2019 is shaping up to be the year of Judy Garland.
Fifty years after the legendary entertainer’s death, she’s the subject of not only the biopic Judy, in which Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland is generating Oscar buzz, but of the documentary Sid & Judy, which looks at her life and career during her marriage to her third husband, Sid Luft. It premieres tonight on Showtime after having been screened at film festivals, including San Francisco’s Frameline.
The documentary, directed by Stephen Kijak and written by Kijak and Claire Didier, draws on Luft’s memoir, Judy and I, plus the recorded musings of Garland, clips of her performances, family photos, and more — including interviews with LGBTQ fans such as Albert Poland and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who speak to Garland’s status as an icon of the community.
Kijak, who is gay, admits he was a bit daunted by the task of portraying what Garland means to her LGBTQ fandom — “What more can be said about Judy and the gays?” he asks rhetorically. But he found in doing the interviews that there is still something to say.
Poland, who founded the Judy Garland Fan Club as a teenager in 1955 and went on to become a Broadway producer, was in the audience at Garland’s triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. “At the time of Carnegie Hall, her constituency wasn’t yet as gay as it was eventually, but she was certainly aware of us being there,” Poland, a gay man, says in the documentary. “She was our goddess. We all knew about the troubles she had had, and we would see her up on the stage rising like a phoenix, and it meant that we could do it too.”
Also in the film, transgender activist Griffin-Gracy, one of the Stonewall rioters, says of Garland, “You can’t help but appreciate somebody who looks at you and sees who you are. It seemed as if she understood. She made the gay community feel as if they had the right to be whoever they needed to be.”
Both were wonderful “gets” for Kijak. There are few people left who attended Garland’s Carnegie Hall performance, and “Albert was such a great witness to that,” the filmmaker says. Likewise, there aren’t many people still around who were at the Stonewall Inn on those nights in June 1969 when gay, bi, and trans New Yorkers rose up against police harassment. Kijak doesn’t buy the theory that Garland’s death, a few days earlier, helped ignite the riots, but he does note that Griffin-Gracy told him that after the first night of the rebellion, she put a Garland album on the stereo. “It was just fabulous to talk to her,” he says of Griffin-Gracy.
Kijak adds that he once considered Garland an LGBTQ icon for an earlier generation, but now he’s encountered numerous 20-somethings in Garland drag. He wasn’t always a particular Judy fan — his mother favored Barbra Streisand, and his own tastes run to jazz, blues, funk, and new wave (he was born in 1969, so the 1980s was a formative decade for his musical preferences). But in making the film, he came to recognize her gifts, especially in certain genres. “She’s a fantastic jazz singer” in addition to her mastery of show tunes and ballads, he says. “I was drawn in by that level of talent.”
Kijak has made documentaries about a broad range of musicians — including the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, X Japan, and Scott Walker, a 1960s crooner who became avant-garde. He also made the 1996 narrative film Never Met Picasso, about a gay 30-year-old (Alexis Arquette, pre-transition) searching for a meaningful career. The Garland project came to him because his manager was friends with the manager of the Sid Luft Trust (Luft died in 2005). The trust had the rights to most episodes of Garland’s 1963-1964 TV variety series, many photos, voice recordings, and a particular treasure, Luft’s memoir, which was discovered in a box in his garage. Kijan had access to the memoir a few months before its publication in 2017. “It just looked like a perfect opportunity to find a new way to tell Judy’s story,” he says of the trove of resources. He had no idea the biopic, which he hasn’t seen but intends to, was in the works. “It’s just fabulous that it coincided like that.”
“What was great about the memoir is it gave us a really nice frame,” he says, encompassing the 1954 film A Star Is Born, Garland’s TV series and specials, and her concerts in New York, London, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and many other cities — a different time frame from Judy, which details the last months of her life, though it does include some flashbacks and a portrayal of Luft. Garland and Luft were married from 1952 to 1965; they began their relationship after a chance meeting in 1950, when both were married to other people — she to director Vincente Minnelli, he to actress Lynn Bari. They soon fell passionately in love — it would be hard to know Garland and not love her, given her charm, wit, and warmth, Luft says in his memoir — and married once they were both free.
When they met, Garland’s career was at a low ebb. She had been fired by MGM, where she had made such classic films as The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Clock, demonstrating a talent for both dramatic and comedic acting as well as extraordinary singing ability. But her dependence on drugs to wake her up and put her to sleep, and exploitation by the studio and one of the world’s worst stage mothers, had taken a toll. She had developed a reputation for being temperamental and unreliable. She was considered washed up before she was 30.
Luft, who had been an amateur boxer and a producer of low-budget movies, not only became Garland’s husband but took control of her career. He arranged her concert bookings, produced her TV specials, and most notably, produced A Star Is Born, a musical remake of an acclaimed 1937 film about a Hollywood actress whose star rises as her actor-husband’s falls. Directed by George Cukor and costarring James Mason, it was a signature achievement of Garland’s later career, although not an unqualified critical or commercial success, partly because theater owners insisted it be cut severely from its original three-hour running time to allow for more screenings in a day. But Garland was lauded and Oscar-nominated, only to lose unexpectedly to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.
Kijak’s documentary charts this and many other aspects of Garland and Luft’s tumultuous life together, including her health problems, suicide attempts, and struggles to overcome addiction. Luft had his issues too. There are those who see him as one more in a long line of people who exploited her, including Garland herself, who accused him of gambling away her money, and he admits in his memoir that he was no angel, among other things pressuring her to have an abortion before they married. Asked if Luft was a hero or villain in Garland’s life, Kijak says, “You can’t come down on one side or the other” — both Luft and Garland come across as mixed. But “they wouldn’t have been together that long or achieved what they did if there wasn’t some real love between them,” he adds.
When the doc isn’t using recordings of Luft and Garland’s actual voices, it uses the voices of two gifted actors — Jon Hamm reading Luft’s words from the memoir, Jennifer Jason Leigh voicing Garland whenever she’s quoted in it. Kijak has ample praise for both, calling Hamm “a classy dude and a great actor” and Leigh, a longtime Garland fan, “Jennifer Genius Leigh.”
The film is also enhanced by Laura Karpman’s jazzy score, which fits in well with Garland’s songs, and of course the footage of her performances is a highlight for any of her fans and will probably produce more acolytes. Kijak says he’s happy to help audiences experience Garland in concert. And, just a hint without giving spoilers, the images in the end credits are worth staying tuned for.
Kijak hasn’t received feedback from three people who knew Garland particularly well — her children, Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft. He doesn’t know if they’ve seen the film at any festivals, but if they catch it on TV, he says, “We hope they like it.”
Above all, he says, he seeks to help viewers relate to Garland and Luft. “For me, it was all about finding a balance and creating a portrait of the marriage that had aspects of the truth,” he says, adding, “It’s all about empathy.”
Sid & Judy premieres Friday at 8:05 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on Showtime and will air several more times on the cable channel; check local listings. It’s also available on demand beginning Friday. Watch a trailer below.