We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969: the life and death of Judy Garland

“She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends” 

— The Eagles, Hotel California

So, as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted.

I caught the Joker and Judy films black to back on a wet day in Dublin, ostensibly to dodge the rain. Yesterday I posted my review of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and today it’s the turn of Judy.

And what a star turn Ms Garland was. Here’s a brief recap.

Born Frances Ethel Gumm on 10 June 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, as Judy Garland she enjoyed a 45 year career as actress, singer and dancer… as well as mother to Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and a boy named Joey.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, Garland epitomised Hollywood, indeed it was part of her DNA. She signed a movie contract with MGM at the age of 13, and in 1939, rose to cinematic immortality by following the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, released a week before the outbreak of World War 2.

Much like her gingham-dressed alter ego, swept away by the winds into a magical, Technicolor world, Garland was plucked from obscurity to become a cultural icon. Respected for her immense versatility and boundless chutzpah, this uber-legend of stage and screen received countless plaudits, including an Academy Juvenile Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Special Tony Award and aged 39, became the youngest and first female recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the film industry.

Judy received further Oscar nominations for her roles in the musical version of A Star Is Born (released 1954, this was the second of four official adaptations, subsequently remade in 1976 by Barbra Streisand and most recently in 2018 starring Lady Gaga), and 1961’s Nazi war crimes courtroom drama Judgment At Nuremberg, also starring Marlene Dietrich.

In 1962, Garland won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her live concert album Judy at Carnegie Hall (yes, she did do all of it, and how)—the first woman to win in this category. In fact, she would spend most of the Sixties as a singer than an actress.

It would be her final decade.

 

After a final evening at home watching the first episode of the BBC’s now withdrawn Royal Family documentary film on television, Garland died over an “an incautious self-overdosage” of Seconal sleeping pills in the early hours of 22 June 1969, twelve days after her forty-seventh birthday. She was discovered by Mickey Deans, her husband of just three months, on the toilet, her tiny, frail body finally giving out from decades of drug abuse. The exact same fate would befall Elvis Presley eight years later. 

Now a star in her own right, oldest daughter and future Pet Shop Boys collaborator Liza Minnelli released a statement:

“I know my mother was a great star and a great talent, but I am not thinking about those things today. What I am thinking about is the woman, my mother, and what a lovely, vital, extraordinary woman she was. It is because of my memory of that woman that all my life I will be proud to say, ‘I am Judy Garland’s daughter.’”

One of the final photographs, Mr and Mrs Deans at 4 Cadogan Lane

The site, a rented mews house in Cadogan Lane, Belgravia is a ten minute drive through the heart of London to Charing Cross, where four days later I just happened to be born.

In fact, on the very day I came into the world, Thursday 26 June 1969, Judy Garland’s body departed Britain, and was being flown to New York for a very public funeral. The wake happened almost immediately on landing that morning. There, in the area surrounding Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Church on the Upper East Side, over 22,000 people queued to file past Judy’s glass-topped casket, in advance of the funeral service on the 27th, where local pop artist Andy Warhol would record fans chatting outside.

Still on June 26th, hours later at a bar four miles south in Greenwich Village, the NYPD started brutalising the gay fans who had started congregating around the area of the Stonewall Inn. A spontaneous uprising broke out as a motley mix of street kids, drag queens, trans people and gay businessmen in ties chose to trade in their customary reticence in the face of police abuse and fight back against a raid of the Mafia-owned watering hole. Across several evenings the unrest continued, unleashing years of pent-up fury and emboldening queer people with a new stridency inspired by the era’s spirit of protest.

It’s only fitting that this London boy was able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the long march towards equality and same sex marriage in New York last year, the same week I celebrated becoming a semi centennial.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B7DN_Urj2Ra/

By the time she died, Garland was already a well-known gay icon. In a 1967 review of a performance she gave, Time magazine mockingly noted her popularity within the gay community and quoted Manhattan psychiatrists who surmised that she might be admired as a model of resilience. Her problems were no secret, including drug addiction and suicide attempts, and she channeled her sorrow into creative outlets. She was “the Elvis for homosexuals,” Barry Walters wrote in The Advocate, “a symbol of emotional liberation, a woman who struggled to live and love without restraint. She couldn’t do it in her real life, of course, and neither could her fans. But she did it in her songs, and with them she brought along anyone who similarly dared to care too much.”

Trans activist Sylvia Rivera did recall being distraught on those last days of June ’69, so maybe Garland was an ingredient in the mix. But yeah, not everyone was there to drown their sorrows after the wake. The now legendary Stonewall Riots happened because gays were tired of being beaten and arrested just for existing. Whichever way you look at it, the flashpoint which gave the birth of the LGBT movement and rainbow flag around the world kicked off on the day I entered the world. “The combination of a full moon and Judy Garland’s funeral was too much for them,” Walter Troy Spencer wrote in the opening line of his Village Voice column on July 10, 1969. Not entirely kindly, he then proceeded to call the Stonewall uprising the “Great Faggot Rebellion.”

