Sunday, October 20, 2019

Judy Garland on SHOWTIME

What an extraordinary talent. What a complicated life. This documentary is one of the best TV productions about singer/actress and show biz legend Judy Garland that I've ever seen. The other is the Emmy-winning mini-series biopic that aired on ABC in 2001. Actress Judy Davis was sensational as Garland in LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS. That TV biopic and the documentary that premiered on Showtime over the weekend have something in common. The biopic was produced by and based on a memoir written by Lorna Luft, Garland's middle child and second daughter. Judy had three kids. SID & JUDY is based on memoir writings of Sid Luft, Lorna's father and Garland's third husband. They were married 13 years in a union that was the longest of her five marriages. Sid Luft was stepfather to Liza Minnelli, Garland's daughter from her marriage to Oscar-winning film director Vincente Minnelli. Luft produced one of Hollywood best films of the 1950s, the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN which marked his wife's spectacular screen comeback in a film that earned her a very well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination. Sid & Judy, that Hollywood husband and wife team, gave us a great film that the studio, at the time, did not fully appreciate.
SID & JUDY is a must-see for Garland fans. It should also be viewed by those who have in interest in the classic film era to learn how the male-dominated studio system worked. Let's face it. Women, actresses, were often treated like second class citizens. It's a wonder the Judy Garland didn't sing a number brilliantly, take her bows, then go backstage and kneecap male executives in the balls. You really get that feeling during the section about her time at CBS doing a Sunday night variety show that aired opposite the NBC ratings powerhouse, BONANZA.

In this post, I want to give you a few of my notes on the documentary. Catch repeats of it on Showtime, if you can. There's no dull moment in this look at the romance, marriage, business partnership and break-up of Judy Garland and Sid Luft.
In SID & JUDY, we see family photos of young Judy we've not seen in other specials. We see her, with her two older sisters, as kids in their native Minnesota before the family relocated to Southern California. With actor Jon Hamm as Sid Luft acting as narrator, we're told that her father was a sweet, kind, funny man whom Judy adored. He was her protector. He was also closeted and when his true nature came out, it put a strain on the marriage in times quite different from the way they are today. We see how it affected the marriage and Judy's birth. She wasn't really wanted by the mother. But, at age 7, she gave out with a big and charismatic singing voice. Mom was then able to package the three sisters as a vaudeville act. Notice the photo of Frank and Ethel Gumm. (Garland was born Frances Gumm.) Judy had her dad's eyes. They were warm and tender. Her mother's eye were hard.  In a clip from a Barbara Walters interview, Garland described her mom as "mean" and a "stage mother." The mother wanted to be a star.

When Judy was 13, she got signed by MGM studio after bosses heard her sing. Two months later, her beloved dad passed away. She was then a juvenile working in a Hollywood dream factory, under the strict orders and some irresponsible behavior of middle-aged men. She was also the breadwinner of her family. Her relationship with her mother would be severely broken. At age 16, Judy started production on THE WIZARD OF OZ. The 1939 classic would begin her rise to being one of MGM's most profitable stars. Through the 1940s, she'd be the studio's triple threat queen of musicals with her skills as a singer, dancer and actress. In the 1940s, before she was 29, she had starred in more movie musicals than future Best Actress Oscar winners Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli have in their entire film careers.

The section on Garland's celebrated A STAR IS BORN remake shows how strong and magnetic an actress she was, how her singing gifts had ripened in the four years since she was dropped by MGM after 15 tears of work and how shabbily artists can be treated by the corporate mentality of the entertainment industry. The reviews for the movie were practically love letters. There was immediate Oscar buzz for Judy and co-star, James Mason. The film, an artistic high point for director George Cukor, came in at 3 hours. After its exclusive engagement, it opened wide. Theater owners complained they couldn't make as much money with a 3-hour movie as they could with a shorter film shown three or more times a day. The studio cut 40 minutes out of the film without approval from the filmmakers. Cukor never got a director's cut of it. Nor did producer Sid Luft and star Judy Garland. The studio ruined the artistic vision of the film. Garland lost the Oscar. She and Sid lost money. Today, cineplexes show comic book-based action/fantasy franchise films that run nearly three hours. Cineplex owners don't ask the studios to re-edit them and reduce the running time.

Garland's chemical dependency started in her teen years at MGM. She took the medication per the studio's orders. Sid tells of her extreme post-partum depression after Lorna's birth, her abortion before that birth, her attempts to kick her addiction and her near-fatal weight gain. There was a period when she was quite large. It turned out not to be fat, it was bloat. Her liver was 4 times its normal size and she needed immediate hospitalization. It was feared she'd slip into a coma or, upon recovery, be semi-invalid. Neither happened. She recovered after several quarts of fluid were medially extracted from her body. For all their fights, Sid was her much-needed cop. He could narc out her secret pill stashes. He kept a constant check on her. He taught the kids, especially Lorna, how to do the same.

The CBS chapter is stupefying, more so than the documentary reveals, and its revelations are great. The early 1960s put Judy on top again. There was her historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. She was in the Oscar race again. Her dramatic performance as a Nazi survivor in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) put her in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her second Oscar nomination isn't mentioned in the documentary. Nor is the fact that Arthur Laurents, the man who wrote the script to the Broadway hit, GYPSY, told NPR that he and others wanted Judy Garland to play the mother in the 1962 film version. But Jack L. Warner, the studio head who cut the 40 minutes out of 1954's A STAR IS BORN, said "No." He felt that Judy was "15 pounds too heavy" to play the middle-aged stage mother role originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman. Laurents was livid and felt Warner's reason made no sense. As he told NPR, "So we wound up with Rosalind Russell in two-tone shoes" with her singing voice dubbed.

