Star stricken: the agony and ecstasy of working with Judy Garland

Ideas

Star stricken: the agony and ecstasy of working with Judy Garland

The scriptwriter for the star’s final film reveals the daily dramas of a diva in decline

Mayo Simon

I got into the story by accident. It was 1961. My Hollywood producers were developing a couple of films: I was working on a Cold War love story between an American girl and a Russian ballet dancer. Another writer was writing a film for Judy Garland involving a concert date in London, a chance meeting with an old lover, and the discovery of the child she gave up years before. It was called The Lonely Stage. The other writer couldn’t get the tone right, so the producers asked me to drop the love story and rewrite the Judy script.

Her movie career had been rocky for years, but the producers were confident this film would bring out the best in her. My orders were to catch the real Judy Garland: her speech, her wit, her charm, her connection with audiences. “She’s doing a concert in New Jersey. Spend a day with her,” I was told. “Watch, take notes, be a fly on the wall.”

A week later, we’re sitting in a modest dressing room outside a vast auditorium in Newark, waiting for Judy. There’s her agent, David Begelman, her dresser, her assistant, and a blond kid with a dispatch case in his lap; also me, the fly on the wall. The door opens and a short, fat, middle-aged woman appears in a buttoned-up overcoat and a babushka around her head. She could be the cleaning lady without the mop. It takes a while to realise this is Judy Garland. I still don’t recognise her, but I recognise the change of atmosphere...

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