“When I talk to people who were there at Stonewall, they more or less expressed the fact that everybody was aware of her death that night,” says John Fricke, an expert on Garland’s legend and author of multiple books on her (including 2011’s Judy: A Legendary Film Career). “Though, some make a point of saying, ‘We weren’t out there marching for Judy that night but there was certainly that sense of loss.’” Lorna Luft, who was in a period of deep grief upon the death of her mother, didn’t personally learn about Stonewall until some time later. Since then, she’s heard first hand that at least some of the rioters credit Garland’s death as a spark.

“I think it has gone into myth about my mother’s death and Stonewall, but what’s true and honest is that it was emotionally connected. As far as what I’ve been told by people who were there. It It had been building up and building up, and finally on that night, when they went in to bust the bar they actually stood up and said no more. She would have loved that.”

Indeed, it’s Garland’s sense of drama and emotionalism and that undiminished appeal as the ultimate gay icon and tragic-camp legend that fuels the storyline of Rupert Goold’s illuminating sort-of biopic. If I may paraphrase a knowing line from the acerbically acidulous Absolutely Fabulous, “a bitch with a drug habit and we’re anybody’s.” Pretty accurate so far.

Judy unfolds over six sometimes swinging London-based weeks in 1968 and ’69, a snapshot of one of the world’s greatest entertainers in the final year of her life. Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated Broadway show, End Of The Rainbow, the film sees the brittle, birdlike Garland battle mental and physical deterioration as she struggles through one last run of performances, a fifth and final marriage, and devotion to her children, while also flashing back to Garland’s own days as a child star to explain her addictions and subsequent decline.

The movie serves as many things: A character study about the highs and lows that made Judy Garland who she was, via her remarkable and illustrious career as a celebrated actor and singer, as well as her cultural significance, set in a time defined by the highs of a comeback and the vindication of her talents, and the lows of depression, insomnia, and, of course, substance abuse.

It’s also a portrait of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system with appearances from the likes of Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner, and a crash course in essential Judy: from The Wizard Of Oz and Over The Rainbow to The Trolley Song and her lifelong love of vaudeville. 

What is isn’t is a Bohemian Rhapsody style “let’s tick off all the major moments of their life” biopic. We see Judy as a fully formed icon. Consequently, there is very little demonstration of what made Judy such an enduring and popular star of the Forties and Fifties. Indeed there’s very little mention of anything she did after The Wizard Of Oz and before she relocates to London. No biggie, for me at least.

Co-starring with Dirk Bogarde and his white sox, 1963’s I Could Go On Singing was Garland’s final movie

Chronicling the troubled five-week run of shows Garland performed at The Talk Of The Town nightclub at the London Hippodrome on Charing Cross Road, the film also stars Rufus Sewell as her third husband Sidney Luft, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.

Fresh from playing one of Andrew Cunanan’s murder victims in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, the rather yummy Finn Wittrock plays Judy’s fifth and final husband, the aggressively charming music entrepreneur Mickey Deans. They had married in London in March of that year, just a month after my parents, though my folks didn’t have Johnnie Ray as best man.

The story starts with one of several flashbacks to the teenage Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz, showing us how the industry created and destroyed her in the same breath. Her body and image are ruthlessly controlled by the all powerful MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who puts her on a strict diet and gives her barbiturates and amphetamines, setting in motion the drug dependency that will plague her for the rest of her life.

But most of the movie is set in 1969, long after her Hollywood heyday and mere months before her untimely death. A star is fallen, Judy is now broke and virtually homeless, dragging herself and her youngest kids Lorna and Joey (Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd) from one crummy LA nightclub performance to the next. ‘“Please don’t go to sleep, Mom,” her daughter pleads after they are evicted from their hotel suite for not paying the bills. “No, no, no,” Judy says, popping a plethora of pills, “these are the other ones.”

We meet her eldest child Liza at a house party, and also Judy’s ex-husband (the third), Sidney Luft, who takes custody of their two young children while she reluctantly accepts that five-week residency at the Talk Of The Town. Although she’s devastated at being separated from her kids, Judy has little choice but to work overseas, where her fans can still be counted on to turn out in full force.

In London, her comeback opens with the train wreck in full force as Judy’s manic depression and insomnia quickly take over: she pops pills, skips rehearsals, turns up late and drunk and nearly misses opening night, until her young handler Rosalyn peels her out of her dressing room and shoves her through the curtain with an “On you go!” 

Blinking in the lights, Judy mutters, “Oh, it seems we have a band here…” Gulp. Brace for impact. But once she stumbles into the spotlight and starts crooning old chestnuts like The Trolley Song with that famously rich and velvety contralto her confidence comes surging back and the diminutive diva enjoys having an appreciative crowd again.