After your learn about her parents' marriage and Judy's relationship with her mother, you can only imagine the acting depth she could've brought to the role of Rose in GYPSY.

At the time of her famous Carnegie Hall concert, Garland was now being managed by Freddie Fields and David Begelman. I believe they were previously with William Morris, the agency that had repped Judy. Sid Luft, in the narration, describes Fields as "cunning, driven." He calls Begelman a "bullshit artist." It's 1963 and Judy signs a $24 million contract with CBS for her own Sunday night music variety show. This is when Judy Garland would be at odds with toxic masculinity and, I believe, homophobia. Fields and Begelman drove a wedge in the marriage and manipulated her into letting them handle her career and getting her out of Sid's control. And protection. She and Sid separated.

Sid Luft was a big, brawny roughneck. In the doc, you see a photo of young Sid in boxing trunks and you know he's a street-smart tough guy. I'm sure that's why the marriage lasted 13 years. There are clips of Judy's CBS show and you can see that performers loved being with her and she loved having them on the show. The funny outtake of her song duet with Martha Raye is priceless -- especially considering that Martha Raye's second husband, musician David Rose, divorced her in 1941 and married Judy Garland later that same year. He became Judy's first ex-husband. Her second would be MGM director Vincente Minnelli. George Schlatter -- later of the iconic ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN comedy series on NBC -- and Norman Jewison -- future director of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, A SOLDIER'S STORY and MOONSTRUCK -- were both producers on the show. Both praised Garland. Schlatter, in the doc, says that folks were sure Garland wouldn't show up. He said that she not only showed up, "she kicked ass." Jewison, in other interviews, was in awe of her talent. He said that she had great ideas and took an interest in every single aspect of the production. But she didn't get respect from CBS head, James Aubrey. Jewison didn't like him. I don't think Schlatter liked him either. One exec, who didn't like Aubrey, felt that his formula for programming was "broads, bosoms and fun." Aubrey wanted comedy skits and such on THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW.

Some of her early shows have bits that make you squirm. Like when singer Steve Lawrence teased her relentlessly about how fat she used to be -- especially now that we know the fat was the bloat of a severe liver ailment. There's also comedian Jerry Van Dyke making jokes about her legendary tardiness. Male network execs would not have dared tried to pull disrespectful crap like that on Barbra Streisand in any of her specials a few years later. By the way, the now-famous duet of Judy Garland and Broadway newcomer Barbra Streisand was Jewison's idea.

I have a feeling that the disrespect from CBS head James Aubrey may have been rooted in a homophobia, an attitude that her Sunday night show would bring "queers" to CBS prime time. I got that feeling from Lorna Luft's book and the TV biopic made of it. THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW got really good near the end of its run when she took control, dropped the comedy sketches, and did what she did best. Sing. The show gave her some freedom she was denied at MGM. One of her best numbers showed her happily singin' and swingin' and surrounded by black musicians. She did a medley with Count Basie and his orchestra. She sang and held hands with Lena Horne. After the 1963 assassination and funeral of her friend and fan, President John F. Kennedy, she wanted to do a song in tribute to him. Aubrey wasn't keen on the idea, reportedly. She did the number, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and it was stirring.

As for managers Freddie Fields and David Begelman, Sid Luft discovered they'd been embezzling Judy's 1963 funds. Basically, they were giving her a commission and they were pocketing huge sums of her money. They had maneuvered Sid out of the picture. This embezzlement should have been a Hollywood red flag as large as a queen size bedsheet. The following info is not in the documentary but it was once in the entertainment news headlines. Sid was right to call Begelman a "bullshit artist."

David Begelman caused a major Hollywood scandal of the 1970s. In 1973, he was named president of Columbia Pictures. He quit in 1978 after it was discovered that he'd been forging checks. He'd forged a $10,000 check to actor Cliff Robertson and another big one to film director Martin Ritt. It was found that he'd forged a total of $40,000 plus a reported $23,000 in padded expenses. The embezzlement of Judy Garland's funds in 1963 was just the beginning. Those two managers, Fields and Begelman, bilked a woman who was a middle-aged working mother determined to take care of her three loving kids. And she was an international star. They even took a new Cadillac Garland had no idea she'd been given as payment for an appearance/performance she did on another network.

David Begelman shot and killed himself in 1995. Sid Luft passed away at age 89 in 2005.

With previously unseen family photos, home movie clips, concert photos plus dialogue audio from personal Garland tape recordings, this documentary gives you some fresh Garland material. It also contains two excellent performances. Jon Hamm's vocal work as Sid Luft hits a bullseye. He's terrific. He gives it the shading of an old 1950s Hollywood brawler looking back on his often rocky life with someone he loved very much. In a way, Judy was Sid's addiction. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Judy Garland and reads from letters and notes Judy gave to Sid. Leigh nails the wistfulness, the middle-aged wry humor and the flashes of anger. Again, I enthusiastically recommend Showtime's SID & JUDY for Judy Garland and Hollywood history fans.

Renee Zellweger, judging from the reviews, seems destined for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Garland in 1969, the last year of her life. The indie film is called JUDY. Lorna Luft has a new book available. It's about her parents' abused masterpiece which was later restored. The book is A STAR IS BORN: JUDY GARLAND AND THE FILM THAT GOT AWAY.

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