Who can say who Judy Garland really was? To millions of children, she was the wide-eyed Kansan with the brown pigtails and blue dress. To others, she was Mickey Rooney’s better half, the can-do vaudevillian who could sing, stomp and act with the best of them. To others, still, she was Esther Smith (Meet Me in St. Louis), Mrs. Norman Maine (A Star Is Born) or Irene Hoffmann-Wallner (Judgment at Nuremberg). Even those who didn’t watch movies still knew Garland, either from her Emmy-nominated TV show or her Album of the Year-winning record Judy at Carnegie Hall. For legions of gay fans, she was the apotheosis of camp, a consummate performer who — with a few bars of “Over the Rainbow” — could reach across gender, racial and sexual barriers to unite a community suffering in the closet. But with her death came a reassessment revealing a darker side: a barbiturate-popping drug addict, the financially destitute alcoholic, an emotional cripple staggering from failed marriage to failed marriage. Everyone, it seems, had a piece of Judy Garland. So what then did she have left of herself for herself?
This is one of many riddles other artists have puzzled over in the decades since Garland’s tragically premature death in 1969 at only 47 years old, resulting in a myriad of books, TV shows and movies. But the most recent — and certainly one of the most ambitious — is Rupert Goold’s biopic Judy. Set in the last few months of Garland’s life as she held a five weeks residency at the London Hippodrome — then known as The Talk of the Town — the film sees the entertainer reflecting on her tumultuous life while in the midst of a vicious custody battle with her estranged third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). Judy might be directed by Goold, but as any film about Garland begins and ends with the woman playing her, it really belongs to Renée Zellweger who threw herself into the role. Much like the lead performances in other recent musician biopics like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman (2019), Zellweger’s Garland isn’t so much an evocation or impersonation as an attempted possession: she studied the subject’s vocal tics and everything from the odd jerkiness off her head during interviews to the way she’d hold the mic in her right hand during shows (despite being left-handed), all to such perfection that it’s only the singing moments that call attention to Zellweger the actress.
And Judy should be thankful, for Zellweger’s spellbinding performance is one of the only things the film has going for it. Like so many other biopics, Goold’s version plays at times like an extended Wikipedia article, pedantic about the details of the subject’s life to a fault. The middle section absolutely sags with a tepid romantic subplot involving nightclub owner and future fifth ex-husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). The numerous dust-ups with Luft are perfunctory bunk that exist only to heighten Garland’s suffering, not to explain her character. It’s the worst kind of showing-not-telling imaginable for a film that should be about emotional interiors.
Perhaps this is why the only scenes that truly pop in Judy are the flashbacks of Garland’s youth as a child star. These dreamlike moments show the pressures, indignities and humiliations that transformed America’s sweetheart into a drug addict: studio heads berating her on the set of The Wizard of Oz for not being pretty enough; studio handlers feeding her methamphetamines to keep her appetite down while on “dates” with Rooney; a brief moment of rebellion during a Sweet Sixteen photoshoot that sees her verbally abused by a producer. But even these only go so far to explain Garland’s character: what of her smash success as an adult actress and comedienne? Her marriage to legendary Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli? Their daughter Liza Minnelli (who only gets maybe two minutes of screen-time in a single scene)? Garland’s famous 1950s comeback? Her staunch campaigning and support of the Civil Rights Movement? These don’t fit Goold’s narrative of the subject as a tragic martyr who spent her life bearing the pain of a terrible childhood, so they’re ignored. And because of this, the audience’s view of Garland is stunted — there’s the goddess and the druggie with nothing in-between.
Compare Judy instead with Ronald Neame’s little-known and under-rated musical drama I Could Go on Singing (1963), a film with almost the exact same plot while simultaneously starring the real Garland in her last onscreen role as a thinly-veiled version of herself. Garland plays burnt-out world-renowned singer Jenny Bowman who, while preparing for a string of London concerts, reconnects with old flame David Donne (Dirk Bogarde) and learns that Matt (Gregory Phillips), the child they had together 13 years prior, has grown up into a fine young man. Perhaps from some innate loneliness, perhaps from some insatiable craving for love, Jenny suddenly decides she wants to meet the boy she abandoned to pursue her career. The rest of I Could Go on Singing sees Jenny struggle to keep up the mummer’s farce of reconnecting with Matt without revealing her motherhood, all the while coming unglued from the pressures of her upcoming engagements.
Much like Judy, I Could Go on Singing intersperses the drama with several concert numbers. But remarkably, despite being ravaged by decades of substance abuse, Garland’s voice is as broad, emotive and powerful as ever, allowing viewers to enjoy the spectacle of Garland performing as Judy the Actress and not Judy the Character at the same time. This ironic performativity, this modernist artifice, speaks to the heart of the campiness that made Garland so beloved among LGBT+ communities, allowing us to view her in this movie both as imagined icon and real-life human at the same time. This does far more to reveal the truth of Judy Garland than anything Zellweger could do.
But while I Could Go on Singing might be a more definitive portrait of Garland at the end of her life, both films capture an important truth about the star: no matter how much life punished her, Garland performed because she loved it. Consider the heart-breaking scene near the end of I Could Go on Singing when Donne picks Jenny up from the hospital after getting drunk and hurting herself. During shooting, Garland quickly went off-script — you can literally see Neame’s cameraman pull in closer and re-adjust the shot when they realize what’s happening — and for the span of one unbroken, six-minute shot, Garland weeps into the arms of Bogarde, a real-life friend, and unleashes a lifetime of pain and righteous indignation towards the industry that abused her and the world that worshipped her. “You think you can make me sing,” she snarls, “I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to. Just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want. Do you understand that?”
Now compare this to the notorious final scene of Judy which, while apparently was inspired by a real event, resulted in gags of displeasure from many critics. During an impromptu final performance at The Talk of the Town, Zellweger’s Garland breaks down singing her signature song “Over the Rainbow.” In response, a gay couple she’d befriended earlier takes up where she left off, inspiring the audience to sing the last stanza for her. A tearful Garland asks the crowd not to forget her, and the film cuts to one last flashback of her and a young Rooney running backstage after a successful performance. Rooney tells Garland to ignore the audience’s cry for an encore, but she is transfixed, realizing in that moment that she lives as much for the audience as the audience lives for her. This bookend of Garland at the beginning and end of her fame reiterates the conclusion of I Could Go on Singing: Judy sang for others, but first and foremost for herself. Judy the Actress and Judy the Icon may have been one in the same after all.
Nathanael Hood (@NateHood257) is a freelance writer and film critic whose published work can be found on RogerEbert.com, Mubi, TheYoungFolks and Movie Mezzanine.
Categories: 1960s, 2019 Film Essays, 2020s, Biography, Drama, Featured, Film Essays, Musical, Romance