She’s sensational, of course. Revived by the applause like a trooper by the sound of artillery, she rustles magic out of thin air and knocks the song for six. The always character-committed Zellweger’s transformation into Garland is nothing short of remarkable. This is an actress that does her homework: her posture, her skittish walk, the way she holds the microphone, there is a commendable level of detail.

Not only is that Zellweger’s voice singing her heart out for real, and often completely live, but she delivers a gutsy, go-for-broke performance — here it all is, all the pills and the vodka, the self-pity, the talent and the fury contained in Garland’s tiny, fragile form, shoulders hunched like a marionette, rattling off her lines in the best “grande dame in aspic” manner. “Do you take anything for depression?” a doctor asks her. “Four husbands,” she replies. She’s like a sparrow with a left hook.

The most striking commentary that Judy makes about celebrity is the loneliness one feels amidst all that fame. For all the people who are watching you, who buy tickets to your show, and who surround you to make sure you get from point A to point B, it just seems so isolating.

Zellweger portrays that to heartbreaking effect. A mother missing her kids. A woman starved for love who enters yet another unhappy marriage. A celebrity in the throes of a nervous breakdown so in need of human interaction that is all too painfully apparent in the film’s most touching, tenderest scene.

One evening, after the show, Judy befriends an adoring gay couple of a certain age waiting at the stage door, eager for an autograph and a moment of contact with their idol. To their utter astonishment she asks them to join her for dinner.

Back at the boys’ flat, Stan falls asleep on the couch and Judy and Dan stay up playing cards. Dan, played by Andy Nyman, reminds Judy how much she means to her many gay fans as the pair become, quite literally, Friends of Dorothy.

“It’s sweet that you come to see me,” she tells him. “Sometimes I spy the two of you out there. I feel like I have allies.”

“Well we missed you in ‘64 so…” says fan Dan, with something on his mind. At that time, Stan was “otherwise engaged,”

He tearfully opens up to her about the difficulties the two men have had maintaining their relationship in the face of legal persecution. Judy’s music has provided them with solace throughout their suffering, though Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) and Dan were unable to see her together before because Stan was jailed for six months for obscenity.

“They’ve changed the laws since then,” Nyman continues. And in a reference to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that decriminalised homosexual acts in Britain, “Turns out we didn’t do anything wrong after all.”

“They hound people in this world, anybody who’s different,” Judy responds. “They can’t stand it. Well, to hell with them.”

I’ll whisper this, but in this 1967 interview, Judy’s sadly so doped up she actually calls her second daughter Laura

Perhaps Judy and Joker aren’t so dissimilar after all.

Zellweger’s performance is so impeccably nuanced in that moment. She’s come seeking love and warmth and gets it, but then leaves giving it.

Judy might have been a standard portrait of doom, a parable about the evils and excesses of studio-era Hollywood, the story of yet another innocent sacrificed on the cross of celebrity, but Renée’s portrayal makes a sad story elevated, elevating and, essentially, all about love. Through her physical transformation as Judy, the actress also manages to capture something more elusive: Garland’s explosive emotional truth.

A brilliant, beautiful and bravura performance then. I spied many a not quite dry eye at the end of the screening, my own most definitely among them.

The man who didn’t get away: Dan the fan is comforted by Judy

The downside, of course, is that there is no real celebration. This is not an uplifting film, it’s a moving, often upsetting movie that tries to look at its title character honestly, balancing both her faults and greatest strengths during its 118 minute runtime. In a way, you are eavesdropping on the last moments of a once extraordinary woman with no more energy, no more money and dependant upon medication, alcohol and men.

Yet if you listen to some of her audio interviews on YouTube, this was one angry lady at the end of her tether, fighting the men in control and when she felt powerless she’d resort to horrifying bouts of self-harm and suicide attempts. If you think about it, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe were the first high profile women that suffered as victims of what is now the #metoo era. Since them, the celebrity chemical curse has claimed Elvis, Tim Buckley, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Tom Petty and many more to come.

Houston, America has a problem and Judy was among its first casualties.

26 June 1969: The casket containing the body of Judy Garland is placed into a hearse at JFK Airport after arriving from London on the day I was born © Bettmann/CORBIS

So, from bongs to gongs, Academy Awards voters can rarely resist a celebrity impersonation, judging by some of the star turns that have won Oscars in recent years. These aren’t just performances; they’re jaw-dropping feats of mimicry as they inhabit some of the most famous figures of the 20th Century. Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury! Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill! Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher! And I bet she brought her broomstick with her.

For those of you wanting to differentiate between fact and fiction, here’s the real thing performing Over The Rainbow for the last time, a signpost to the stars, struggles and stage shows in Judy.

BONUS: Well, there is that, thank you very much sweetie.

The AbFab episode I quoted earlier, and which references Judy and Marlene (and Carnegie Hall) in deliberately skewed fashion is called Happy New Year.

15 minutes is your marker.

Also, because we’re still here, there were a few other films I enjoyed in 2019. Among them:

Springsteen on Broadway

The Laundromat

Rocketman 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 

The Good Liar

Steve Pafford

 

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