London audiences can be so ungrateful to visiting American showbusiness royalty. So hard to please, so stingy with their applause. Even so, the reception given to Judy Garland during her five-week run singing at the West End’s Talk Of The Town nightclub must have been supremely humbling.
The critics didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at performances that were described as an ‘emotional car crash’.
One of the most revered screen goddesses in Hollywood history, she was just on to her fifth marriage, broke, hopelessly addicted to pills and in such a mess that when she did manage to come on stage — sometimes at least an hour late — she was barely coherent.
Judy Garland, pictured here in 1950, appeared in London’s West End in 1969 aged 46, at a time when her life was spiralling out of control
Dressed in spangly lamé outfits with her short hair swept back across her head, Garland slurred and croaked her way through a repertoire that always ended, if she got that far, with Over The Rainbow. Audiences agreed with the critics and heckled her mercilessly. One night when she was an hour and 20 minutes late, a particularly hostile crowd pelted her with cigarette packets, bread rolls and the contents of ashtrays.
She attempted three songs before leaving the stage after a man stepped up, grabbed the microphone and shook her by the shoulder. A glass ashtray followed her, crashing on to the stage as she left.
It was January 1969, 30 years since she skipped down the yellow brick road in The Wizard Of Oz but the former child superstar was still only 46. Only eight years earlier she’d become the first woman to win a Grammy award for Best Album, in the same year that she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Judgment At Nuremberg. However, her tantrum-prone reputation and perpetual unreliability (repeatedly backing out of commitments) had finally ended her Hollywood career.
Within five months she would be dead in squalid circumstances, found slumped on the lavatory at her rented Belgravia home after overdosing on barbiturates.
A forthcoming biopic starring Renee Zellweger, pictured, as Garland will chart the star’s downward spiral and chaotic final months
A forthcoming biopic starring Renee Zellweger as Garland will chart the star’s downward spiral and chaotic final months.
Directed by Rupert Goold, the artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, and based on the acclaimed play End Of The Rainbow, Judy also stars Michael Gambon as Bernard Delfont — the theatre impresario who lured Garland to the Talk Of The Town nightclub (the old London Hippodrome off Leicester Square).
Rufus Sewell plays Garland’s hard-drinking and allegedly abusive third husband, Sidney Luft. Astonishingly given her vast fame, it will be the first film that has brought Garland’s life to the big screen.
Less surprisingly, given the film’s controversial subject matter and the fact it reportedly relies heavily on Mr Luft’s candid memoirs, Garland’s Oscar-winning daughter, Liza Minnelli, has condemned it. Shooting down rumours she was involved in the project and had ‘bonded’ with Zellweger, the Cabaret star, now 73, wrote acidly on Facebook: ‘I have never met nor spoken to Renee Zellweger.
‘I don’t know how these stories get started, but I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way. Any reports to the contrary are 100 per cent fiction.’
The film involved Zellweger, star of Bridget Jones’s Diary, training intensely to sing like Garland. She spent two hours a day in make-up getting prosthetics, contact lenses and wigs applied to look like her.
While not flinching from Garland’s foibles, Judy’s makers seem intent on portraying them as sympathetically as possible. The film will reportedly show her exhausted after 45 years on stage, haunted by memories of a childhood stolen by Hollywood and determined to be back at home with her children.
Zellweger has insisted that her aim is to ‘celebrate and adore [Garland] in this work’, adding: ‘What she had to overcome in a time when women didn’t necessarily feel that they had power over their own lives in the way that we do today — that stayed with me and I hope folks will be moved by that as well.’
For all her touching words about the superstar, there’s no sign that any members of Garland’s family are involved in the film. That includes Minnelli’s half-sister, Lorna Luft, who wrote her own account of her mother’s life, Me And My Shadows (which became a TV mini-series).
In 1969 it was 30 years since Garland played Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz
She revealed Garland’s decades-long drug dependency and alcoholism, and her own early life looking after her emotionally unstable mother. Luft also recorded Garland’s hard-fought attempts at sobriety and her efforts to bring Liza into detox programmes.
Yet Luft’s revelations were nothing compared to those in a 2015 book by Stevie Phillips, Garland’s long-suffering former personal assistant and constant companion, who later became a Hollywood agent herself.
During the four years she worked for Garland in the Sixties, Phillips says the star attacked her with a kitchen knife, tried to seduce her in the back of a limousine, overdosed on prescription pills on a weekly basis and once slit her wrists — smiling as she spattered the young Phillips from head to toe in blood.
Garland’s ‘suicidal episodes’ were not intended to be fatal but were about ‘manipulation and power’, and usually directed at whichever man she had fallen for, she said.
Garland once set fire to herself as she sat smoking in bed and watched without moving when Phillips rushed to extinguish the flames with her bare hands.
By the 1960s, Garland was living a chaotic lifestyle, which will be shown in Renee Zellweger’s new film, pictured
At the Savoy Hotel in 1963, Phillips watched in horror as Garland got into a fist fight with the wife of a man with whom she was having an affair. ‘Both were bleeding, gowns torn, almost naked in the fifth-floor corridor,’ she recalled.
Garland suffered terribly from insomnia — a key reason for much of her vast drug consumption — and, one late night in Las Vegas, collapsed headfirst on to a glass coffee table. A doctor confiscated her pills but when she regained consciousness she blamed Phillips for the drugs’ disappearance, coming at her with a kitchen knife like ‘a raving lunatic’.
It got worse: in the Bahamas, a stoned Garland once stood on her hotel balcony in her underwear and bawled Over The Rainbow as shipworkers shouted obscene encouragement from the street.
