After-Death Experience

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Judy Garland appeared in 40 movies, earned a Juvenile Academy Award, two additional Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe, a Special Tony Award, and was the first woman to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. She was the youngest entertainer and first woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the film industry — when she was just 39 years old. She was such a professional that, during her heyday, she could deliver dialogue, lyrics, and choreography in just one take. She starred regularly opposite Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and, of course, Mickey Rooney. She is remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century; in fact, the American Film Institute lists her eighth among the greatest female stars of the Golden Age of cinema. Camille Paglia wrote in 1998 that Garland “makes our current crop of pop stars look lightweight and evanescent.” James Mason, her costar in A Star is Born, said in his eulogy at her funeral, “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.”

None of this illustrious career appears in Judy, the new film based loosely on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow” and even more loosely on Garland’s life. Just as the producers of Iron Lady chose to focus on the sad end of Margaret Thatcher’s life after dementia had set in, director Rupert Goold focuses on the humiliating end of Garland’s career. Moreover, Judy takes more liberties than a drunken sailor in playing fast and loose with the facts. Events are combined and reordered, characters are condensed or eliminated, and her final husband, Michael Deans (Finn Wittrock), leaves her several months before her death, when in fact they had been married only three months when she died, and he was the one who found her that day.

James Mason, her costar in A Star is Born, said in his eulogy at her funeral, “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.”

The result is more an artistic impression of Garland than a documentary of the end of her life. It’s far from accurate, and far from complete. Liza Minnelli posted on her Facebook page that she has never met Renee Zellweger, who plays Garland, and that she did not sanction the film.

Nevertheless, it is a terrific movie that finds its theme and its purpose in the end, and Zellweger is surprisingly good in the role, from her sideswept haircut to her sideways smile to her fragile insecurities. Occasionally she even achieves that searching depth of Garland’s luminous brown eyes. And her voice is good — not Garland good, but good enough that I searched the credits to see who had dubbed her voice. (Zellweger actually did her own singing, after a year of training.)

The picture opens with Garland hawking her young children Lorna and Joe Luft onstage, much as her own mother had hawked her as a child actress. She is penniless, homeless (thanks to the IRS), fragile, and humiliated. Desperate to earn enough money to buy a home where she can maintain custody of her children, she accepts a contract to perform in London, where her insecurity about her voice often leads to disaster. Slugging down pills with booze, she staggers to the microphone, performs (sometimes well, sometimes not so well), and staggers back off. As she pops pills or eschews food or experiences insecurity, the scene flashes back to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) filming The Wizard of Oz, with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) browbeating her and groping her, and with her mother Ethel Gumm (Natasha Powell) urging her to swallow amphetamines “to take the edge off” her appetite, followed by barbiturates to help her sleep. And Judy complies, because that’s her job. We get it: once she became Judy Garland, little Frances Gumm never had a chance at happiness. According to the movie, the booze and pills were not her fault.

What they do next is a hint of the life that Judy will later have, living on as an icon of gay culture.

Jessie Buckley is terrific as Rosalyn Wilder, the stoic, inventive, and eventually sympathetic young theater publicist assigned to make sure Judy is happy, sober, dressed, and ready for each performance. Rufus Sewell is heartless but pragmatic as ex-husband Syd Luft, bent on providing a stable home for their children, even if it means breaking Judy’s heart and spirit. And while Zellweger doesn’t quite channel Garland (as though anyone could) she delivers a fine performance that could well garner an Oscar nod come January. Kudos as well to the set and costume designers for providing well-coordinated splashes of color throughout the film, a deliberate reminder perhaps that Garland was known as the queen of Technicolor (or perhaps just a happy serendipity).

Garland died of an overdose in 1969, unaware of the remarkable life after death that awaited her. Despite the sadness and tragedy of her final years, the film ends on a hopeful, almost joyful note, hinting at her rebirth. Two fans befriend her at the stage door one night and invite her to their flat for supper. They’re gay, and one of them has spent six months in jail for it. Little is spoken, but Judy expresses her empathy and support with gesture and song as they sing together at the piano. It is very intimate, and very touching. The two men are in the audience again at her final concert when her voice falters while she sings “Rainbow.” What they do next is a hint of the life that she will later have, living on as an icon of gay culture. The unity is simply astonishing, and brought many in the movie audience to tears. If establishing this future connection was Goold’s intent in making the movie, he succeeded admirably.

On a recent cruise I joined the nightly standing-room throng to hear Perry, the ship’s wonderfully irrepressible, sequin-clad piano lounge singer. His between-song patter was delightful and often began with an exaggerated, “Who here doesn’t remember 1947 when Judy . . .” or “Who here doesn’t think Judy should have played the role of . . .” or “Who here doesn’t listen daily to Judy’s double album . . .” etc. If, as Abe says in Simon Stephens and Nick Payne’s “Sea Wall / A Life,” we live until the last person utters our name, Judy will never die.

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