It’s been exactly 50 years since Judy Garland’s death from an accidental drug overdose, an event so devastating for the gay community, legend tells it sparked the Stonewall riots. Now, in 2019, the beloved singer and show-woman known for her turbulent past is undergoing a long overdue reputation rehabilitation.
Time is a cruel mistress, even — especially — to legends. But just when pop culture had nearly forgotten about the little girl with the voice like raw honey, or the more mature force of nature with a silver-tongued wit, Hollywood has finally done right by Judy. This year has produced two tender and finely-tuned films worthy of bearing her name, each telling a version of the truth re Judy’s life, something even her own daughter admits she can never fully understand. Both films make her immense talent decadently clear, proudly proclaiming via glittering ruby marquee: They just don’t make ’em like they used to.
In the case of Judy Garland, they may never make ’em like her again.
Charting her own compelling comeback story (perfectly crafted for Oscar voters), Renée Zellweger plays the storied star in the recently released “Judy.” Zellweger’s performance has earned her rave reviews, well-deserved Oscar buzz, and the film a plum spot in the specialty box office rankings. Directed by Rupert Goold from a script by Tom Edge based on the play by Peter Quilter, “Judy” sets its sights on the last six months of Judy’s life, during her last round of live shows in London.
The film is entertaining, musically sound, and sympathetic to its troubled heroine without letting her entirely off the hook. Though the hazily-lit flashbacks to Judy’s childhood on set with Louis B. Mayer are the film’s weakest points; understanding the pressure put on her in her adolescence to lose weight and work unspeakably long hours is imperative for humanizing her substance abuse issues.
Arriving as an excellent companion piece is “Sid & Judy,” a finely-crafted documentary debuting on Showtime this Friday. Flaunting a veritable treasure trove of archival photos, film footage, and audio recordings made by Judy herself, the film offers a rare and intimate portrait of the oft-misunderstood talent. “Sid & Judy” frames its narrative around her romance with her third of five husbands, Sid Luft, who is played in voiceover by a raspy-voiced Jon Hamm (with Jennifer Jason Leigh as a similarly throaty Judy). Judy’s marriage to film director Vincente Minnelli is well known for having birthed Judy’s most famous offspring Liza; but at 13 years of marriage, Sid stuck it out the longest.
The film weaves rare footage of Judy’s performances with recorded phone conversations between Sid and various Hollywood heavies of the day, including TV executives, talent managers, and Broadway producers. As Luft, Hamm acts as narrator of a story that touches on everything from Judy’s Vaudevillian origins to a fraught relationship with her mother, her friendship with John F. Kennedy, her failed attempts at sobriety, too many crooked business managers, and the making of her mid-career comeback vehicle, “A Star Is Born.”
It’s a lot of ground to cover, and writer/director Stephen Kijak and writer Claire Didier manage it all while spoon-feeding the audience a healthy dose of iconic Judy performances as well as lesser-known acts.
One of the most delightful discoveries is a clip of Vaudevillian George Jessel, the man who named Judy Garland. (She was born Frances Gumm.) As he regales Judy with the story of her show business baptism, she gazes affectionately at the aging showman, at one point even reaching out to gingerly caress his cheek. She swings forward in laughter when Jessel recalls her mother saying: “She’s just starting, call her anything you like.” It’s in these glimpses of Judy, alternately tender and vivacious, that the film accomplishes its greatest feat — bringing Judy Garland to life before our eyes.
With no talking heads in the picture, Kijak relies on photos for the visual narrative — not a bad idea when you’ve got dozens of Richard Avedon contact sheets at your disposal. There’s young Liza frolicking in the grass, Judy making endless funny faces, and the couple cavorting at an elegant dinner table with a smiling Frank Sinatra.
Even the anecdotes, though the Judy diehards will surely have heard at least some before, feel precious. Like the one about Judy calling J.F.K. when ratings for her short-lived “The Judy Garland Show” were down, and he told her the Kennedy family had changed their dinnertime just so they could watch. For his kindness, she sang him “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That was four weeks before he was assassinated.
There are also the dispiriting realities of her addiction. Like the time she stopped for a triple vodka on the way to the hospital for a life-saving detox, or when Sid found tiny red-and-blue Seconal pills sewn into the lining of a silk robe from Saks Fifth Avenue.
But then there are the side-by-side shots of the three different versions of “The Man That Got Away” George Cukor shot for “A Star Is Born,” the chill-inducing clip of Judy and Barbra Streisand’s medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy,” and the fitting conclusion with “Stormy Weather” as Hamm somberly tells of her overdose.
“Part bluebird, part phoenix, she is a legend in her own time,” sounds one newscaster from the day, and a more apt metaphor has never been uttered. While Liza Minnelli was not involved in “Sid & Judy,” an old interview offers one of the film’s most poignant lines: “I think you knew her best when you understood that you didn’t understand.”
If Liza couldn’t, we mere mortals may never understand the complicated life of Judy Garland. But we will certainly never forget.
“Sid & Judy” premieres Friday, October 18 at 8:05 pm ET on Showtime.