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How there was no rainbow at the end of the yellow brick road for Judy

A new film starring Renee Zellweger charts Judy Garland's difficult final years after she had been spat out by the vicious studio system that had created her, writes Paul Whitington

Chewed up: Judy Garland was forced to take drugs and stick to a harsh diet by studio bosses
Chewed up: Judy Garland was forced to take drugs and stick to a harsh diet by studio bosses

By Paul Whitington

Renee Zellweger is making a comeback. A huge star in the 2000s, the Texan actress was shunted unceremoniously into the sidings once she hit 40 and has recently been criticised for altering her appearance. But on her day, Renee's still as good as anyone. She's been widely praised for her portrayal of an unhinged femme fatale in Netflix's rather odd thriller series What/If and later this year she'll take on a more daunting challenge in Judy.

Directed by Rupert Goold, the film is based on a play by Peter Quilter and set in 1968 as a troubled Judy Garland arrives in London for a series of concerts that would be her last.

Zellweger looks quite like Garland in the publicity stills I've seen, though perhaps not as gaunt and exhausted as the real Judy - a Hollywood victim if ever there was one.

Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, has been quick to distance herself from the production, but she must be used to this kind of stuff because, although her mother's been dead for 50 years, interest in her has never waned.

Her most famous film, The Wizard of Oz, is shown constantly, she's been the subject of numerous other stage shows and biopics and in the 1980s became a gay icon and a kind of secular saint.

Her life story almost reads like the trials of a Christian martyr, so packed is it with injustice and misfortune.

Things started brightly enough for Frances Gumm, who was born into a family of vaudevillians and took to showbiz like a duck to water.

She made her stage debut aged two and began touring as a singing act with her sisters when she was six.

In 1934 the group changed their name to the more attractive sounding Garland Sisters and Frances began calling herself Judy.

After no less a scout than Busby Berkeley was sent to catch the sisters' act, Judy was called to MGM for a personal audition with Louis B Mayer.

Renee Zellweger as Judy
Renee Zellweger as Judy

Her singing voice was so pure and rich that Mayer signed her on the spot without a screen test, but that doesn't mean he didn't care how she looked.

Her first feature film, called Pigskin Parade, was a musical comedy about a college American football team.

MGM's producers weren't happy with the result and told Judy she looked like a "fat little pig with pigtails" on the screen. She was too tubby, they decided, and put her on a brutal diet.

The studio's monitoring of her intake was so extreme that sometimes a plate of food would be whipped away just as she was about to eat it. As a result, she was permanently hungry. A dysfunctional cycle of starving and bingeing was already under way.

They capped her teeth, made her wear rubber discs that changed the shape of her nose and studio managers exchanged memos about her yo-yoing weight.

Somehow, Garland ploughed on and in 1939 was cast as Dorothy in a musical version of L Frank Baum's fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz. She was outstanding in a hugely demanding role, performing songs such as Over the Rainbow with incredible feeling and depth.

It was around this time that the studio began feeding Garland amphetamines to help her cope with exhausting shooting schedules.

She would later complain that MGM had stolen her youth. She received little or no protection from her pushy mother.

Garland was 17 when she filmed The Wizard of Oz. A year later she began the difficult transition to adult stardom.

Troubled soul: Judy Garland with Toto the dog in The Wizard of Oz
Troubled soul: Judy Garland with Toto the dog in The Wizard of Oz

She also embarked on what would be a spectacularly tragic love life.

In 1939 she fell in love with bandleader Artie Shaw and was crushed when he eloped with studio rival Lana Turner.

At 18 she got engaged to another musician, David Rose, and after they were married Rose was shocked by how little Judy was allowed to eat.

Louis Mayer insisted she live on black coffee, chicken soup and lots of appetite-suppressing cigarettes. This rank concoction kept Garland's weight at seven stone but caused untold damage to her health.

To MGM, Judy was property, nothing more. When she got pregnant, the studio persuaded her to have an abortion.

She divorced Rose in 1944, the same year she achieved top billing for the first time, opposite Gene Kelly in the hit musical For Me and My Gal.

She was at her very best in Meet Me in St Louis, a classic musical family saga that's since become a Christmas favourite.

It was directed by Vincente Minnelli and he and Garland fell in love. They married in 1945. Their daughter, Liza Minnelli, was born in 1946.

Minnelli was good for her, but their marriage soon became turbulent, mainly because of Garland's insecurities.

In 1947, when they were filming musical adventure The Pirate together, Garland had a nervous breakdown and was put in a sanitarium.

Ever the trouper, she returned to finish the film but then attempted suicide. She recovered and in 1948 returned to the MGM lot to make one of her best-loved pictures, Easter Parade, with Fred Astaire.

Her performance was perfect but soon after she began drinking heavily.

In 1949 she was suspended by MGM after failing to show up for work on The Barkleys of Broadway. In 1950 she left MGM for good.

There was more self-harm, drink, drugs and bad relationships, but Garland had remarkable tenacity.

In 1951 she began what was supposed to be a two-day engagement at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Her vaudeville show ran for 19 weeks and she won a Tony Award.

In 1954 she made a spectacular film comeback for Warner Brothers in A Star is Born, a moving remake of the 1937 melodrama.

Garland was astonishing as Esther Blodgett, a young singer who falls in love with a fading movie idol (James Mason) and refuses to give up on him, but the movie didn't make any money and her film career never quite recovered.

Instead, Garland became a kind of torch singer in the mould of Edith Piaf, selling out theatres across America and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.

In March of 1969 she married her fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans, in London, but just three months later she was found dead in the bathroom of her Chelsea home.

The cause of her death was most likely an accidental drug overdose, but her health had been failing for years. As Wizard of Oz co-star Bert Lahr movingly put it, "she just plain wore out". She was 47.

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