Poor Judy Garland.
It wasn’t her fault.
She didn’t ask to be force-fed pills to keep her weight down during the filming of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Nor did she ask for the ensuing drug addiction that would eventually kill her. She didn’t ask for the mental illnesses, the tyrannical studio execs, the tabloids spewing her tumultuous private life all over the press. Yet she kept making movies, kept dancing, kept smiling.
By the time she starred Ronald Neame’s I Could Go On Singing (1967)—her final film role—she was only 41. Yet she looked more like 65. Her skin had the texture of soaked and dried newspaper. Her hair curled into a wiry bouffant that redirected all attention right back down to her pale face. Her eyes were pregnant with the sorrow and despair familiar only to addicts. I Could Go On Singing isn’t a movie: it’s a 99 minute heartbreak.
Garland plays Jenny Bowman, an American superstar singer returning to London in the desperate attempt to meet Matt (Gregory Phillips), the illegitimate son she gave up 14 years ago. The reception with the boy’s father, famous physician David Donne (played by Garland’s real-life best friend Dirk Bogarde), is chilly. Furious at her cowardice in leaving their child for her career and astounded by her impertinence in wanting to enter his life, he allows her one meeting. Just one. Then they can never meet again. During that one time, she’s not even allowed to reveal herself as his mother. She quickly agrees. Predictably, she breaks it even quicker.
You can appreciate I Could Go On Singing on two levels. The first is as a superb piece of entertainment. Years of drug abuse and rehabilitation may have aged her physically, but from the opening moments of her first solo performance where she dips and dances backstage to the sounds of her own overture, Garland proves herself as remarkable and enthusiastic a show-woman as has ever graced Hollywood. There are only a handful of musical numbers—with one exception we only see her perform when she’s onstage for concerts—but steals each one.
She good-naturedly minces her way through a rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” with her son and the other members of his boarding school’s drama club. She sings to, tears down, and rebuilds the rafters with her bombastic rendition of the jazzy “Hello, Bluebird.” The tears and regret are palpable in the ballad “It Never Was You,” a delicate ballad which, incredibly, Garland performed live in one take with jazz pianist Dave Lee accompanying her. You can watch Garland write the playbook for her daughter Liza Minnelli in “By Myself” (many might disagree, but I feel like her notorious, ill-fitting red dress which reportedly got approved without costume designer Edith Head’s knowledge was a perfect in-character touch).
Finally, “I Could Go On Singing,” the last song of both the film and her film career, is nothing short of an apotheosis. How appropriate, how poetic that her swan song would be written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, the songwriters responsible for the number that made her immortal: “Over the Rainbow.”
The second way to appreciate I Could Go On Singing is a painful biography of Garland’s final years. In this way, she becomes her own Greek chorus, her musical numbers commenting on the action. Her hunger for Matt becomes the hunger for the normalcy she was denied by the press, by the public, by the pictures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the last scenes where David confronts Jenny at a hospital after she twists her ankle in a drunken stupor. Desperate to get her to a performance on time, he begs her to go with him. But she’s had enough of that life. In one long take, the two have the following conversation:
“I can’t be spread so thin. I’m just one person. I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”
“Now you know that is not true, don’t you?”
“Well I’m not going to do it anymore. And that’s final. I—it’s just not worth all the deaths that I have to die—“
“You have…you have a show to do tonight. You are going to do it and I am going to see that you do.”
“You think you can make me sing? Do you think you can…you can get me there, sure. But can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to. Just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want. Do you understand that?”
It’s a powerful scene made all the more powerful by a simple truth: it was improvised. During the filming of the scene Garland went off script. Thankfully, Bogarde stayed in character, allowing Neame to capture a moment of Cassavetes-like spontaneity and emotion. For that moment, we are no longer watching two characters. We’re watching two colleagues, two old friends comforting each other.
I wonder if Bogarde knew Garland was doomed. I wonder if Garland knew herself? I suspect the answers are all right there in that scene.
I Could Go on Singing is currently available on a limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Features include an isolated score track, audio commentary with producer Lawrence Turman, and film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, as well as audio commentary with film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros.