I recently saw Tracie Bennett’s knockout performance as Judy Garland in the Broadway play End of the Rainbow. I’m certain Ms. Bennett will take home the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, though she could conceivably be awarded the Best Actress in a Musical prize, too, considering the generous and impressive amount of all-out singing that she does. How fitting that the Tonys will be presented this Sunday on what would have been Judy Garland’s 90th birthday. Though Garland never had much luck at winning awards, the actresses who play her tend to win them by the armful.
End of the Rainbow is set in London about six months before Garland’s death, which makes it an interesting companion piece with the also London-set I Could Go on Singing (1963), Garland’s final film. The movie was part of Judy’s latest (and sadly brief) comeback to movies, which included her Oscar-nominated nonsinging dramatic performance in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), a three-scene role in which she is most impressive, so emotionally fluid, both touching and powerful.
Made in England, and directed by Ronald Neame, I Could Go on Singing gave Judy a big fat dramatic role enhanced musically by concert scenes sprinkled throughout (which is also the format of End of the Rainbow). If this was Judy’s A Star Is Born for the ’60s, well, no one seemed to care. It didn’t do well commercially or critically, and so there was no major outcry for more Garland movies. Whatever you think of I Could Go on Singing, it is most definitely an invaluable record of Judy in concert, filmed not too long after her legendary Carnegie Hall appearance of 1961. Since there is no footage of that classic evening, I Could Go on Singing serves as the closest thing we have to experiencing the fullness of Judy at Carnegie Hall. The film’s concert scenes are beautifully photographed in rich, vivid color, making you feel like the concertgoer with the best seat in the house. Sure, the voice is a bit ragged, but her four songs become intensely exciting musical sequences. (But, why oh why doesn’t this movie begin with a concert scene? We must wait forty minutes for Judy to sing!)
There’s no sidestepping the fact that the movie is very uneven, misplacing Judy’s authenticity (as a weary singing legend) within a soap opera that has a whiff or two of Madame X. Judy and Dirk Bogarde (now a surgeon) had a love affair about a dozen years ago, resulting in a son soon adopted by Bogarde and his eventual wife. Judy, of course, chose her career, and the boy was raised not knowing he was the son of a star (or that he was Bogarde’s real son). After agreeing never to see the boy again, and on the heels of two failed marriages, she comes to London to see the now-widowed Bogarde. And she wants to see the boy.
Bogarde has a thankless role, and he comes off as a rather snippy, prissy fellow, hardly plausible as having once loved Judy passionately. But Judy is a revelation off the concert stage as well as on, so raw and needy, so unafraid to be ugly. The script is filled with cliches, yet Judy offers a mesmerizing portrait of a star’s love-hate relationship with her stardom, her talent, and her audience. Selfish and charming, insatiable and poignant, Judy knows this woman inside and out and comes off as both irresistible enchantress and scheming manipulator, often simultaneously. The worst scene is the screaming match between the stars, which is of course conveniently overheard by the boy who now knows all. The best scene is at the hospital, after Judy has injured her foot in a cab (while drunk). In a five-minute unbroken take, she is superb, opening up about what it is like to be her, a Judy Garland-sized star. According to Bogarde’s autobiography, Snakes & Ladders, he wrote the scene, with plenty of input from Judy. Aside from the concert scenes, it far outshines anything else in the picture.
It would have been nice, and altogether fitting and merited, for Garland to have received an Oscar nomination for her hungry, exposed acting here, but the film was already forgotten by Oscar time. Judy Davis and Tracie Bennett may get all the Garland prizes, deserving each and every one of them, leaving us (or, rather, those of us who care enough) only to imagine all the awards and nominations that we would have bestowed upon the one and only Judy Garland.