It’s a Friday evening and my mother and I settle into her little den in Leisure Village to watch a DVD from PBS’ The Judy Garland Collection. We pluck ‘Live at the London Palladium’ from the boxed set and about 10 minutes into it, I look at Mom and say, “That’s it. That’s what was missing.”
Just two hours earlier we had been sitting in a movie theater watching JUDY, the film starring Renee Zellweger as Garland. It was sad with very little relief from … well, the sad.
Now here we are, both in our recliners, feet moving as Judy enchants an audience with the full weight of an orchestra behind her. Her mastery is on full display — knowing how to treat a song, how to draw you in, instinctive about when to go full throttle, bringing you with her on an emotional journey.
“Yes,” Mom says. “We never saw her greatness in the movie.”
It is because of my mother that I’m a Garland fan, so I was delighted to go see the movie with her. As I sat in the theater next to her, I could feel how much she wasn’t enjoying it. She tends toward the Pollyanna in her movie choices, a sucker for a happy ending. And while we knew this one wouldn’t end in a feel-good way, I think we both expected to see some flashes of show-stopping Judy.
Over the years when we’ve watched ‘The Concert Years’ from that boxed set, I have gotten a kick out of seeing my mother move to the music, extend her arms to mimic Garland, and exclaim, “Walk it, Judy” as the singer does her signature leg movements when she builds to a crescendo. That is what I was hoping for, at least a little bit, when we saw JUDY.
Instead we saw pills, booze, more pills, more booze. We had our hearts broken over and over again, willing her not to give in to those urges but knowing she would. I kept thinking of seeing Lady Day on Broadway a few years ago and having a similar experience; Audra McDonald was brilliant as Billie Holiday near the end of her life but it was painful to watch.
Ditto Renee Zellweger as Judy. My prickly experience of this movie was not a reflection of her moving performance, but more of the choices made on what to show and what not to show in Garland’s life.
I absolutely loved the film’s juxtaposition of her years as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to her last series of shows in London. We saw a despicable Louis B. Mayer feeding her pills to stay up and pills to come down and clearly saw the reality that 18-hour days and emotionally abusive treatment created throughout her life — major sleep issues, anxiety, neediness, addiction.
All of that was necessary and it was artfully done. I was livid and misty as Mayer lashed out at young Judy, especially in this age of #MeToo and overall awareness of body image. No one wants to see a fat Dorothy, Judy was told while staring at the Sweet 16 birthday cake she was forbidden to eat. Bastard, I kept saying under my breath. What a bastard.
Imagine it. A powerful man telling you you’re not one of the pretty girls, but you do have a great voice and that’s what distinguishes you. Don’t touch the cheeseburger, but hey, here’s a pill that’ll cure what ails you. How do you overcome that and go on to do successful movies, concerts and TV shows? It gave me a start when I saw Garland’s Wikipedia page note that she’d had a 45-year career. Why that reaction? She died at age 47. Do the math. She began working at age two.
Maybe the filmmakers succeeded in their mission with those of us who came out of the theater feeling like we’d been under water trying to breathe for two hours. Perhaps that was the idea, to push us out of the comfortable artist-overcomes-adversity-to-shine bullshit we’re often fed.
Here you go, people. See what can happen to those who have bright lights on them, those you idolize and onto whom you project your idealized fantasies. This is their truth. You see a girl with sparkly red shoes, but not the one functioning on little to no sleep or solid food.
I saw Zellweger gleefully talking about the movie in an interview and how it celebrated Garland and would introduce more people to her work. To that I say, no, this was no celebration. It was cold, hard reality.
All I know is I still feel taunted by the name of the movie, JUDY, marquee-style in red glitter letters. I think it should have been titled Tragic Judy, for it showed little of the triumph in being Judy Garland.
This column originally appeared on the writer’s blog, UnfetteredExpression.com.