Most miniseries about performers - from the Beatles and Osmonds to David Cassidy - often are hobbled by bad wigs, lame look-alikes and the lack of an insider's voice and point of view. The more salacious elements (Susan Dey's secret crush on her TV brother!) are hyped and blown out of proportion.
"Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," based on daughter Lorna Luft's memoir, suffers from none of these problems. It does omit, downplay or soft pedal some of the more unsavory turns in the road, but it's a good, entertaining look at Garland's larger-than-life existence. As Garland herself jokes upon turning 47, "With my life, that makes me 412."
The ABC project is remarkably well done, compressing the singer's life into a four-hour miniseries that uses Garland's unmistakable voice (except for three instances in which vocal doubles or star Judy Davis' voice are used). It's so convincing that when the actors re-create that famous waltz down the yellow brick road in "The Wizard of Oz," you almost think you're watching the real thing.
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"Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows"
When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on ABC.
Starring: Judy Davis, Tammy Blanchard
It benefits enormously from its two leads: Tammy Blanchard, who played Drew Jacobs on "Guiding Light," as teen-age Judy, and Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Davis as the adult. Although Davis is a bit too slender to truly double for Garland - when the singer balloons to 189 pounds, Davis is padded and her face buried under prosthetics - she mimics the stage movements and overwrought emotions and pulls off duplicating movie scenes well known to the audience. Davis, a 45-year-old native of Australia, should earn an Emmy nomination or a statuette with this performance.
"Me and My Shadows" opens in 1924 with Baby Frances Gumm (Garland's real name) wowing a crowd in Grand Rapids, Minn., with "Jingle Bells." In one of its characteristically subtle moments, we see Frances' father clasp the hand of another man. This is shorthand for reports that he chased after teen-age boys, an allegation that drove the family from various Midwestern towns.
The Gumms eventually end up in Los Angeles, where the newly renamed singer comes to the attention of MGM Studio and Louis B. Mayer (Al Waxman, in his final role). The mogul and studio that made her a star - and the family breadwinner - also fed her lifelong insecurity about her looks. Mayer called her "my little hunchback" and Judy was instructed to insert discs into her nostrils so her nose would turn up and wear a front plate over her crooked teeth for publicity stills.
Part one chronicles the sudden and devastating death of Judy's father, the cold reaction of her all-business mother (Marsha Mason) and MGM's decision to buy the rights to "The Wizard of Oz" for $75,000 and cast Garland. Some executives wanted Shirley Temple but Fox wouldn't release her from her contract.
"Wizard" coincided with the start of Garland's lifelong addiction to diet and sleeping pills. The studio tried to disguise 16-year-old Garland's womanly figure by binding her chest but it also dispensed what would be called uppers and downers on the street. She wasn't alone in finding energy and relaxation in a medicine bottle; co-star and pal Mickey Rooney popped pills, too.
"Me and My Shadows" documents Garland's crush on bandleader Artie Shaw and her devastation when he married Lana Turner. It dispenses with Garland's first marriage, to composer David Rose, in a couple of sentences. It never mentions the abortion Garland reportedly underwent, at her mother's behest, when she became pregnant to Rose. Nowhere is her love for actor Tyrone Power, detailed in Gerald Clarke's 2000 biography of Garland, called "Get Happy."
In another subtle signal, the miniseries shows Vincente Minnelli (Hugh Laurie), Garland's second husband and father to daughter Liza, appearing indifferent in bed to his wife's kisses. A friend had tried to warn Garland that Minnelli wasn't "marrying material," but she didn't pay attention.
We watch as Garland, who quit taking pills while pregnant, gets hooked again and is repeatedly forced back to work against doctors' advice. Garland, who had made MGM $36 million since she was 12, was fired by the studio and she split from director Minnelli, too.
She later met and married B-movie producer Sid Luft (Victor Garber), who fathered Lorna and Joseph Luft. Although biographies of Garland often portray Luft as a rough-around-the-edges gambler and extravagant spender, his daughter and writer Robert L. Freedman present him in a largely favorable light.
The narrator, speaking as Lorna, says, "My dad became her manager. As far as Mama was concerned, taking care of her was the same thing as loving her. ... With my dad, Mama came closer than she did with anyone else. They truly loved each other. I'm not sure the world ever figured that out."
But they didn't live happily ever after. They were haunted by money problems, even after Garland triumphantly returned to the stage. After she and Luft split up, Garland took up with an actor named Mark Herron - who turned his gaze to the pool boy - and, later, Mickey Deans, the night manager of a disco. They were living in London when Garland suffered a fatal, accidental overdose in June 1969. She was just 47.
"Me and My Shadows" shows the pressure Lorna felt, to care for her younger brother and her mother (the adolescent is warned to never call the operator if Garland's in trouble) and hold the household together on no money. We watch Joey eat the dregs of dry cereal one day as Lorna promises they can eat dinner at a neighbor's.
Lorna has criticized some Garland biographers for inaccuracies and failing to address the star as parent. Garland is a better mother than you might think, but she's burdened by overwork, abuse by the studio system, drug and alcohol addiction and money shortages. As an adult, she doesn't suffer fools easily, as we see in a meeting with CBS executives who aren't pleased with her TV show. By the way, that's Davis singing a few bars of "Over the Rainbow" into the phone.
Sid Luft comes across as the stabilizing force in his wife's life and that of his children. As her mother before her, Lorna loves her father. She also loves her mother, who is presented in a realistic and yet enormously sympathetic way.
The final words belong to both Lorna and Judy. "When people refer to my family's life as a tragedy, they completely miss the point. Mama never saw herself as tragic. She never lost her optimism," or her joy of performing and sense that she had to carry on.
Garland likely would be proud of the picture her daughter paints. It doesn't canonize Garland. It doesn't demonize her, either.
It also doesn't air all the dirty laundry of Garland and those in her circle, such as agent David Begelman, who supposedly romanced her and bilked her of a small fortune. It gets in a few little digs at people like Lana Turner and Grace Kelly, who won the Academy Award the year Garland was nominated for "A Star Is Born." In the end, it strikes just the right note.