Thursday, March 12, 2015

Judy D. Takes On Judy G.

Playing an iconic star in a musical biopic is a risk for any actor, but a few have risen to the challenge and triumphed: Sissy Spacek (Loretta Lynn), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner), Jamie Fox (Ray Charles), Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (Johnny and June Carter Cash) come to mind. Other talented performers have crashed and burned: Julie Andrews (Gertrude Lawrence), Val Kilmer (Jim Morrison) and Kevin Spacey (Bobby Darin) are among the genre’s valiant victims.

In 2001, it was announced that a TV version of Lorna Luft’s memoir Me and My Shadows would be produced as a two-night miniseries on ABC. I wasn’t expecting much, but I ended up loving it for the most part. The brilliant Australian actress Judy Davis had achieved what I thought no other actor would been able to attempt, capturing the essence of a superstar with more talent and more neuroses than any other in recent memory. 

Unlike fellow icons Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, who have been the subjects of numerous biopics, TV movies and miniseries, there have actually been very few occasions that an actor has attempted to play the role of Judy Garland on film or television.

Since early childhood, I have been a Garland super-fan (obviously anecdotal evidence of the so-called gay gene).  At the tender age of 5 or 6, I was old enough to stay up past my bedtime to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV with my family. As the camera lingered on a long, loving Technicolor close-up of Dorothy murmuring, “There’s no place like home,” I sighed. “I love her; she is so beautiful.”

“She’s dead,” my father said flatly. “She died of a drug overdose.” I gasped in horror and disbelief. But he wasn’t kidding. 

Garland in the 1960s

My mother had met her, actually been in the great lady’s presence, as a production assistant on the Ed Sullivan Show in the mid-1960s. “That poor thing,” she remembered. “We had to babysit her all afternoon, to make sure she didn’t get too drunk to do the show.”  Poor Dorothy! That girl in the blue gingham dress a drunk, a drug addict, and now...gone? It didn’t seem possible. 

Thus began my fascination with Judy Garland. I set out to find out everything about her, and in the process I became somewhat of a Garland scholar. Though I didn’t get to see most of her movies until the VHS/Blockbuster boom of the 1980s, I never missed Oz, Easter Parade and Meet Me in St. Louis on TV every year. A local library was showing (the truncated version of) A Star is Born,  and I dragged my mother there to see it. And I read every book I could get my hands on, including Judy by Gerold Frank, The MGM Story and best of all, Rainbow: The Stormy Life of Judy Garland by Christopher Finch.

In 1978, I was very excited to hear that Andrea McArdle, fresh from her Broadway triumph in the title role of Annie, had been cast in the role of young Frances Gumm in a TV adaptation of Rainbow (the first half of the Finch book). Like Judy, Andrea was a little girl with a big, big voice. Though the movie was quite faithful to the book in taking us through Garland’s nomadic childhood and relationship with her high-strung stage mother Ethel (well-played by Piper Laurie) and beloved gay father Frank (Don Murray), only one aspect jarred me, an important one. I didn’t buy McArdle in the role; her Frances had none of the humor, vulnerability and pathos that made Garland a star. In fact, her characterization seemed rather blank and colorless. I did enjoy her strong vocal renditions of songs like “Dinah” and “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief and accept Andrea as Judy. 

As an actress, Andrea was a great singer
Neither did the critics, apparently, or the viewers. Plans for a follow-up TV-movie covering of the second half of Finch’s Rainbow book, picking up in the 1940s with Stockard Channing as the grown-up Garland, were promptly shelved. (I would have loved to see what Miss Channing, after her star-making turn as Rizzo in the film version of Grease, could have done with the role.)

Stockard Channing might have been great as Judy
In 2001, Australian actress Judy Davis was given the role of a lifetime, the one that she considered her most challenging. Davis is a consummate character actor, known for her chameleon-like transformations in roles as varied as a proper Englishwoman in A Passage to India, criminal sociopath Sante Kimes in A Little Thing Called Murder, a few of Woody Allen’s most memorably neurotic women in several of the auteur’s films, and as a famously icy First Lady in The Reagans

The gifted and charismatic Judy Davis
In Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Davis expertly captures all the various facets of the Garland personality and legend—movie star, stage icon, dragon lady, victim, drug addict, doting mother, gamine—with fierce energy and bona fide charisma. Perhaps Davis is just a shade tougher than the troubled lady she’s portraying (if the real Judy had been this iron-willed, she might not have faded away so soon), but she skillfully captures the famous gestures, vocal rhythms and inflections, and especially her fabled humor, in an always compelling and entertaining manner. And in the later sequences, the physical resemblance to the mature Judy is striking. A bit mechanical in the painstakingly recreated musical numbers in which she lip-syncs to the superstar’s real recordings (drag-queen style!), the actress nevertheless dominates the proceedings with utter assurance. For her performance, Davis won both the Golden Globe and Emmy Award as Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. 

Davis emotes for "Over the Rainbow" 

Pantomiming "Get Happy"

Judy as Judy at the Palace with Lorna (Allison Pill) and Joey (Alex House)
Davis gives a tour de force performance as the mature Garland, but Tammy Blanchard (most recently one of the wicked stepsisters in Into The Woods) is equally effective as young Frances, especially during her climactic nervous breakdown scene with taskmaster Busby Berkeley (during the filming of the “I Got Rhythm” number from Girl Crazy). Blanchard does a masterful job of carrying Part 1 of the story, capturing the wistful vulnerability of child star Garland, and she received an Emmy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal.

Tammy Blanchard as Judy as Dorothy
Other notable performances: Marsha Mason, a wonderful actress who has made few appearances since her heyday in the late 1970s (The Goodbye Girl, Only When I Laugh), is effective as stage mama Ethel, and versatile Victor Garber (Titanic) is a standout as third husband Sid Luft.

Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows pulls out all the stops as the ultimate Garland film biography. As a result, it is less faithful to Lorna Luft’s memoir than the title leads us to believe--poor Lorna, in fact, is reduced to a minor supporting character in her own story. But it’s a top-notch biopic nevertheless, with an unforgettable star turn by Judy Davis. 

I’ve heard Anne Hathaway has been approached to play Judy in a new big-screen adaptation of the legendary star’s life and loves to be directed by Rob Marshall. Daughter Liza says she thinks Anne will be wonderful in the role. I reserve judgment! (And maybe, it will never even happen...fingers crossed.)