What is it about the magical career and tragic ending of Judy Garland that rivets us half a century after her death? Why is she a saint-like icon for gay men and other devotees? And who isn’t a fan? Well, certainly nobody’s trolley I’d want to clang.
Luckily, thanks to the Judy bread crumbs that come our way every so often, she has never truly left the public consciousness — and not just thanks to drag queens and that generation-hopping slice of perfection, “The Wizard of Oz.”
But the best bread crumb to come along in a good while is the buzz around “Judy,” starring Renée Zellweger. The new movie, which is based on the play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, depicts the final months of Ms. Garland’s life while she was performing her now legendary concerts at The Talk of the Town in London in the late ’60s. “Judy,” which played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals this summer and goes into wide release Friday, is a Pavlovian drool-fest for the Judy-obsessed among us.
This year is also the 50th anniversary of her death, which preceded the Stonewall riots, the go-to birth date of the modern-day gay-rights movement, by just a few days. For some, both events were commemorated in June with equal reverence, proving that Ms. Garland’s funeral is forever linked — however dubiously — to a bunch of fed-up queens who had simply had enough of police raids on their West Village neighborhood bar that hot night.
And speaking of her burial, we’ve even had a literal Judy resurrection (of sorts) and reburial. With very little media coverage two years ago, her remains were exhumed from the Ferncliff Cemetery north of New York City and reinterred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery at the request of her three children, who now live in Southern California. The Judy Garland Pavilion is a spiffy mausoleum in a cemetery where dozens of fellow celebrities, from Rudolph Valentino to Hattie McDaniel to, as of this month, Valerie Harper, are her neighbors. It’s also a pilgrimage spot in the middle of the city that transformed her from little Frances Ethel Gumm to the powerhouse Judy Garland.
Her mystique is perhaps the ultimate Hollywood fairy tale, complete with an evil stage mother (Ethel Gumm was the un-fairest of them all, by most accounts; Ms. Garland reportedly referred to her as the “real Wicked Witch of the West”) and a villain (Louis B. Mayer, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer co-founder who frequently referred to her as “my little hunchback” and encouraged her addiction to diet pills).
But what “Judy” aspires to portray, one hopes, is Ms. Garland’s overwhelming need to love and be loved, whether by her romantic partners or her three children or her multitude of fans.
What makes “Judy” so alluring is that Ms. Zellweger, in addition to doing her own singing — so we won’t, thankfully, have to endure bad movie lip-sync trauma — doesn’t seem to be doing a caricature of Ms. Garland, if the trailer is to be believed. Ms. Zellweger, whose own appearance in recent years has been the subject of gossipy press, hasn’t been transformed into freakishness by bad makeup. Instead Ms. Zellweger — who is just a few years older than Ms. Garland was when she died — seems to have the vulnerability, talent and world weariness to pull it off.
Perhaps she can capture the full emotional impact of Ms. Garland’s last chapter the way that the great female impersonators, such as Jim Bailey and Tommy Femia, did fleetingly but brilliantly through songs and a bit of nightclub banter in their careers.
Part of the Judy allure is, of course, her tragic demise: It’s the classic life-cut-short tale so many of us are drawn to, from James Dean to Janis Joplin to Prince. Her unparalleled celebrity also remains intriguing; as with figures such as Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland’s highs and lows — the booze, the pills, the husbands, the meltdowns on the Hollywood set — loom large.
But it’s her raw talent that has kept her in that never-fade-out posthumous spotlight that shines on so few. There’s a good chance we won’t have Ariana Grande impersonators in sophisticated nightclubs in 30 years or YouTube deconstructions for those who think Lady Gaga was robbed of an Oscar for her performance in “A Star Is Born” 65 years from now the way we’re still analyzing Ms. Garland’s loss in the same role to Grace Kelly in 1955. (Groucho Marx reportedly sent Ms. Garland a telegram the next day: “Dear Judy, this is the biggest robbery since Brinks.”)
The internet has also kept the Judy mystique alive in both hilarious and reverent ways. Just witness the Punchy Players online with their splicing of clips of Ms. Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli from Ms. Garland’s 1960s TV show into a skit about grocery shopping (complete with Ann Miller at the checkout counter). Or the various takes of “The Man That Got Away” from “A Star Is Born,” especially the final cut, which may be the greatest 4 minutes and 38 seconds you’ll spend on this planet. Or consider a 14-minute YouTube retrospective of her career. It’s exhausting to watch what a person can pack into 47 years.
The saddest part of “Judy” hitting big screens soon is that we know how it will end. We know that Ms. Garland did not fade into old age. She didn’t wave to her fans from a balcony as Doris Day did in her 90s. Nor did she become a staple of ’70s variety shows like Bob Hope or a fixture on daily talk shows like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Ms. Garland truly burned out — a victim of the Golden Age of Hollywood that served up so many victims as it churned out the facade of happiness and hope for generations.
But little Frances Gumm of Grand Rapids, Minn., was transformed into Judy Garland — in all her brilliance and tragedy — and the joy she brought to millions is singular, if only through the lens of “The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps the most watched and rewatched movie of all time, 80 years later. “Judy” will depict Ms. Garland’s last chapter in all its sad finality, but we’ll have Judy again for a couple of hours. And then we can go home and rely on YouTube and our memories to help get us through, come rain or come shine.
David Belcher is an editor and writer with the Opinion section in Hong Kong.