The dark side of the Rainbow: A look back on the legacy of one of Hollywood's most talented stars, Judy Garland
As a new film celebrates the life of Judy Garland, Julia Molony looks back on the legacy of one of the most talented stars of Hollywood
June 1968. In the midst of a legal storm, a 46-year-old Judy Garland has just arrived in London to launch Talk of the Town, her stage show that was scheduled to run for five weeks in the West End.
Waiting to greet her at Heathrow was a private detective bearing a High Court writ, from a group of American businessmen who claimed that Garland was under contract to them, and currently in breach.
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It was a fittingly high-profile start to her last big tour. The spectacle she took to London was as much about Garland's public drama as it was about her performances.
Her attendance on-stage was patchy - some shows were cancelled as she battled with her ongoing addiction to booze and pills. But for those ticket holders lucky enough to catch the unstable star in full flight, it was, by all accounts, a quasi-religious experience. "She doesn't really give a concert - she conducts a seance," wrote The Observer critic Tony Palmer at the time. "She evokes pity and sorrow like no other superstar. "Audiences," she says, "have kept me alive."
They also feed on her agonised and well-publicised past: her teenage stardom, her tantrums, her alcohol-sodden voice with its frequent crack-ups, her innumerable broken contracts and her four busted marriages each to increasingly younger men, her suicide attempts and her aches and pains. "The audience knows that life has beaten her up but not destroyed her," Palmer said.
It hadn't yet destroyed her. But a reckoning was coming.
Six months later, Garland would wed her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, in a registry office in Chelsea. Within the year, he would be the one to discover her body, on the floor of their bathroom in Belgravia, following an overdose of barbiturates.
It's this swansong period of Garland's complicated life that is the subject of Judy, a new film starring Renee Zellweger. Even director, Rupert Goold, has admitted that initially, the blonde best known as Bridget Jones, wasn't the most obvious choice to play Garland. But after a series of rehearsal-interviews, she won his confidence, mainly because of her "spiky intelligence", he told The New York Times. "When you watch that old Garland footage from talk-show interviews - she's brilliant. Just when you think she's maybe spiralling away, she snaps back - really crisp and laser-like," said Goold, the British theatre director at the helm of the project. And just as well. As initial reviews start to surface, word is that Zellweger gives a performance which, by several accounts, would have made Garland herself proud. "There was such a palpable sense of loneliness with Judy, that sense that she gave more to life than it gave back to her, of being drained and world-weary - which is not, in my observation, something Renee has naturally," Zellweger's co-star Finn Wittrock has observed. "I don't know what her secret was, but it was like she was heavier than she is in real life, carrying a kind of grief around with her. And the way Renee played Judy, the grief doesn't come out as self-defeating; it comes out through comedy - but all her zingers are from a deep sense of sadness."
Sadness has always been an essential part of the Garland myth. From her earliest days, forced onto the stage by an overly-ambitious mother, her life a parade of troubled and broken relationships, she was victimised but never a victim. The star who, amidst a tidal wave of adulation, remained profoundly isolated.
With a career that soared and crashed and soared again many times over, Garland who starred in 34 movies, was, by her own description, the queen of the comeback. So it's fitting that for Zellweger herself, this too is a comeback role. She's spent six years out of the industry. A long sabbatical at the end of a difficult phase where she'd become a tabloid casualty, subjected to endless scrutiny over her love life and her apparent plastic surgery. Perhaps, Renee channels some fellow feeling into the rendition of Garland's loneliness.
Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm, in 1922 into a theatrical family. Her father, Frank Gumm, ran movie theatres and was reasonably successful at it. Garland's mother, Ethel, was ambitious for her daughters. She pushed them onto the stage young as vaudeville act The Gumm Sisters in the 1930s, when Judy was not yet three years of age. There was little love lost between Garland and her mother, who she once dubbed, "the real wicked witch of the west".
"She was very jealous, because she had absolutely no talent," she told Barbara Walters during an interview in 1967. "She would stand in the wings… and if I didn't feel good… she'd say, 'You get out and sing or I'll wrap you around the bedpost and break you off short!' So I'd go out and sing." Garland was closer to her father. But he, too, had his demons. Frank Gumm was gay but, because of the customs of the time, condemned to live a closeted life in an unhappy marriage. Rumours of his extra-marital indiscretions, and attempts to seduce the ushers at the theatre, dogged the family. They moved often, apparently abandoning jobs and homes when the threat of scandal came too near.
Despite being surrounded by applause, Judy was by her own account, "always lonesome. The only time I felt accepted, or wanted, was when I was on stage performing. I guess the stage was my only friend... It was the only place where I felt equal and safe."
Always the stand-out talent amongst her sisters, Judy was just 13 when her father took her to meet the executives in MGM studios, who signed her on the spot. She was promptly packed off to studio boot-camp - where fellow alumni were Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner.
Though her talent was beyond argument, she wasn't seen as a femme fatal or a sex symbol. Despite her superior voice, she would always feel physically inadequate, keeping company among the great beauties of the day. The director, Charles Waters, who worked with Judy several times, said: "Judy was the big moneymaker at the time - a big success, but she was the ugly duckling... I think it had a damaging effect on her for a long time. I think it lasted forever really."
Before long, she'd been cast opposite Mickey Rooney in a series of comedy musicals.
"They had us working days and nights on end," Judy said of those early days. "They'd give us pills to keep us on our feet, long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills - Mickey (Rooney) sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then, after four hours, they'd wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us."
