Waiting For Renee, Thinking About Judy

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Judy — MGM's glorious young box-office bonanza.

“IF I am such a legend, why am I so alone?”

That was a familiar refrain of the late great movie star and live concert phenomenon, Judy Garland.  It was a good line.  She made people believe it. She came to believe it herself. 

Judy — lonely, but never alone.

The reality of the situation was that Judy Garland was never alone.  She was almost always surrounded by people—adoring friends…brilliant co-workers…sometimes bewildered but always besotted children…an ever-present on-tap entourage…husbands and lovers. (Despite crushing insecurities about her physical appearance, Judy’s wit, charm and sex-appeal were such that she didn’t miss out on much in matters of amour. Men adored her.) 

She was one of the most celebrated, worshipped and honored entertainers of the 20th century. 

If, toward the end of her life the crowd around her thinned, it was Judy herself who had done the winnowing.  Garland was never quite the victim of her self-generated legend.  (“Sympathy is my business,” she told her daughter Liza Minnelli. And her business was her life.)

Today, the film “Judy,” starring Renee Zellweger as Garland opens.  By the time many of you are reading this column, I very likely will have seen it, and I’ll tell all next week. Advance reviews have praised Zellweger, though they have been a bit dodgy on the film itself.

Renee Zellweger as Garland.

“Judy” is based on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow,” which played several months on Broadway in 2012.  This tells of the dark, white hot/ice cold finale of Judy Garland’s life—Judy in extremis, circa London, 1968/69. Her voice elusive (again)…her career on the precipice (again)…involved with an inappropriate man (again)…fighting with agents and musicians and nightclub owners (again). 

Garland had not simply strayed from the Yellow Brick Road and her trajectory to The Emerald City (or back to dreary Kansas) she was changed even from the paper thin, nervous woman—with the still glorious voice—of her 1963 TV series.  But, she was still and always, Judy Garland. 

It was not a nice time, those months in London, and perhaps it is an unpalatable era upon which to base a play or a film. (There was also an off-Broadway oddity circa 2006, titled “The Property Known as Garland,” which featured a surprisingly effective Adrienne Barbeau as Judy.)

Adrienne Barbeau as Judy.

Still, I have pretty high hopes for Renee Zellweger’s interpretation, not simply because she is a lovely actress but also because she is a lovely person.  I spoke with her just before she began filming the movie about two years ago, and her respect and sensitivity in regard to Judy was abundantly evident.

And as Garland is on my mind anyway, I might as well muse further on the woman known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”

Frances Gumm — A little girl with a BIG voice.

Judy—Frances Gumm—began in vaudeville. A little girl with a voice so big some thought she was a prodigiously talented little person.  No child could have such a powerful, soulful voice!  

Judy would later say she was “pushed” onstage by her monstrous mother, Ethel.  Biographers have pretty much ascertained that the majority of Judy’s horror stories about her childhood were exaggerated or simply invented.  Ethel wasn’t a  picnic lunch or a day at the beach, but the truth was, Judy loved to perform.  She couldn’t be stopped; she loved the applause, the attention. She was born to be seen, and heard.

By the time Judy was signed by MGM, vaudeville was dead.  The glossy studio that had spawned Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald didn’t know what to do with this short, freckly-face, pug-nosed, slightly plump dynamo.  They put her in supporting roles, they put her on the radio. (Her rendition of “Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart” at the age of 13 is a miracle of emotion and musical expertise.)  She was “on the cusp” for a few frustrating years. (Young Judy sobbed with jealousy over the success of Deanna Durbin.)

Then came “The Wizard of Oz” for which she was actually too old—16, with her bust bound—but just right in so many other ways.

She imbued Dorothy Gale with the required innocence neatly combined with just a touch of irony and self-awareness. She allowed herself to stand back a bit, letting us in that she, Judy Garland, was really too sophisticated and maturely tense for this tale of tornados and witches and emerald cities. (And in real life, she most certainly was!)   It was this tension, a sometimes plush, sometimes ragged push-pull that came to fascinate her audiences, and weld them to her, even when she was depleted and strung-out.  Judy, in film after film—a relentless grind—brought something unique to American movie-goers, and later to her rapt and worshipful live audiences.

Judy was a natural, visceral actress right from the start giving her musicals (“Babes In Arms,” Babes on Broadway”, “Girl Crazy” “Little Nellie Kelly,” “Presenting Lily Mars” “For Me and My Gal”) soulfulness, humor and palpable vulnerability.  Judy was the girl next door who, one felt, might cut her wrists over a callous boy next door. There was always something compellingly mournful about Garland, just around the edges of her good cheer and wit.  Her unique singing voice, with its emotion-wrenching vibrato could convey reckless, raucous joy, as well as the plaintive cry of love embraced or unrequited. 

She married and divorced. David Rose, the musician, bored her.  Vincente Minnelli appreciated her sophistication, dramatic talent and sensitivity, and he showcased her ripening persona onscreen (“Meet Me In St. Louis,” “The Clock,” “The Pirate.”)  But he too, was inappropriate.

