Judy Garland’s final feature film I Could Go On Singing (1963) provides a birds-eye view of what real life with the singing legend might have been like. Though her character’s name is Jenny Bowman, and the fictional plot involves a child she gave up for adoption, Judy reveals a great deal about herself in this fascinating backstage drama, produced in England and directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure).
Judy’s Jenny is charming, witty and charismatic; she’s also needy, manipulative and vindictive. She drinks too much and sleeps too late. Onstage, she’s a powerhouse of entertainment, holding her London Palladium audiences in the palm of her trembling hand. Offstage, her life seems empty and hollow, until her long-lost son comes into her life.
The backstage glimpses are evocative. We see how Judy would rev herself up for each performance, standing in the wings and stamping her feet to Mort Lindsey’s overture, gathering the energy to face the sold-out crowd. Her interplay with manager Jack Klugman is reminiscent of her relationship with her real-life manager and ex-husband Sid Luft. The way she practically smothers her newfound son (Gregory Phillips) with affection and gifts reminds us of her fierce love for Liza, Lorna and Joey.
The most revealing scene comes near the end of the picture, which finds Jenny/Judy in an emergency room with a sprained ankle after an alcoholic bender. Her former lover and father of her child, Dirk Bogarde, has come to take her to the theater where thousands of fans await her. “They’re waiting? I don’t care if they’re fasting,” she says. “I can’t be spread so thin. I’m rolled out like a pastry, for everyone to take a nice big bite of me...” The realism and emotion of the scene, dialogue all ad-libbed on the spot by Garland and Bogarde, is chilling.
Of course, we’re also treated to a wonderful array of songs, including “By Myself,” “It Never Was You,” and the rousing title tune, performed with all the Garland magic and energy. Now over 40, she was no longer Dorothy, but could still mesmerize and delight with her awesome talent.