The Story Of...Judy Garland
50 years after her death at the age of 47, Judy Garland remains one of Hollywood’s true icons. She is the legend that transcended the sordid facts of her tragic life – the child star brutally denied a childhood; the destructive behaviours fuelled by a lifelong addiction to prescription medication and, later, alcohol; the stream of husbands and hangers-on that abused her fragile trust.
I went to see Judy, the biopic starring Renée Zellweger based on Peter Quilter’s play, which deals with her up-and-down residency at London’s Talk of the Town club, where she performed ostensibly to earn enough money so that she could finally afford a proper house in which to raise her beloved children, Lorna and Joey.
A series of flashbacks to her early days at MGM set in place the tragedy that she would later inhabit – the cold, abusive Louis B Mayer looms as the studio head who crushed her spirit and sexually molested her.
It’s heartbreaking stuff, because Garland’s whole life was incredibly sad. But the film barely touches on her own addictions and her own self-destructive behaviour, which she was incapable of controlling, despite her own efforts. No mention of how she’d developed a reputation for staying in hotels and never paying the bills; barely a nod to her infamous tantrums and her inability to commit to any kind of schedule, which cost her any chance of recouping a movie career that was extinguished when she was fired by MGM in 1950 and flickered brightly but briefly after her superb performance in 1954’s A Star is Born.
Her own failures notwithstanding, Garland remains a hugely admirable and sympathetic figure. A few years ago I created this radio piece on her life, and my overriding conclusion was that she was, despite everything, a remarkable person: hugely talented, driven and indomitable. She was also needy, fragile and impossible, characteristics made monstrous by the appalling childhood she was forced to endure, first by her fame-hungry mother and then by a studio system that abused her talent and then cast her aside when she could no longer perform as they demanded.
After seeing the film, I re-edited the piece, whose insights are largely based on Gerald Clark’s superb biography of Garland, Get Happy. I hope you enjoy it.