Judy Garland died before I was born; I’ve always found it fascinating that I would feel such an affinity with someone who didn’t exist in the world when I did.  I don’t know if this is a weird thought but to me, she’s someone I grew up with, she’s there in my earliest memories, I would call her ‘Judy Garden’ as I couldn’t get my tongue round the word ‘Garland’.  I was maybe 4 years old when I first saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and I was captivated, I’d never seen anything like it and I’d never heard anyone sing like THAT.

I’d always assumed that many people generally feel indifferent towards Judy, maybe a little fondness bound up with some childhood memories and those that admired her greatly were in the minority.  It’s the reverse for gay men, at least for gay men over a certain age.  She exists in a collective unconscious where there is a genetic predisposition for us to be drawn to her, I know this is a generalisation as my partner is one person who’s never seen a Judy Garland movie the whole way through, but in the main, the affection for Judy is palpable whenever you mention her name.

Some may say that gay men are drawn to tragic figures: the substance abuse, the multiple marriages to men who would let her down, the early death and the regret at not being able to save her.  But, for me at least, I was too young to know any of that or what it meant, I just saw this young girl singing from her the depths of her soul about a place in her dreams where she yearned to escape to, my love pre-existed the cliché.  I didn’t know what gay was, I guess I knew I was different and that there were times when I didn’t fit in to what was expected that a little boy would like or enjoy doing but I was drawn to worlds of fantasy and the idea of being able to reach somewhere over the rainbow beguiled me.

When I was a little older I saw the extravaganza that was ‘Easter Parade’, then some years later, ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ where she sang about ‘The Boy Next Door’ and then ‘A Star is Born where she sang about ‘The Man That Got Away’.  Her performance in ‘A Star is Born’ is the defining role of her adult career, her portrayal of Vicki Lester is so raw and painful, her voice the best that it ever was.

A few years ago, I heard a theory that Judy Garland’s death was the spark that ignited the Stonewall riots.  The overwhelming grief combined with the continual harassment and persecution proved to be too much and caused the LGBTQ community to finally fight back and say enough!  The dates certainly fit, Judy Garland’s funeral was held on Friday, June 27 1969 and in the early hours of Saturday June 28 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall bar, for the second time that week.   I don’t know if the connection is real and I don’t know if it matters but as an apocryphal event it’s entered into a gay mythology where the love for Judy Garland sparked a movement that fought for the equal rights of a downtrodden section of society, for those people that loved her the most.

The movie of Judy Garlands’ last months, ‘Judy’, was released in late 2019.  Based partly on the stage play ‘The End of the Rainbow’, it shows Judy coming to London to perform live shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub, now the Hippodrome, off Leicester Square.

With a few flashbacks to her days on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ set and on a fake date with Mickey Rooney, we see her as a vulnerable teenager being emotionally manipulated, and drugged, by the powerful studio she worked for.  The personification of this manipulation comes in the overbearing form of Louis B. Mayer. His threatening behaviour strikes alarming parallels with Harvey Weinstein and you see that little has changed in the past 80 years, though hopefully now, the brave women of the ‘Me Too’ movement have helped consign this dark chapter to history.

This is perhaps the iconic performance of a lifetime for Renée Zellweger, the physical transformation is perfect, the dark eyes, the hair, the costumes but the biggest homage to Judy comes when Renée sings.   When Judy arrives at the club for her first night, she’s all but physically pushed on to the stage by her PA and starts in on a lengthy chat as she engages with her audience for the first time. We’re unsure that she’s going to be able to pull this off, she’s clearly unsure of it herself, we’ve just seen her crumpled and coughing backstage.  But then she begins to sing, ‘By Myself’, and it’s like someone pressed the on switch, she instinctively knows how to do it, she’s been doing it for over 40 years.

Judy Garland has one of those voices that you instantly recognise, there’s an indefinable quality laying underneath it and Renée gets it down perfectly.  She isn’t mimicking her, or parodying her, you can hear it’s Renee Zellweger singing but you hear Judy Garland coming through as well. I found a really cool clip on where Renée Zellweger and Rupert Goold, the director break down this scene:

This movie is a love letter to Judy, you see how flawed and flaky she is, how unreliable and temperamental she is but you also see why and how this happened and that she really didn’t stand a chance.  She never comes across as mean or spiteful and the times where she crumbles as a helpless victim are counterbalanced with shows of strength and compassion.

Of one of the things that I learnt from this movie, one really struck a chord with me, I learnt that Judy was the same age as me when she died; she could still be alive today at 97 when you think that Olivia de Havilland is still with us at 103.  At 47, she had achieved so much and yet she was still a young woman who had the potential to achieve more had she chosen to, and to enjoy the rest of her life in her own terms.

Another aspect of Judy that I hadn’t fully appreciated before was the depth of her love for her children, something that is all the more poignant given the lack of any care from her own parents.  She loved singing and when she performed, she entered some kind of ethereal state but ultimately, her work was a means to provide for her children.  You can see the bond she has with them in this interview with Barbara Walters from 1967:

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, undoubtedly fictitious but with a sense of authenticity, is when Judy meets a gay couple at the stage door and ends up going home with them.  Judy is clearly everything to them and for one night their idol becomes their best friend.  I found it powerful because it’s the one scene that really acknowledges her indelible connection with the gay community. As one of the guys plays the piano while she sings, he begins to sob; for him this is not only because this is a dream come true but it’s from the relief that comes when you’ve nothing left at the end of a struggle.

“They hound people in this world, anyone that’s different.
Well to hell with them.”

One of the things that I’m grateful to this movie for is reminding me of how I feel about Judy now and how I felt about her growing up.  It’s a fitting tribute to her and for the people who love her.  It’s awesome, and no surprise, that Renée won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, but it’s also poignant and touching given that Judy Garland never won this accolade herself.  It’s as if she’s been given a second chance and this film brings her that final piece of recognition.

“You won’t forget me, will you? Promise you won’t.”

StoryScreenplay by Tom Edge, based on ‘End of the Rainbow’ by Peter Quilter
CastRenee Zellweger, as Judy Garland
Jessie Buckley, as Rosalyn Wilder
Finn Wittrock, as Mickey Deans
DirectorRupert Goold
Running Time118 mins