Seldom in a biographical television made-for does a star so expertly inhabit another’s skin as Judy Davis does here with Judy Garland. Davis’ characterization moves like a swift boxer in the ring, bounding from rope to rope and then to the center, going toe to toe with demons, lovers and show business in general, taking punches and showing resolution over cowardice, honor over all.
Garland succumbs early to uppers and her life is sped up to a blur as she whips through a mislaid childhood, five marriages (two of which yield three children) and a distinguished career in song that was seemingly one struggle after another. Davis masters the mannerisms of Garland and the punch-drunk state of an overly medicated soul. But most significantly, she infuses her portrayal with an assertive claim on life that makes “Life With Judy Garland” a rare entity in the biopic arena.
If a quality program can attract significant ratings then this should be a sweeps champion.
Perspective of “Life” comes from the eyes of Garland’s middle child, Lorna Luft, who saw the pill popping for the destructive force it was. Luft eventually breaks down as a teenager, taking care of a drug-addled Garland and then upon the news of her mother’s death at 47; it’s then that the point-of-view registers most clearly — this is a wounded child who wears her family battle scars with pride.
Father Sid Luft, the producer, is treated like a saint in Robert L. Freedman’s straightforward script, which is generally free of the sanctimonious drivel that accompanies pics about drug addicts.
Film covers Garland’s life, starting with her family’s vaudeville routines in Grand Rapids, Minn., in 1924. Ethel and Frank Gumm (Marsha Mason as the domineering stage mother, Aidan Devine the benevolent father) take Baby Frances to Hollywood where, in 1935, Louis B. Mayer is treated to an impressive vocal display at her audition for MGM.
Young Judy, played by remarkable look- and sound-alike Tammy Blanchard, is put through the ringer at the studio until Mayer options L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wizard of Oz,” which he presents to her on her 15th birthday.
After a spell in which Shirley Temple is suddenly the studio’s top choice for the pic, Garland is back in the lead role and, for the first time in her young life, popping pills to stay slim and alert. No worry, though: Her buddy and co-star Mickey Rooney (Dwayne Adams) is living out of the same little orange bottles.
She makes 19 movies in nine years before landing in the lead role in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and in the arms of Vincente Minnelli (played as a helpless softie by Hugh Laurie). Re-enactments of her movie scenes are remarkably well done.
Robert Allan Ackerman’s direction is fluid and precise as the story moves from movie sets to nightclubs to an abundance of bedroom scenes — Garland in love, Garland searching for pills, Garland trying to awake from a deep sleep.
Eventually, the actress is attempting suicide, recovering and making yet another comeback. It’s a life pattern that will continue until her death.
Through it all, a delicate balance is struck between her two guiding hands — Mason as the stern mom, and John Benjamin Hickey, who plays vocal coach Roger Edens, as a sympathetic ear.
As much as Freedman bases his text on the Lorna Luft tome, he nicely sets up the foundation that was set early on for Garland and, one infers, allowed to persevere when the showbiz house of cards tumbled.
Director of photography James Chressanthis gives “Life” a realistic, down-to-earth tone. Pic is blessed with the Garland recordings — and the lip-synching is quite good — though review cassette did not include the score, corrected picture or final voiceover.