Behind the Camera No 4
Not Just a Famous Voice – A Woman, Wife and Mother too.
About an Iconic Actress Mother written by her Actress Daughter.
ME AND MY SHADOWS: LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND (ABC), meiprod, http://www.youtube.com
In the late 1980s, when I first saw Lorna Luft in Grease 2 (1982), I was unaware of her famous showbiz family connections. I’d loved Lorna’s sassy Pink Lady character Paulette in this movie and so wanted to be her, with her fab hair and trendy 1960s outfits even though I was heights with her screen sister Delores (Pamela Adlon). Lorna’s mother it transpired was Judy Garland, an acclaimed actress and singer that I like every child of seventies Scotland was brought up with. Lorna’s half-sister of course is the singer and actress, Liza Minnelli, her stepfather was director, Vincente Minnelli and her father, the producer Sid Luft. Her mother’s most famous film, The Wizard of Oz (1939) movie, an essential Christmas staple on the telly was as much part of my Christmases then as The Queen’s Speech (not a sequel for Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth) and stuffing. These being 3 things I only thought you got at Christmas. For years.
So not familiar with much of Garland’s work – as I can remember a few of her movies from my childhood, but annoyingly not their titles – I thought I’d review something new for this blogathon. So as I do like a good biopic Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) was the ideal choice. This mini series is based on Life with Judy Garland: My Family Memoir (1998), Lorna Luft’s biographical book about her mother which also tells of Lorna’s life with her mother and until Garland’s death in 1969. This mini series was written by Lorna and Robert L. Freedman. It is also part narrated by another actress who starred in another famous autobiographical movie, Cynthia Gibb. (Gibb starred in the lead role in The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)). So I remembered this blogathon hostess’s gentle warning to me that this was a “heartbreaking watch” and ensured the tissues and Darlin’ Husband present for those
almost inevitable tears and much-needed handsqueezes.
The mini series starts in 1924, as two-year-old Frances Gumm takes the stage to sing Christmas carols. The Gumm parents are unhappy in their marriage and Mrs Gumm (Marsha Mason) moves their family to California, to try and get her daughters in the movies. Her mother appears critical and controlling and Garland’s father supportive. 13 year old Frances now is known as Judy Garland (Tammy Blanchard) impresses Louis B Meyer with her singing. She is given a contract with MGM and a place at their school leading to a friendship with Mickey Rooney. Her father is taken ill and she carries out a scheduled radio performance rather than visits him. Her father dies, which saddens Garland, her mother is unmoved.
On Garland’s 16th birthday, and several movies later she is given the lead in The Wizard of Oz catapulting her from a little known radio singer to international fame. However on set, Garland is given medication to assist her sleep and increase energy. She falls in love with Artie Shaw, a two-time divorcee and both the studio and her mother disapprove, despite her daughter’s happiness. After Shaw elopes with Lana Turner, Garland is once again desolate. Garland is forced to lose weight and collapses on set and the doctors encourage her to rest. After a short unsuccessful marriage to David Rose, Garland (now Judy Davis) meets Vincente Minnelli (Hugh Laurie).
After starring in Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis (), she marries him and vows on their honeymoon to stop taking the tablets and give up showbiz once her MGM contract ends. Garland is pregnant – with Liza Minnelli – and wants to live a normal life. After withdrawing from the tablets successfully, she is then pressurised into taking another contract and film role. Garland has a breakdown and begins to take the tablets once more, with adverse effects on her behaviour and this apparently leading to her breakup with Minnelli. Garland attempts suicide and is fired by MGM. However, on the bright side, she meets Sidney Luft (Victor Garber) and falls in love. With his support she returns to the Broadway stage.
