Judy Garland can still draw ’em in

Mar 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Let’s see how many conclusions we can draw from the fact that ABC’s movie about Judy Garland was a big fat huge enormous success.
How’s this for one startling insight: If you make a really good movie with a brilliant performance by a gifted actor (Judy Davis, in this case), people just might watch it?
More than 20 million viewers saw Part 1 of “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” There was some drop-off in Part 2, but the movie still took honors as the highest-rated film shown on a network this season, theatrical (Lordy, Lordy, it beat “Titanic”) or made-for.
Here’s another thing it proves: Not only gay males love Judy Garland. That dumb old cliche still gets recycled all the time. After I reviewed the movie and raved about it, I got a call from a Washington rich guy who owns one of the city’s pro athletic teams. He said he liked the review and that he loved, just loved, Judy Garland.

I rather doubt that he’s gay. Judy Garland was a gifted, inspired, deeply affecting singer. That’s what made her a star, not any one constituency.
Even so, when hack writers make jokes about gay guys, they always say they like Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. I went to a Barbra Streisand concert (I think it was her penultimate final tour), and two queenly old butterflies sat behind me, jabbering all through the show. They wanted to be gay stereotypes. Some people do.
Talent rises above
But to the left of me, right of me, in front of me and all around me, there were plenty of people who were by all appearances heterosexual (or homosexual without feeling the need to announce it) and were there because they wanted to hear Barbra Streisand sing. That was the tour where she also gave a political lecture about how virtuous Bill Clinton was. Whoa, Babsy! But we were willing to put up with that crap to hear the golden voice.
As James Cagney memorably says at the end of the movie “Love Me or Leave Me”: “The kid can sing. About that, I was never wrong.”
But back to Judy Garland. How gratifying it was that this film went through the roof. I don’t have the demographic breakdown, and probably the audience wasn’t in that absolutely ideal, sponsor-sought-after 18-to-49 range. Or come to think of it, maybe it was. (Often it seems the sought-after range is 13 to 14, but that’s another problem.)
One thing the big showing means is that, God bless ’em, people remember. They remember the little girl with the pleading brown eyes who played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” which aired on commercial network television about 30 times before Ted Turner got his grimy hands on it and restricted it to cable. In fairness to Turner, though, well, 1) I don’t know if his hands are actually grimy and 2) Turner Classic Movies, which he owns, generally treats movies lovingly and respectfully, and that’s where “Wizard” first aired on cable.
It was shown uncut and uninterrupted, like all the movies on TCM, and the print was gorgeous and the sound was super. (A “stereo” soundtrack of the film became possible when all the various components of the audio track were found in their separated, pristine, natural states.) Then later the film was shown on TBS or TNT, the two trashy Turner stations that basically air 24 hours a day of promos and commercials interrupted for snippets of programming.
Stop the overexposure
We can hope that the Turner people won’t show “Wizard” too often, the way they do with some of the films in the library-“Ben-Hur,” for instance, which should be held back and given “event” status. Something is wrong when you can wake up at 6:30 a.m. and see “Casablanca.” No, no, no, these iconic milestone movies should be aired sparingly, given their due.
“Judy Garland” brought real class and pizazz back to the network movie genre. CBS’s Sunday night films usually uphold the honor (don’t laugh) of the species, but otherwise networks are in the movie business only halfheartedly.
Of course now that the news divisions are producing movies, things get more complicated. NBC’s tacky “Dateline” and CBS’s fitfully low-brow (sometimes no-brow) “48 Hours” often bill their more lurid stories as “mysteries” or even “mystery movies.” Well of course when the day came that you could edit tape like film-even more easily-the news-division “movie” was probably inevitable.
Badly done reality
CBS dabbled in this unsavory business a few years ago with a series of movie-length documentaries that used every cheap trick in every cheap book to turn stories about and starring real people into movielike productions. The umbrella title was “Before Your Eyes” and in the first one, which aired in 1994, an anguished Michigan family “played” themselves as they hunted for a missing daughter.
At least two of these “Eyes” things were produced, each two hours long. The producer, who there’s no point in naming, screamed at me for my review of the first one, but then I did call it “a crime against nature,” among other things. Maybe these exploitative tearjerkers were, in a way, precursors to today’s reality shows.
“Judy Garland” was a true story about a real person, but it was done with theatrical imagination and style and not produced by a news division, and you got the feeling that everybody involved was working at top speed and top form. An Emmy for Davis ought to be just the beginning of the honors the film receives. But drawing 20 million people on a Sunday night, with dozens and dozens of channels competing madly for their attention, is a great honor, too.
Somewhere over the rainbow, Judy Garland is taking one more richly deserved bow. Damn, but that movie was good.