But things were about to get even more gruelling. In 1939, she was cast to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the breakthrough role that would launch her career and cement her status forever as an icon of Hollywood. But the realities of making the film pushed the fragile ingenue to her limits. The film's producers became fixated with her weight. Her diet was meticulously controlled. She was reportedly told by one studio executive, "you look like a hunchback. We love you, but you're so fat you look like a monster."
Aged 16, during filming, she was caught between girlhood and adulthood, on one hand the film's producers were lamenting her blooming womanhood, which they felt didn't fit with the role and insisting she strap down her breasts, on the other hand she was, according to third husband Sidney Luft, tormented by the actors playing the munchkins, who "would make Judy's life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress. The men were 40, or more, years old."
In 1941, when the actress was just 20 years of age, she got married for the first time, to film composer David Rose, who was 12 years her senior. Garland's mother, and her bosses at MGM, were vehemently opposed to the marriage, but Judy went ahead anyway, running off to Las Vegas to get married. Her mother's will would prevail however, when she got pregnant soon after. One Garland biographer, Gerald Clarke, has claimed that Judy was very keen to start a family, but was eventually persuaded to have an abortion on the insistence of her mother and her husband. The pair were divorced within three years of their wedding.
She did eventually fulfil her dream of motherhood with her second husband, Vincent Minnelli, with whom Garland had a daughter, Liza in 1946. Unfortunately, the six years of their marriage marked the period in which Garland began to unravel.
Professionally, her relationship with MGM was turning sour. Her reputation as troublesome and erratic on set was cemented at the end of the 1940s, during filming of The Barkleys of Broadway. She missed days of filming, delaying the production. She asked for time off to recover her strength and was promptly dropped from the movie - Ginger Rodgers was called to take on the role in her stead. She was fired off her two next pictures; Annie Get Your Gun and Royal Wedding. In 1950, the studio cancelled her contract.
Her release could have secured her freedom, but the chains of addiction that kept Garland truly captive had been set down in early childhood, and were much more difficult to shake off.
Her problems with pills ruled her life, and explained in large part why Garland's life as an adult was beset by extremes. A constant cycling between success and failure, elation and despair. And the despair, when it struck, was devastating. There were several suicide attempts. She'd suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her first child, Liza Minnelli, and yet, during that time, made five movies back to back. Burned out and unstable, she walked off an MGM set during filming and they promptly suspended her. She was diagnosed as having had a nervous breakdown and spent eight months in hospital. With her marriage crumbling, she was soon contemplating suicide again. 'I felt humiliated and unwanted'," she later said. "All my new-found hope evaporated, and all I could see ahead was more confusion. I wanted to black out the future, as well as the past. I didn't want to live anymore. I wanted to hurt myself and others.
"Yet even while I stood there in the bathroom with a shattered glass in my hand, and Vincent and my secretary, Tully, were pounding on the door, I knew I couldn't solve anything by running away - and that's what killing yourself is.
She was, by this time, heavily dependent on drugs. Her next husband, Sidney Luft, realised this fact pretty quickly after they got together. "I wasn't thinking of Judy as a clinically ill person, or this is an addict. I was worried something awful had happened to the delightful, brilliant woman I loved," he later wrote.
Luft laid the blame for his wife's drug problem squarely on the studios who had pushed medication on her as a slimming aid when she was an adolescent. "Judy had been determined to look like a 'movie star' - she wanted to be camera slim. It was that old bugaboo. I reiterated there was no need to be any thinner... Her excuse was the weight issue, when in fact she was dependent... she confessed it was virtually impossible for her to sustain a work mode in front of the cameras without taking some kind of medication." This, he said, was a consequence of what "M-G-M had blatantly and inhumanely jammed down her throat".
However, according to Judy's biographer Gerald Clarke, the star herself told a different story, declaring that her relationship with drugs began much earlier in her childhood, when her mother would offer her children pick-me-ups and sleeping pills to help them manage the stress of a life on the stage.
Luft gave an eye-watering account of their marriage in his autobiography, Judy and I: My Life With Judy Garland, which was published posthumously in 2017. According to the book's editor, she adored him, "More than any of her five husbands, [Luft] was the closest to what some might call the love of her life," Randy Schmidt said. "Even though they divorced in 1965, Sid was still the guy she most depended upon for the remaining four years of her life." The marriage produced two children, Lorna and Joey, both of whom eventually followed their mother, and their older sister Liza, into showbiz. But the marriage was turbulent. Luft describes, in vivid detail, her numerous suicide attempts, including one where she slashed her own throat with a razor, but was saved by emergency surgery.
According to her children, she was a devoted mother. "She was so smart and truly funny," Liza Minnelli once told Vanity Fair.. "A lot of people don't understand that. I used to try and explain my mom. I'd say, 'No, she's not tragic. She was really funny.' But they don't want to hear that. My mom knew that. She'd say, 'Listen. Let them think what they want to think. They have their right. We know who we are and that's what counts'."
Like the many people whose accounts of Garland make up her myth, Renee Zellweger, in Judy, can only ever tell part of the story. And as for Judy's own version of the story, that is forever lost to us. She had started writing a biography sometime before her death, but the project was never completed. She gave up trying to explain herself, she once said. "When you have lived the life I've lived, when you've loved and suffered, and been madly happy and desperately sad, well, that's when you realise you'll never be able to set it all down. Maybe you'd rather die first."
'Judy' is released on October 4
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