Friday 23 August 2019

The tragic story of how Judy Garland was spat out by a vicious Hollywood studio system

A new film starring Renée Zellweger charts Judy Garland's difficult last years

Studio property: when Garland became pregnant, MGM persuaded her to have an abortion
Studio property: when Garland became pregnant, MGM persuaded her to have an abortion
A star is reborn: Renée Zellweger in 'Judy'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Renée Zellweger is making a comeback. A huge star in the 2000s, the Texan actress was shunted unceremoniously into the sidings once she hit 40, and has recently been criticised for altering her appearance. But on her day, Renée's still as good an actor as anyone. She's been widely praised for her portrayal of an unhinged femme fatale in Netflix's rather odd thriller series What/If, and later this year she'll take on a more daunting challenge in Judy.

Directed by Rupert Goold, the film is based on a play by Peter Quilter and set in 1968, as a troubled Judy Garland arrived in London for a series of concerts that would prove to be her last. Zellweger actually looks quite like Garland in the publicity stills I've seen, though not perhaps as gaunt and exhausted as the real Judy, a Hollywood victim if ever there was one.

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Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli has been quick to distance herself from the production, but must be used to this kind of stuff, because although her mother's been dead for 50 years, interest in her has never waned. Her most famous film, The Wizard of Oz, is shown constantly, she's been the subject of numerous other stage shows and biopics, and in the 1980s became a gay icon, and a kind of secular saint.

Indeed her life story almost reads like the trials of a Christian martyr, so packed is it with injustice and misfortune. But things started brightly enough for Frances Gumm, who was born into a family of vaudevillians and took to showbiz like a duck to water.

She made her stage debut at two and began touring as a vaudeville singing act with her sisters when she was six. In 1934, the group changed their name to the more attractive sounding Garland Sisters, and Frances began calling herself Judy. After no less a scout than Busby Berkeley had been sent to catch the sisters' act, Judy was called to MGM for a personal audition with Louis B Mayer.

Her singing voice was so pure and rich that Mayer signed her on the spot without a screen test, but that doesn't mean he didn't care how she looked.

Her first feature film was a musical comedy about a college American football team called Pigskin Parade. MGM's producers weren't happy with the result, and told Judy she looked like a "fat little pig with pigtails" on the screen. She was too tubby, they decided, and put her on a brutal diet.

The studio's monitoring of her intake was so extreme that sometimes a plate of food would be whipped away just as she was about to eat it. As a result, she was permanently hungry: a dysfunctional cycle of starving and bingeing was already under way. They capped her teeth and made her wear rubber discs that changed the shape of her nose, and studio managers exchanged memos about her yo-yoing weight.

Somehow, Garland ploughed on, and in 1939 was cast as Dorothy in a big-budget musical version of L Frank Baum's fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz. She was outstanding in a hugely demanding role, and sung songs like 'Over the Rainbow' with incredible feeling and depth.

It was around this time that the studio began feeding Garland amphetamines to help her cope with exhausting shooting schedules. She would later complain that MGM had stolen her youth, and she received little or no protection from her pushy mother.

Garland was 17 when she filmed The Wizard of Oz, and a year later began the difficult transition to adult stardom. She also embarked on what would be a spectacularly tragic love life. In 1939, she fell in love with legendary bandleader Artie Shaw, and was crushed when he eloped with studio rival Lana Turner.

At 18, she got engaged to another musician, David Rose, and after they were married, Rose was shocked by how little Judy was allowed to eat. Louis Mayer insisted she live on black coffee, chicken soup and lots of appetite-supressing cigarettes. This rank concoction kept Garland's weight at seven stone, but caused untold damage to her health.

To MGM, Judy was property, nothing more, and when she got pregnant, the studio persuaded her to have an abortion. She divorced Rose in 1944, the same year she achieved top billing for the first time opposite Gene Kelly in the hit musical For Me and My Gal.

She was at her very best in Meet Me in St Louis, a classic musical family saga that's since become an enduring Christmas favourite. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, and he and Garland fell in love. They married in 1945, and their daughter Liza Minnelli was born in 1946.

Minnelli was good for her, but their marriage soon became turbulent, mainly because of Garland's insecurities. In 1947, when they were filming the musical adventure The Pirate together, Garland had a nervous breakdown and was put in a sanitarium.

Ever the trouper, she returned to finish the film, but then attempted suicide.

She recovered, and in 1948 returned to the MGM lot to make one of her best-loved pictures, Easter Parade, with Fred Astaire. Her performance was perfect, but soon after she began drinking heavily.

In 1949, she was suspended by MGM after failing to show up for work on The Barkleys of Broadway, and in 1950 she left MGM for good.

There was more self-harm, drink, drugs, bad relationships, but Garland had remarkable tenacity. In 1951, she began what was supposed to be a two-day engagement at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Her vaudeville show ran for 19 weeks, and won her a Tony Award.

And in 1954 she made a spectacular film comeback for Warner Brothers in A Star is Born, a moving remake of the 1937 melodrama. Garland was astonishing as Esther Blodgett, a young singer who falls in love with a fading movie idol (James Mason) and refuses to give up on him. But the movie didn't make any money, and her film career never quite recovered in the way it should have.

Instead, Garland became a kind of torch singer in the mould of Édith Piaf, and sold out theatres across America and Europe through the 1950s and 1960s.

In March of 1969 she married her fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans, in London, but just three months later she was found dead in the bathroom of her Chelsea home. The cause of her death was most likely an accidental drug overdose, but her health had been failing for years, and as her Wizard of Oz co-star Bert Lahr movingly put it, "she just plain wore out". She was 47 years old.

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