(Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland is so good and believable that it drove me back to my cuttings book to find my Evening Standard review of Garland’s opening night at the Talk of the Town in London on December 30, 1968.
A few small cuts for length had needed to be made by the features sub-editor on duty that morning, and may have included my worry that Judy might fall off the stage, because she looked so out of it. But the piece mainly reports, I think, the spirit of the evening and my youthful view of it.)
Last night Judy Garland appeared at the Talk of the Town, and if I pay scant attention to her trembling, uncontrolled vibrato and flat, cracked notes it is because her appeal to the audience did not rely on her singing ability. Her voice is not the world’s greatest, but this hardly detracts from a remarkable performance. To have mentioned it at all seems a rather unkind irrelevancy.
Her audience was ecstatic. She didn’t need to be able to sing, and in fact she didn’t overwork on that particular score. It was enough that she could scramble through that remarkable melodic bunch of songs with which she is associated – The Man That Got Away, Rock-A-Bye-My-Baby, You Made Me Love You, etc..
And yet she is a riveting entertainer. Now 47 she is still Dorothy on her way to Oz, still the little girl packed with spirit and fighting her way against some enormous odds, still an explosive compound of pathos, self-mockery, guts and comedy. She bawls, she totters, she does a mocking little tap dance, and then she struts and marches, all arched back and flaying arms like some very grand principal boy in her sequined Pearly Queen trouser suit.
‘They tell me I’m a legend,’ she quips, and it is not for us to question how she should have attracted such a reputation. She has. And it is only in this context that it is now useful to regard her.
During a remarkable performance of flying kisses and jokes for her stage-side enthusiasts, she dragged Danny La Rue up to give us a song – ‘I know, it’s my night,’ she explained, ‘but I’m tired’, used her musical director Burt Rhodes as a straight man for her frequent and lengthy comic asides, and generally gave an impression of complete disorientation.
To say that she played to her gallery would be to do her constant rapport with her army of devotees less than justice, and to complain that much of her between-songs dialogue was indistinct and confusing would be to miss the point of her appeal. It is precisely this gloriously defiant pathos that is the character of her charisma.
The climax of the ritual was, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which she sang quietly sitting cross legged on the floor under a single spotlight.
It was always a great song…