In late 1968, former Hollywood starlet Judy Garland came to London for a five-week residency at the Talk of the Town venue on the West End.
Fighting for her family and her career on “what seems like her 93rd comeback”, as the Observer wrote at the time, it would be the beginning of the end for the performer who, on June 22, 1969, was found dead in the bathroom of her rented house in Belgravia; she was 47 years old.
Judy, a new film starring Renée Zellweger in the title role, reenacts the final leg of her life as she comes to London in a desperate attempt to win custody of her two youngest children Lorna and Joey. Despite the grim finality of the story, the film manages to be strangely uplifting mainly thanks to a powerhouse performance from the Bridget Jones star, who’s being widely tipped to win another Oscar for the role.
Groomed for stardom from an early age (Judy claims she made her singing debut aged 2), Garland – born Frances Ethel Gumm – sacrificed her life for a Hollywood career, and Zellweger says the film shows her wrestling back control of her life after years of being told what to do, what to wear, what to eat, and who to date.
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“It’s one thing to be gifted and to be beautiful and to be able to have a wonderful life performing, being adored,” explains the 50-year-old star, “but it’s quite another thing to be sent down a path, having no agency over the direction of your professional trajectory with no-one having any understanding of the consequences for the choices that they make for you.”
“Looking at it from that perspective, you can see that she’s heroic not tragic.”
Audiences flocked to the London venue to see the Hollywood icon sing hits from her repertoire including ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, ‘Get Happy’, and ‘The Trolley Song’, but years of substance abuse – that began while she was a MGM starlet, and mandated by the studio – had made Garland an unpredictable performer.
Audiences were also drawn to see her with a certain about of morbid curiosity. They would “fear, and in some cases hope, that they are about to witness a nervous breakdown,” notes the Observer’s review.
She was heckled and pelted with bread rolls when her performance faltered, as it regularly did, so did the general public have a part to play in her downfall too?
“I couldn’t speculate, I don’t know,” says Zellweger, who undergoes a physical transformation to play the singer on film.
“But it does seem that, in terms of critics at the time, the emissions of her critics we quite cruel, because they blanketed this chapter in her life as tragic, rather than helping to contextualise the circumstances that she was grappling with. If you look at it through a different lens, there’s room for empathy there.”
Rupert Goold, the film’s director who spoke to audience members who saw Garland perform at the Talk of the Town as research, says a certain contingent of the audience were there as “ambulance chasers”, comparing their fascination with the star with the current tabloid obsession with footballer Paul Gascoigne, who’s also had substance abuse issues in the past.
“People adore [Paul Gascoigne],” says Goold, “but also – in a rather voyeuristic way – they are obsessed with seeing how low he can go as well. I think the unifying thing between Gazza and Judy I think is that there seems to be no filter for them, in their public presentation. They just are. And they’re very vulnerable because of that.”
Rufus Sewell, who plays Garland’s fourth husband Sidney Luft in the film, agrees.
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“What informs Judy Garland, even at her best, is how much is wounded inside her,” he adds.
“We are the beneficiaries of her pain even when she seems to be succeeding, because that’s what makes her... well, it seems to be that what makes her even as a child so spellbinding and magnetic, almost shamanic. So when she sings... there’s something more than just music happening. There seems to be a well of pain, and need, and desire that she taps into that’s unmistakable.”
“That in a sense is ghoulish.”
Judy is in UK cinemas now. Watch a trailer below.