And, like Garland’s mother, Minnelli tended to side with MGM in most matters of Judy being a property—just as he was. 

The studio expected her to show up on time, behave herself, be grateful for her good salary, the perks and pleasures of stardom. But plagued by insomnia, driven to maintain an unnaturally slim figure, tortured by her insecurities, addicted to studio-provided drugs, Garland never felt obliged to be grateful, and she certainly did not then, or at any time in the future, take responsibility for her actions.  She did not like to be told what to do—ever! (The Minnelli marriage did at least produce the bedazzling Liza.) 

Garland’s great career at MGM careened to an end in 1949, littered with suspensions, firings, suicide attempts.  With the exception of Minnelli’s “The Pirate,” her movies remained popular with audiences, but were too expensive to make. (Summer Stock” her last effort for MGM took a tortuous six months to complete, although her robust vibrancy onscreen—forget your troubles come on get happy!—belied all the agony.)  She was a great jewel that the studio could no longer afford or insure.  At the age of 28, a worn-out, furrow-browed Garland was written off as a “has been.”  

Hardly!  Judy met a new man—Sid Luft—with a new plan.  She launched herself into a live concert career that generated reactions unlike any other performer’s personal appearances.

Sid Luft and Judy Garland with Joseph Luft, 1955. Photo: Frameline, Showtime

Fans who had fallen in love with her more or less carefully controlled MGM image onscreen, now saw her in the reality of her oft-abundant flesh—watched the enormous black eyes well up and search the darkness, looking for that bluebird of happiness or the man that got away; hypnotized by her dramatic body language, those magnificent hands, which she used to punctuate her songs. (Judy had picked up a lot of effective tricks from her pal, MGM performer and music arranger, the great Kay Thompson.)  She made history at the Palladium in London and at the Palace in New York. 

Hollywood, which liked nothing so much as “forgiving” an errant daughter or son, called again in 1954.  Garland would face the cameras as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, in George Cukor’s remake of “A Star Is Born.” Judy (now managed by husband Sid Luft) had a piece of the producing pie. The movie was over-budget, over-long and overwrought. Brilliant, but self-indulgent.

Judy did her best to behave, but four years away from the discipline of movie sets, hadn’t done her any favors. Still, “Star” opened to raves and rapturous audiences.  Then, in one of the most infamous decisions in film history, “Star” was brutally “edited” after its initial release by studio head Jack Warner, who wanted more bang for his buck. (Shorter movie, more showings.) The resulting bad publicity affected the box-office. Judy’s make-or-break comeback movie made a lot of money, but not enough to ensure a profit. She was Oscar-nominated but lost, incredibly, to glamorous newcomer Grace Kelly, who wore glasses and her hair in a bun for “The Country Girl.”  This “courage” impressed Academy voters.

Judy’s Oscar loss was also a signal from an increasingly unsentimental industry threatened by television and dwindling audiences—we gave you a chance, you bad girl, and you didn’t appreciate it, you misbehaved.  Most importantly, you didn’t make us the money we wanted from you. 

The Last Hurrah — Judy at New York’s Palace Theater, 1967.

Now, with hopes of a new screen career dashed, Garland began a treadmill grind that surpassed anything she had complained about during her years at MGM. Judy would spend the rest of the decade singing for her supper, literally.  TV specials, nightclubs, concert halls revealed an increasingly nervous Judy, battling her weight and sometimes struggling with that fabulous voice.  Trouble seemed to dog her every step, but always she would rise again—back at the Palace, at the Metropolitan Opera House, in Las Vegas—to screaming, appreciative audiences. She recorded splendid albums for Capitol Records—“Judy In Love”… “Alone”(her moody, bluesy masterpiece)…“That’s Entertainment.” There were more children (Lorna and Joe Luft) more money woes, lawsuits, marital problems and finally, in 1959, total collapse, and near death. Her doctors warned her of a limited life span and the dangers of working again: Judy Garland’s career, they insisted, was over.

If there was some part of Judy that might have welcomed indolence, the more insistent part of her life involved raising children, putting food on the table. Realistically, she could not NOT work, and in any case work was all she knew.  Less than a year after being warned against resuming her career, Judy, in lush, potent voice, would begin recording again. 

She was cast in a small but crucial role in Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg”—a poignant turn that would nab a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Her weight dropped. She was now pleasingly plump rather than shockingly bloated. Under new management (the Luft marriage was in its final tumultuous throes) Judy began her concert career anew. But this was a fresh take. It was no longer an “act.”  No more dancing boys, no more harkening back to her vaudeville roots.

Now it was Judy alone onstage, just the lady, a microphone and that voice.  Audiences who thought they’d seen the best of her, were dazzled all over again.  Finally, in the spring of 1961, a startlingly healthy Judy was booked into New York’s Carnegie Hall, backed by Mort Lindsey’s brilliant arrangements and orchestrating. The result was an event that became instantly legendary.

The live recording of that night “Judy at Carnegie Hall” was the first two-record album to sell over a million copies.  It remained at the No.1 spot on Billboard for 13 weeks and won four Grammy Awards. Garland’s past albums for Capitol had sold well, if not spectacularly.  “Carnegie Hall” put her in an entirely new category, winning her admirers who’d never thought of her outside her old MGM movies.

