“I don’t think I ever went anywhere, did I, really,” the husky, distinctive voice of Judy Garland crackles toward the end of the documentary Sid & Judy, “but I’m always coming back.” This particular quote comes from a 1961 interview about the diva’s performance at Carnegie Hall, and was delivered with Garland’s signature disarming, self-deprecating humor. But after 72 minutes detailing the physical, psychological, and emotional tolls of show business on the iconic singer, often described by Garland herself via recordings or gleaned from the memoirs of her third husband Sid Luft, the offhand comment is loaded with poignancy.
The 13 years that Luft and Garland were married coincided with her mid-career “comeback,” as it was regularly touted in the press, after she was fired from MGM. Garland, who was at this point deep in the throes of addiction resulting from the tremendous pressures of fame at a young age, had a reputation for being volatile and unreliable. In spite of having several hits under her belt with The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Summer Stock, she would never again achieve the movie star status that defined her time at MGM.
With the constant pressure on each new project to launch her big comeback, it is haunting to hear Judy question where exactly people thought she had gone. It captures the lack of control she felt throughout the entirety of her time in the spotlight. Even the demand that she make a comeback was at the behest of others, as Luft explained that she did not care about making or losing money herself. In a recording of a phone call between Luft and theatrical agent and producer Freddie Fields, Fields says, “I tell you, [Judy’s] in this bad shape only because she isn’t working.” Tentatively, Luft replies, “Well I don’t think it’s only that, Freddie.” Garland made her return to the stage just months later.
Premiering on Showtime Oct. 18, Sid & Judy charts the legendary performer’s tumultuous relationship with Luft, who was also her manager. During their time together, from 1950 to 1965, Garland struggled to find her footing in Hollywood after being released from her contract with MGM. She also abused alcohol and pills—amphetamines that she had been force-fed since adolescence to lose weight and maintain energy on long shoots. Directed by Stephen Kijak, Sid & Judy combines photos, recordings of interviews and phone calls, footage of Garland performing, and excerpts from Luft’s memoirs. Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh narrate.
With this year marking the 50th anniversary of Garland’s untimely death, Sid & Judy comes out nearly a month after the premiere of the Rupert Goold-directed biopic, Judy. Both films portray her as already broken, without taking the time to delve into how she got to that point. Judy, which stars Renée Zellweger in the title role, falls into the conventional biopic trap of revering its subject to a fault. Part of the issue is the limited narrative scope of the film. We are with Garland the whole time, never hearing from the people she worked with, her kids, or her numerous ex-husbands. Viewers are told that she is difficult to work with, and later we learn that her young children, Lorna and Joey, would rather live with their father than with her. But examples of her professional unpredictability are largely glossed over; except in one case, no matter how late or disheveled or drugged-out she is, she pulls off the show seamlessly.
And while Garland was an undeniably tragic fatality of a sexist, toxic industry that exploited and left its female stars particularly vulnerable, we see firsthand examples of this only in fleeting, superficial glimpses. It is curious, then, that the film does not seem interested in offering a more probing or nuanced look at the injustices that drove Garland to her demise. The result of these oversights is a sugarcoated story of Garland as martyr—an oversimplification of a woman who was at once a victim and a resilient force to be reckoned with. (It must be said, however, that Zellweger gives a stunning, career-best performance.)
Kijak’s effort, at least, is candid about Garland’s troubled childhood as a vaudeville performer, dangerous unpredictability (one time she accidentally set her house on fire as her newborn baby slept in the other room), and several suicide attempts. The format of the documentary allows Judy and Sid to speak about these dark moments in their own words via recordings and Hamm’s readings of Luft’s memoirs. In a never-before-heard personal recording, played over a photo of mother cradling her newborn daughter’s wispy-haired head, Garland recalls, stuttering, “I went into the bathroom and I took a razor, and I—and I cut my throat. I went through a terrific feeling of guilt and awful shame after trying that, you know, because actually I didn’t want to die… It was just that the pressure had been too much.”
But even though Sid & Judy provides a more unfiltered take on the singer, there is an elephant in the room in both works, one that is especially glaring in our post-Weinstein era: Garland’s torment at the hands of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. In his biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, Gerald Clarke writes that Mayer molested Garland when she was a teenager, which Garland herself described in an incomplete autobiography.
“Whenever [Mayer] complimented her on her voice—she sang from the heart, he said—Mayer would invariably place his hand on her left breast to show just where her heart was,” writes Clarke. According to Garland’s autobiography, Clarke says, he repeatedly complimented, then groped her until she finally stood up for herself and told him to stop. Mayer allegedly cried, manipulatively asking, “How can you say that to me, to me who loves you?”
Neither the Showtime doc nor the biopic sufficiently address these allegations and the potentially enduring, traumatic effect on Garland’s life. Though Judy offers jarring flashbacks of the filming of The Wizard of Oz, scenes between teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) and Mayer (Richard Cordery) focus on the way he overworked her and disparaged her physical appearance, with only an underlying sense of creepiness. There is certainly no overt suggestion of sexual misconduct. In Sid & Judy, Mayer is rarely mentioned at all, though Luft defines him as a surrogate father for his wife.
The missing pieces in both of these films suggest that perhaps Judy Garland is simply too complicated, too enigmatic, to immortalize in an hour or two. In Sid & Judy, a young Liza Minelli says of her mother, “I think you knew her best when you understood that you didn’t understand.” But by choosing to focus only on specific, narrow windows of time, both the documentary and the biopic escape the responsibility of portraying some of the darkest moments of Garland’s too-short life—moments that are crucial to at least trying to understand her.