Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in new biopic Judy is already being talked about as a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination – as well as a poignant warning for today’s celebrities caught in the trap of drugs and booze addiction.
And there is one British woman who witnessed Garland’s fall from grace first hand, who can attest to the accuracy of Zellweger’s astonishing performance.
Rosalyn Wilder was the singer’s unflappable assistant in her last few months. She was instrumental in Garland’s final appearances during her season at London’s The Talk Of The Town theatre restaurant in 1969. The five-week run was an utter car crash, fuelled by vodka, amphetamines and barbiturates, a furious audience, a fifth unsuitable marriage, no-shows, on-stage breakdowns – and the occasional spine-tingling performance.
Judy Garland in 1961. Rosalyn Wilder was the singer’s unflappable assistant in her last few months. She was instrumental in Garland’s final appearances during her season at London’s The Talk Of The Town theatre restaurant in 1969
‘People talk about Judy and it’s always the pills and the alcohol,’ says Wilder. ‘Just like with poor Amy Winehouse, who followed a similar path but who was such an extraordinary performer. Judy was a star because she was an absolutely unbelievable performer. I wanted her to be at her best night after night. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. She was insecure and there were the wrong people in the way.’
Wilder was production assistant on all the shows at The Talk Of The Town. Her manner is old-school no-nonsense with a hint of wry amusement in her eyes. Her accent is RP, her brain is sharp as a tack.
In the movie, she is played by Jessie Buckley. It is her unlikely friendship with Garland that gives the film its edge over the many biopics that have been made of the singer. But the relationship did not get off to the best of starts. Garland, used to fawning hero-worship, couldn’t quite work out the young but terribly efficient Wilder, who met her celebrity histrionics over being ‘too scared to perform’ on the opening night with an English head girl-type response. With the audience waiting patiently in Leicester Square – and Garland nowhere to be seen – Wilder jumped in a taxi and went to the Ritz hotel, where she found Garland half-dressed in her suite. ‘I just told her: “Yes you can, this is what you do.”’ She got her dressed, into the car and onto the stage. ‘At every step Garland would say, “I can’t do it,” and I would smile and say, “Yes you can. You are going to be marvellous.” And I would walk her to the stage and tell her I would be waiting in the prompt corner for her. And she would go on. Late, but on.’
Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in new biopic Judy is already being talked about as a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination
Wilder did not indulge Garland. While plenty around her happily allowed the star to drink as much as she liked and pop pills by the handful, Wilder would take Garland’s bottle of pills before a performance and tell her she would keep hold of them until she needed them. Garland would ask for ‘just one’ and Wilder would shake her head and tell her she would be there, that neither she nor the pill bottle were going anywhere. ‘Most nights she’d go on without the pills but she had to feel like someone was just there for her. People always think of Judy as an alcoholic but it was the pills that were the real monsters in her life.
‘Judy might have been a nightmare to get on stage at times but she was always polite and sweet and she had a great sense of humour. No airs and graces at all.’
Wilder kept her friendship with Garland a secret for decades. ‘Of course I had no idea I was going to be put in the movie,’ she says. ‘I looked at the script and saw reams of dialogue. I had to put it down. I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with that. My whole career was being behind the scenes. I discussed it with my son and my grandchildren, who thought it was a great idea, so eventually I said yes.’
As soon as Wilder got on board, a meeting was arranged with Zellweger. ‘She wanted to know all the smallest details. It was fascinating watching her absorbing everything. I was on set when they were filming in London and I saw her become Judy. She looked at me and asked if she was OK and I told her she was exactly right. She then told me she was going to cry. I told her not to because she’d spent a lot of time in make-up and she was going to ruin all that work and she just smiled.’
Rosalyn Wilder today. Did she not think to warn Garland off [drugs and the perils of fame]? She shakes her head, ‘Absolutely not. It was not my place. All you could do was keep an eye on her, try and keep her calm, make her feel safe. But you were often fighting a losing game.’
Garland and Wilder understood each other on an emotional level. They were both women living in a man’s world. Garland had been messed up by studio bosses who encouraged her to control her weight through pills until she became addicted. Drink, depression and bad choices in men followed. Wilder defied her middle-class parents when she opted for a career in showbusiness, but despite her skill in handling difficult artists, pay rises and promotions were reserved for the men.
Garland had been forced to come to England because offers in the US had dried up. But it meant leaving her two youngest children, Lorna and Joey Luft, in America. Wilder, a young divorcee bringing up her son alone, also had to make difficult choices between work and parenting.
She says: ‘It was impossible not to feel emotionally touched by Judy. She was very much on her own when she arrived in London. She was very underweight but she also had that star quality where the emotions are all on the outside. When she was on form and she sang, no one could touch her. But there were so many times she wasn’t on form. She had people around her who didn’t help. Mickey [Deans], whom she married, was a dreadful man, a terrible mistake. He was just there for any money and fame.’
Did she not think to warn Garland off? She shakes her head, ‘Absolutely not. It was not my place. All you could do was keep an eye on her, try and keep her calm, make her feel safe. But you were often fighting a losing game.’
Garland with Mickey Deans after their wedding in 1969. Wilder says: ‘Judy might have been a nightmare to get on stage at times but she was always polite and sweet and she had a great sense of humour. No airs and graces at all’
On one occasion, a late Garland stumbled on stage and was pelted with bread rolls and booed by members of the crowd. ‘It was very sad because really it was so simple. She had this incredible talent. She could perform a song with an emotion that no one else could give. But she was damaged.’
When Garland died from a drug overdose a few months after leaving The Talk Of The Town, Wilder was not shocked. ‘But I was sad,’ she says. ‘To me it was always about true talent. When I close my eyes and think of Judy, I hear her voice, see her on that stage, feel the thrill of the audience. And those are the nights you can never forget.’
‘Judy’ opens in cinemas on October 2