The second part of this story, focuses on Garland’s story after her marriage to Luft and shortly after Lorna’s birth. After Luft convinces – and supports – Garland in her return to movies. Garland’s estranged mother passes away and Garland gives birth to a son, Joey. Her stirring performance in A Star is Born (1954) is recognised with her first Oscar nomination, but she loses out to Grace Kelly. We see a low period of Garland’s career. In the late 50s to early 60s Garland’s weight increases and goes through a period of illness. Garland and Luft’s fights and their increasing debt leads to their relationship difficulties. Garland returns to the spotlight taking America by storm in her stage shows and she wins custody of the kids. Her TV series and Australian tours are flops. The story depicts her later short fourth unsuccessful marriage and her continued dependence on medication. Lorna’s parents reconcile briefly in the mid 1960s, after this. Sadly 14-year-old Lorna is hospitalised with exhaustion as caring and looking out for her at times unpredictable mother and brother proves difficult. The children then move in with their father. Garland marries for a final time, before her death by an accidental overdose of sleeping tablets.
So after seeing this biopic, it gave me such a greater understanding of this actress, her life and loves and of Hollywood’s expectations of her. Written by her daughter, the mini series relays Lorna’s life as the daughter of an icon, in an unbiased, frank and honest depiction up to her mother’s death and its aftermath. it should be stressed it is Lorna’s story, and her personal interpretation of how she perceives her mother’s life and her own relationship with her mother. Not all her mother’s life is chronicled on film. But Lorna’s writing makes it a more rounded, credible and touching biopic as there just to many biopics out there “based on a real story”. These I feel often lose the facts in their retelling in a fictionalised account of events which can distract from the story leaving me frustrated and annoyed. Especially, if I read different versions in autobiographies.
Garland’s story was told lovingly and in a non-sensationalised way by Lorna as if she were telling her children about their famous grandmother. This made it a much nicer and kinder biopic than some in that the more dramatic aspects of Garland’s life were added. These were shown not in a OTT way, but with empathy and understanding. The lead actresses sharing Garland’s role were fantastically cast, and both looked equally convincing as Garland in many of the scenes. Their performances lip synching to Garlands voice was both mesmerising and almost haunting. These actresses made you believe you were watching Garland immortalised on the wee screen as both added her mannerisms perfectly. The scenes leading to the change in actresses sharing Garland role were seamless due to this splendid casting. My reaction to actors playing Garland’s husbands was varied. With Sid Luft, I saw much more of the acting talents of Victor Garber than I have previously. This actor rose to the challenge as a leading part in this production. However contrastingly the use of Hugh Laurie as Minnelli was sadly too distracting for me, I kept thinking of him in his other roles especially comedy programmes with Stephen Fry and other alternative comedians.
There were some nice wee cameos from actors playing Garland’s film star contemporaries. Acting as Meyer, Rooney and Lana Turner these actors and actresses assisted setting the context of the time and beliefs of Garland’s Hollywood years. There were many interesting scenes showing life on set and how her movie scenes were recreated. In one such enchanting scene, we learnt the mechanics of the making of The Trolley Song in Meet Me in St Louis (1944). In now disturbing scenes, one showed Garland at the beginning of her career getting a make over to become more “screen friendly” with her original look criticised. This combined with Turner’s blonde, skinny and tall appearance – then much wanted by Hollywood – also highlighted Garland’s insecurities in her strikingly different looks and these beliefs were noted to increase after Turner and Shaw’s elopement. Another more foreboding scene, told of Garland being prescribed tablets and her increasing reliance on them in a bid to meet Hollywood’s expectations of her. The costumes worn by the Garland actresses were lovingly researched and recreated, as so much of Garland’s wardrobe was remembered in style.
And as Lorna’s own personal story was told it was a fresh and honest perspective of Judy Garland as a mother. Lorna’s own story was in turns uplifting, sad and tragic and she was played beautifully by Alison Pill. Their life together as mother and daughter was told in-depth in the second part of the series in particular their relationship where at times their roles appeared to reverse, Lorna’s breakdown and Lorna’s strengths in supporting her mother and father until her mother’s untimely death. Shortly after watching this heartrending series, I was horrified to learn Garland’s story is going to be retold with Anne Hathaway confirmed in the lead role. But I urge you instead to watch this mini series as you’ll find as when you travel over the rainbow… you’ll find two golden performances from Blanchard and Davis. And more on the early life of actress Lorna Luft as a writing star is born.
The Judy Garland Blogathon
This review was added to the In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood‘s The Judy Garland Blogathon. The mini series written by Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft. I have no reviews with this cast, but Lorna Luft herself appears in my Grease 2 (1982) review.