We’re back with another edition of The Golden Age on the Silver Screen, a segment that reviews made-for-TV, little known, or less than stellar celebrity biopics. In this week’s edition we’re coming all the way up to 2001 with a biopic attempting to showcase the life of screen and musical legend Judy Garland in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. This was a made for television film I saw when it first aired during the resurgence of celebrity biopics for the small screen, many of which I’ll be covering. The acting from Tammy Blanchard as young Judy is great but the film loses its way with Judy Davis taking on Judy’s career around the 1950s through to the end of her life.
Based on the title of the same name by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, Life with Judy Garland follows young Frances Gumm as she made her way through to becoming Hollywood legend Judy Garland. Along the way she suffered a harsh relationship with her mother (played by Marsha Mason) as well as tempestuous marriages.
There’s two made for television films about Garland’s life, this and the 1970s film Rainbow which I’ll be looking at in the future. I’m not sure the source material used for the latter film but this biopic uses Lorna Luft’s book, Luft being the daughter from Garland’s second marriage. With that the film does heavily skew in Luft’s favor towards the end but before that you know what angle this film will take as Luft narrates the film (not literally as that job goes to Cynthia Gibb). I mentioned when I reviewed the making-of documentary of The Wizard of Oz how forced the relationship felt between Garland’s three children, as if they were acting, and Me and My Shadows doesn’t fare any better in presenting an estrangement of the Garland children. It’s not overtly stated but the way Luft’s character takes a supporting role as the film winds down (although expertly played by a young Allison Pill) makes it obvious she’s the one whose in charge of the telling of Garland’s story.
While actors are used to play Liza Minnelli and son Joey, they don’t receive any scenes of significance with Garland or any other lines of note. There is a touching moment between Lorna and Judy in the third act but it’s the only interaction of any heart between Garland and her children, making it painfully apparent that Luft is the one meant to be featured. It’s just sad that the film has to favor a particular child instead of giving a truly encompassing view of Judy’s relationship with all three children. If you were going off this film you’d think Lorna had the worst of the three, having to care for brother Joey and deal with her mother’s ups and downs. I’m not saying that’s not how Luft sees things, she did write the book, I’d have liked a bit more balance in the three relationships. In several scenes young Lorna seems to be presenting a “woe is me” version of her life.
I’m getting ahead of myself so let’s dial things back a bit. The film is almost three hours and it truly feels it, thus why originally this was presented as a miniseries. The first half details Judy’s birth, her rise to fame (including her early issues with her weight and pills), making The Wizard of Oz, and her failed relationship with bandleader Artie Shaw. I should have mentioned this earlier but I don’t have the much knowledge of Garland’s life outside a few biographies so I won’t comment on historical accuracy like I did with last week’s Goodbye, Norma Jean. I will say that the first hour of this miniseries is amazing. The attention to detail in presenting the various wardrobe tests they did for Wizard of Oz are lovingly recreated and as mentioned before, I loved Tammy Blanchard as young Garland. I don’t really understand why they didn’t keep her throughout the whole film. It’d be easier for me to see 25-year-old Blanchard in aged makeup playing Garland (who died at 47) than a 46-year-old Davis playing a 30-year-old Garland. No disrespect to Davis but she looks extremely old in this film, especially playing Garland at 35. It would have been better to have Davis take over in the third act when she’s closer to Garland’s actual age. Especially considering the transition to the Davis section is jarring.
Blanchard herself does look a lot like Garland in her younger days, especially when she’s dressed up as Dorothy Gale. She has the manner of speaking that Garland does and does have a carefree attitude to her person. When she’s told by a studio executive that she’s too fat, Blanchard portrays Judy as trying to make people laugh while holding back a wave of emotions. The only issue is she exaggerates her facial expressions too much while lip-synching the songs that she looks silly. It’s pretty bad already that it’s obvious the actresses are lip-synching and the sound quality of the songs make it painfully apparent they’re pre-recorded. Davis appears to have a better handle on miming the words. Appearances from Mickey Rooney (played by Dwayne Addams) are good as Addams really looks and sounds like a young Rooney although it’s harder to believe actress Lindy Booth as Lana Turner. It is nice to see celebrity cameos in these films just to see which actors/actresses they pick. As we explore other 2000-era biopics this becomes a novelty that doesn’t wear off.
With the fact these are Luft’s memoirs there’s a fair bit of skewering of the usual suspects. I say usual because we’ll see skewering of a similar nature in a few of these biopics. Marsha Mason plays Garland’s mother Ethel. While Mason plays this role to the hilt of camp à la Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, why does she ALWAYS seem to play the terrible mother? Between this and Drop Dead Fred I grew up fearing Marsha Mason in anything be it playing a mother, grandmother, or kindly neighbor lady (evil I’m sure). Me and My Shadows proclaims Ethel Gumm Public Enemy #1 within the first thirty minutes! She hits Judy up for money every Friday, she starts dating immediately after the death of Judy’s father, and when Judy starts The Wizard of Oz and it’s said she has to stay on a diet Ethel proclaims “I’ll starve her if I have to” and gives her diet pills (a recurring problem in Garland’s troubled life). Having little knowledge of Garland’s life I can’t say whether Ethel Gumm was a horrid person or not but the fact that she’s a character with zero redeeming value troubles me. Especially considering any information Luft has would be second-hand already.
There’s also a disturbing trend of everyone Judy meets being gay including her father and two of her lovers (they don’t explicitly state Vincente Minnielli is gay but it’s alluded in the ways he mentions “not being there for her). Again, that could be the case but it becomes a repetitive story element that makes you doubt it. The story does become repetitive around the hour mark as it just becomes a series of “Judy succeeds, Judy falls, etc.” It shouldn’t be a problem considering the life Garland led but for every amazing performance or concert shown it favors the pills and the suicide attempts. One truly sad and evocative scene shows Judy, having a baby literally moments ago, losing her Oscar to Grace Kelly. It’s such a devastating moment for Garland in a life full of them.
Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows isn’t great but it’s good. Okay, part of me gives it a free pass purely because Victor Garber plays Sid Luft and gives a hefty chunk of the third act (I FREAKING LOVE VICTOR GARBER….sorry!). Other actors like Hugh Laurie as Vincente Minnelli also do a good job. Tammy Blanchard is fantastic and I’d love to see her in additional films but the one-sided story and the doubt instilled by Luft’s retelling mars the story which isn’t balanced. If you do see I recommend the first hour with Blanchard. Once Davis arrives the film slows down quite a bit with hammy, over-the-top acting and a narrative that shows the bad.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.