Another time, on a plane, Phillips watched stunned as Garland cracked her compact mirror against a window and powdered her face with the shards of broken glass.
Phillips thought Garland should have been hospitalised but, she said, ‘everyone was too busy exploiting her’. That abuse had arguably started when Frances Ethel Gumm (Garland’s real name) was just two and a half and her stage mother, Ethel, wanted her to sing.
Garland — who quickly earned the nickname ‘Little Leather Lungs’ — said Ethel would stand in the wings and threaten her, plying her daughter with sleeping pills to help her nod off while on the road.
Judy signed to the MGM film studio aged 13, but its chiefs were worried about her weight and would deprive her of food, leaving her perpetually hungry. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer told Garland, who had a curved spine: ‘You look like a hunchback. We love you but you’re so fat you look like a monster.’
MGM’s callous behaviour left her with a life-long crippling insecurity about her figure, and she was seeing psychiatrists by the age of 18. The studio even pushed drugs on her, encouraging her to take amphetamines to keep her slim and energetic through a relentless filming schedule, and sleeping pills to calm her down at night.
‘Speed her up, slow her down,’ said a studio insider who claimed Garland was ‘run like a clock’.
Studio executives also molested her, repeatedly propositioning her for sex from the age of 16. Mayer liked to show he thought she sang from the heart by putting his hand on the teenager’s left breast.
‘I often thought I was lucky that I didn’t sing with another part of my anatomy,’ said Garland wryly.
The film involved Zellweger, star of Bridget Jones’s Diary, training intensely to sing like Garland. She spent two hours a day in make-up getting prosthetics, contact lenses and wigs applied to look like her
According to third husband Sid Luft, Garland even claimed that some of the dwarf actors who played ‘munchkins’ in the Wizard Of Oz sexually harassed her during the eight months of filming. Garland was 16 at the time and just 4ft 11in.
She married five times, the first when she was 19 and typically to younger men each time. They were a rotten bunch and she accused at least two of them of beating her. Garland had three children later in her career, having had at least two abortions — both times under pressure from a husband, her mother or her studio, all of them worried about her career.
Her own mother was a terrible role model and Garland had a difficult relationship with her own children, veering wildly between being excessively affectionate and screaming at them. ‘If she was happy, she wasn’t just happy, she was ecstatic,’ said Liza Minnelli. ‘And when she was sad, she was sadder than anyone.’ Lorna Luft said she was ‘damaged’ but also ‘funny and sweet’.
Lorna’s Hollywood producer father, Sid, claimed Garland (who had three nervous breakdowns by the time she was 23) was an emotional wreck, obsessively taking stimulants and diet pills to stay ‘camera slim’, but eventually claiming she simply couldn’t perform without downing handfuls of them.
Her drug-dependency increased, he said, when she started suffering from post-partum depression and was given additional medication.
Garland tried to kill herself countless times, including after being sacked by MGM.
Luft, who denied Garland’s claims that he hit her during their marriage from 1952 to 1965, said he once found her in the bathroom after she had tried to cut her throat. Another time, she showed him she had slashed her wrists. ‘What demons inhabited her soul just when life seemed so rich and productive?’ he pondered.
Garland herself insisted she was happy, expressing frustration that ‘people insist on seeing an aura of tragedy around me always’. But a year before she paid her final visit to the UK, she didn’t sound quite so sure. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?’ she asked an interviewer.
Those difficulties were compounded by financial woes in her final years. For Garland was notoriously spendthrift and plagued by mis-management and embezzlement.
Abandoned by Hollywood, she was singing in bars for $100 a night by the mid-Sixties, but could rely on the support of her daughter Liza, whose own fame was on the rise.
It is claimed that when Garland was appearing in The Wizard of Oz, she was being molested by film studio executives
She could hardly turn down the Talk Of The Town residency, which was reportedly worth some £2,500 a week (worth nearly £43,000 today) performing to 750-strong audiences. She arrived with fiance (and future husband) Mickey Deans at Heathrow in December 1968 only to be immediately handed a High Court writ from two American businessmen who said she was exclusively signed to them until the following June.
She ploughed on regardless. The critic for the Observer newspaper went to see her perform and acidly described her as ‘thinner now, almost haggard’ in an orange sequined suit.
‘With hand on hip, she struts and totters and stomps and prowls — tigerish and restless, her great brown eyes darting amongst the audience for a friendly face.’
It was a bizarre, confused performance — in which her words became ‘more and more slurred’, but finally she silenced the doubters with a touching rendition, sitting down cross-legged, of Over The Rainbow.
Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant (played in the film by Irish singer Jessie Buckley) admitted ‘a lot of people threw things most nights’ at a star who was sometimes so late and erratic that ‘one had to take an educated decision as to whether you were going to allow her to go on or not’.
Wilder blamed the people around Garland, particularly the ‘dreadful’ Deans, a musician, for exacerbating her addiction problems.
Garland married Deans, who met her when he delivered a package of pills to her, at London’s Chelsea Register Office in March 1969. Her daughter Lorna said Garland was by then in the worst depths of prescription drug addiction and ‘dying in front of his eyes’. But Judy rejoiced, declaring: ‘Finally, finally I am loved.’
In June, Deans found her body in their rented mews house. Her death from a barbiturate overdose was ruled as accidental. ‘She never had a chance to become a normal child, or a normal adult,’ said her friend, Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz. ‘She always had someone hovering over her.’
Garland put her feeling of helplessless differently. She once said: ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a blizzard, an absolute blizzard.’