She made two more films, “A Child is Waiting” and “I Could Go On Singing.” (The latter contains a Garland performance that has to be seen to be believed. Playing an ersatz version of herself—a concert singer with personal issues–she gives the performance of her life. “I Could Go On Singing” makes her efforts in “A Star is Born” look like rehearsal footage.)  

Never, it seemed, had Judy Garland been this much in demand, so in the moment or so freshly insightful about herself and what she insisted were mistakes she would never make again. 

TV beckoned. Two high-rated, beautifully produced specials led Garland to accept what appeared to be an extraordinarily lucrative offer from CBS for her own weekly series.

Garland performing on her TV series — too intense, too intimate for its era, but full of brilliant moments.

But the pressure and grind of this, her greatest comeback, was taking its toll.  She had dieted drastically.  There were suicide attempts. (Or at least theatrical cries for attention.)  She was involved with one of her agents, the unscrupulous David Begelman. 

Initially enthusiastic—especially with the promise of financial security at last—Garland soon became disenchanted, as did CBS.  The very qualities that had made her a movie star, a great concert performer, a living legend, were anathema to the network. She was too nervous, emotional, jittery, vulnerable. The early episodes were deemed “too special.”  Producers, directors and concepts changed three times.  

Although Garland was not always at her best vocally, and looked sometimes shockingly frail, she delivered dozens and dozens of stunning solo performances.  If all that remained of Garland’s life work were her TV series’ renditions of “A Cottage For Sale,” “Too Late Now,”  “How About Me?” “Poor Butterfly,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Old Man River,” she’d still go down as one of the greatest performers of all time, period.

 “The Judy Garland Show” was cancelled after 26 episodes.  CBS had tried to “humanize” her.  But who was a more human star than Garland?!  In truth, she was not ready for primetime.  Not on a weekly basis.  Not in 1963.  Her intensity and realism was exhausting. (Today, she’d be just fine!)

The end of the series was, in effect, the end of the line for Judy.  She had placed all her hopes on this project. She found herself in debt again, despite promises of financial salvation. (Garland had been warned about David Begelman, but she followed her own way, as usual.)

Of the final years, there is little to say. Caught in an unending cash crisis, she could not rest. And without rest the delicate instrument that was her voice, suffered. She could still summon the old magic, the phoenix would still rise, but the ashes weighed her down.  Audiences remained faithful, but even their patience could be tested. She returned to The Palace in 1967.  Vocally iffy, the ineffable theatrical charisma remained.  Two more incredibly inappropriate husbands accompanied her tumult during this era.

It all ended in London, shortly after her 47th birthday, and after a series of controversial appearances at the Talk of the Town nightclub.  An “incautious overdose,” the coroner declared.  Judy had literally taken one pill too many.  

Her death generated sensational headlines and thousands passed by her open casket at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Chapel in New York.

What really killed Judy—what was the heart of her unraveling?  It wasn’t, I feel, the machinations of her maligned mother, or the loss of her adored father (who died too early to disappoint her). Nor was it the hierarchy of MGM, who treated her like a product—which of course she was. And it was not the men who “used” her, either. Because she used them too—that’s life.

Nope, Judy Garland was just…too damn talented.  When you have that much to give and people expect so much, is normal living even in the cards? 

And did she want normalcy?  Can you want something you’ve almost literally never experienced or been? She lived and worked always one step from the abyss.  She complained (and laughed a lot at her own complaints) but never took concrete steps to make life easier. The maelstrom was all she knew. Chaos was part and parcel of her art.  It gave her that edge. It made people scream and cry and rush the stage. (Tellingly, she herself once remarked with a rueful laugh, “Who wants a happy Judy Garland?”)

Hollywood and fame were her Oz.  She could never reconcile her ambivalence. Did she want in or out? Could she get out even if she wanted to?  That she gave her genius every step of the way is the only “real” and uncontested fact of her life.

Once, after a particularly good concert, Judy, swamped by admirers, broke away from the crowd and locked herself in her bedroom. Later, one of her staff asked what was the matter?  Frantically hyped up by the adulation, inured to the inevitable letdown, she said, “What more do they want? I just couldn’t say ‘thank you’ one more time!”

It was her audiences that should have said ‘thank you.” Sometimes they did, and always they screamed, “We love you, Judy!”  But it was not enough. Nothing was ever enough for Judy Garland.

Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 A Star Is Born. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

James Mason, as Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” tells Judy/Esther/ Vicki “You have that little something extra that makes a star.”

The real-life Judy had a lot of something extra. Her legacy—that passionate commitment  to give every ounce she had—is even more impressive today, in this era of auto-tuned vocal fakery and hollow stretching-for-those-big-notes. Not to mention the tense, ironic vulnerability of her acting. 

Judy traveled too close to the sun.  She burned and withered and turned to dust.  But unlike the stars of the universe—or the transient rainbow—she could not die. The indestructible power of her voice is eternal.

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