both the ante and the tempo. The scene is filmed in one long shot, either as director Rupert Goold's hommage to George Cukor's "Man That Got Away" in A Star is Born, or more generally the approach to numbers on her TV show - or because Goold wants to show that, unlike the graceless stiffs in La La Land and other latterday confections, Renée Zellweger doesn't have to be micro-edited into semi-competence.
The result is dizzying and faintly unsettling: The other night I was complaining to Tucker Carlson - or rather passing along to him the complaint of a celebrated songwriter - about the plonking literalism of contemporary pop stars' approach to standards, their inability to play subtlety and nuance. Well, step forward, Single-Shot Zellweger: she gives us a showstopping opening-night performance that simultaneously conveys that the singer so tough and defiant is trembling on the brink of crack-up and madness. Although she buttons down the sometimes idiosyncratic phrasing, she hasn't got Garland's voice. But she's got something better: the essence.
Nothing that follows quite matches that first song - but then it didn't in real life either, as the Talk of the Town run dwindled into late starts and no-shows and drunken stumbling through half-remembered numbers. Along the way a fifth husband comes and goes, a young 'un with ideas of how to put Judy back on top - how about, he suggests in the pub, an album with the Rolling Stones? Miss Garland's cool 28-year-old English minder (Jessie Buckley) cannot quite be bothered to conceal her contempt: From their brief acquaintance she knows the star too well. And the star herself is too sharp not to read too easily what the others think - although twenty years later Liza Minnelli sort of put the theory into practice via a hit single with the Pet Shop Boys ("Losing My Mind", UK Number Six, 1989).
On a Brit chat show Judy tells her Frost-like interrogator that she'd like to be Judy Garland onstage for an hour every night and then for the rest of the day just have the life everyone has - home, family, friends. That's understandable, but as Louis B Mayer taunted her younger self, without stardom, what is she? "Your name is Frances Gumm. Your father's a faggot. Your mother cares only about what I think of you." With stardom come empty hotel suites and after-midnight room service, and suitors who turn into spongers, and missing money, and IRS demands, and more hotel rooms and more missing money and new IRS demands while you're still trying to pay off the old ones...
The nearest thing to normality is one night when, bored and lonely, she asks the devoted stage-door queens if they've eaten and the trio repairs to their poky flat for some inedible scrambled eggs. And the most eloquent moments of Renée Zellweger's performance are dialogue-free - when you see her thinking, see her knowing, see her awareness of what's going on ...but there's absolutely no one in her life she can talk to about any of it.
The performance is being touted as fairly obvious Oscar bait, and it is. I congratulate my old friend Lawrence Myers, producer of the play and executive producer of the film. Back in 1969, when Judy was tottering around the stage of the Talk of the Town, Lawrence was the accountant to Mickie Most and the Beatles' Apple label and he parlayed that into a spectacular two decades in the pop biz, giving the world "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" and signing to his record label David Bowie and Donna Summer and Billy Ocean. And then he ventured into the theatre, where the pickings were markedly slimmer. I remember going to the tryout and straining to think of something encouraging to say about his bullfighting musical Matador, which suffered from the somewhat obvious drawback that you couldn't have real bulls on stage so they had to be represented by camp young men in black polonecks swishing around with sticks under their armpits. One day at the Groucho Club in Soho he pitched me a musical about Nelson's great love Lady Hamilton, which Marlon Brando had come up with on one of his Tahitian sojourns and in which Lawrence planned to star Michael Caine's wife Shakira, until Michael decided he didn't want Shakira doing the topless scenes...
And after all those big ideas the one that finally landed was a small idea: Judy Garland alone in London, alone on stage, alone in her dressing room, alone, alone, alone. I went to see the film because I quite like the period, and I have fond memories of the Talk of the Town before it fell into the hands of Peter Stringfellow and became a quite different sort of "nightclub". Renée Zellweger is brilliant and amazing as Judy Garland, yet in a way the performance is too good: it's too bleak, too harrowing, too real. Which, granted, is not a criticism one often has cause to make.
~There will be more on Judy Garland as the weekend proceeds.