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Sat 14 December 2019
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Chris Sullivan reviews the new Judy Garland biopic and considers how the star became a victim of her own fame.


The recently released movie Judy shows Judy Garland as one of the long list of celebrity ‘victims’ who suffered from fame. 

Many people mistreated her during her life, from her mother, the studio that ‘owned’ her, and its boss, Louis B. Mayer, who starved and drugged her. It left her with psychological scars as well drink and drug addictions.

The film doesn’t cover her whole life but concentrates on the late 1960s when Garland performed at London’s The Talk of The Town. Even though, by then, Garland’s voice did not have the power it once did when she sang such great classics as ‘The Man That Got Away’ or ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, its pathos and dramatic intensity, which mirrored her tragic life, could still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.  

“Garland audiences don’t listen, they feel,” Tony Palmer wrote, quoting Spencer Tracey, in his review of her first performance at The Talk of the Town. “They also fear, and in some cases hope, that they are about to witness a nervous breakdown, which is one of the insistent qualities of this 47-year-old disaster-prone star,” he continued. “She doesn’t really give a concert – she conducts a seance. She evokes pity and sorrow like no other superstar.”

As Garland herself once said: “Everybody has their trouble, and I’ve had mine. I just want what everybody wants. I just seem to have a harder time getting it.”

Garland, aka Frances Ethel Gumbaummade, made her first stage appearance at her father’s movie theatre singing a traditional Jewish song ‘Shalomaleichem’. She was aged two-and-a-half.  “Beybi Yutz”, as she was called by her family, did not enjoy a conventional childhood, and was relentlessly dragged from stage to stage by her notoriously pushy stage mother, Ethel Gumm, a former vaudeville performer. Then, when she was 13, she signed to MGM. 

Here, the misery really began.  


The Silver Scream

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer harassed her for sex even though he nicknamed her “my little hunchback”. He assigned her a female minder who fed her with amphetamines to work, barbiturates to sleep, pushed her to rehearse constantly, and allowed her a diet of nothing but Mayer’s chicken soup.

When asked by an interviewer in the film what effect eating all that chicken soup had on her, Garland replies: “Apart from decimating the chicken population of Hollywood?”

Throughout the movie, Garland, played admirably by Renee Zellweger, clashes with her management, opens up to adoring fans – such as the hilarious gay couple Stan and Dan, beautifully played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira – and enchants her backing band, all while her most difficult past is shown in flashback.

She is made to celebrate her sixteenth birthday two months early because her real birthday didn’t fit in with her schedule. Even then, she was not allowed to eat her own birthday cake while the guests were busy posing for the newsreels.

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The film could have made a lot more of the intense scrutiny and abuse Garland suffered at the hands of the British tabloid press. Perhaps its lack is because, even now, film companies and distributors are wary of going against the press.

The film ignores the tabloid frenzy after her notorious Talk of The Town show, when she came on drunk and stoned, fell over on stage, then lambasted a cruel heckler with a barrage of four-letter words. The tabloids made much of her suicide attempts, addiction to uppers and downers, alcoholism, bankruptcy, and a string of heartbreaking marriages and mental health issues.

 “If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?” she once said rather tearfully.


An Early Tabloid Target

Garland was an early example of the poisonous power of the British press to crush great talent.

More recently, George Michael was so destroyed by tabloid intrusion – which included phone tapping and reporters camped outside his home day and night – that he was quite literally too scared to leave his home. He became a total recluse and died far too young. 

Perhaps the greatest and saddest comparison is with Whitney Houston. Whilst Judy Garland died of a barbiturate overdose aged 49 just a few months after completing her London engagement, Houston died in her bath after a cocktail of drugs and drink aged 48. Like Garland, Houston was pushed relentlessly from a young age by her stage mother Cissy. She was worked ceaselessly until she dropped and was addicted to all sorts of drugs and was crucified by the tabloids. 

“Money doesn’t make you happy… fame certainly does not,” she observed poignantly. Houston was also hounded until she broke.

“It was the media who crucified and tortured her a little at a time for the sake of sales,” stressed Houston’s long-time bodyguard David Roberts when I interviewed him a few years ago. “The price of fame in the entertainment industry, in general, and the music industry, in particular, is too high a price to pay.” 

I could go on and add Amy Winehouse, Prince and many others to this list of great talents who were hounded by the tabloids until their death as they continually looked for more scoops and more sales and more salacious gossip to print. In every case, it is indefensible.

 Judy is in cinemas now.

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