Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Judy

Was Judy Garland really addicted to pills? Was she abused by Louis B. Mayer? We break down the biopic.

Judy Garland, and Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the movie Judy.
Judy Garland, and Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by CBS Television and Roadside Attractions.

Judy is a biographical drama about singer, actress, and Hollywood icon Judy Garland. It was also Renée Zellweger’s ride to a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress, an award she is expected to win. The 50-year-old Zellweger plays Garland at 46, holding up a magnifying glass to the tumultuous months before Garland’s death in 1969.

The movie was adapted from Peter Quilter’s musical play End of the Rainbow, which, in the playwright’s own words, has more “elements of fantasy” compared with the movie. So what’s faithful to Garland’s life, and what elements of fantasy remain? We consulted a variety of books and articles to find out.

Early Life at MGM

Side-by-side of young Judy Garland, and Darci Shaw as young Judy Garland in the movie Judy.
Young Judy Garland; Darci Shaw as young Judy Garland in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Judy Garland Database/Wikipedia and Roadside Attractions.

The film opens on a young Judy Garland, during her time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio with whom she had an exploitative relationship that lasted more than 15 years. MGM’s abuse is personified in the figure of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). In the opening moments, he walks with young Garland through the set of The Wizard of Oz and tells her how lucky she is, belittling and vaguely threatening her at the same time. Mayer is also physical with her, at one point cupping her face in his hands and telling her that she’s his “favorite.” In a later scene, Mayer goes further and tells her she sings from the heart, then puts his hand on her breastbone. This probably happened, and is likely based on a scene described in biographer Gerald Clarke’s book, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland: “Whenever he complimented her on her voice—she sang from the heart, he said—Mayer would invariably place his hand on her left breast to show just where her heart was.”

It is no secret that MGM in Hollywood’s Golden Age was controlling, and that it was worse for women. “When he signed his actors and actresses to a contract, Mayer maintained, he bought them: They were his, body and soul,” writes Clarke. “Most of the stars, particularly the women, might as well have worn a sign saying ‘Property of M-G-M.’ Having sex with the female help was regarded as a perk of power, and few women escaped the demands of Mayer and his underlings.” According to Anne Edwards in an earlier biography, Judy Garland: A Biography, other gossip linking Mayer and Garland, beyond inappropriate touching, was never confirmed: “For most of her life Judy denied any such liaison.” But as Edwards also acknowledges, “It is a widely accepted fact that he had a penchant for very young girls and that he was possessed of an acute God complex which made the young women he felt he had created the most attractive to him.”

Side by side of Louis B. Mayer, and Richard Cordery as Louis B. Mayer with Darci Shaw as Judy Garland in the movie Judy.
Louis B. Mayer; Richard Cordery as Louis B. Mayer with Darci Shaw as Judy Garland in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Acme and Roadside Attractions.

Throughout the movie there are periodic flashbacks to unhappy scenes from MGM, many of them featuring food deprivation. A young Judy is forbidden from eating cake and hamburgers. Zellweger’s Garland later has an interview in which she talks about her chicken soup diet. All of the diet details are based in fact, and indeed they only convey a fraction of MGM’s control over her. Garland was on a strict diet to control her weight, a regimen that included not just too much chicken soup and diet pills, as depicted, but also black coffee and cigarettes to curb her appetite. Later, she was on Seconals—the sleeping pills on which she ultimately overdosed—to offset the fact that the diet pills kept her awake, which became the basis of a lifelong dependency, according to Edwards. If the diet itself seems rigorous to the point of abuse, it was just one aspect of the studio’s control over Garland’s life, Edwards writes: “For nearly seventeen years she worked, slept, ate, appeared in public, dated, married, and divorced at [Mayer’s] command. He even exerted supreme authority over any medical crisis in her life.”

Relationship With Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry)

During her studio years, Garland was indeed close to Mickey Rooney, and as Karina Longworth, the host of the Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, once explored in Slate, she really did become infatuated with him. The two were MGM’s top-earning stars at the same time, taking their pills together and spending nights at the studio hospital on cots. According to Edwards, Rooney was Garland’s “oldest friend.” But in reality, as suggested in the movie, Garland’s crush on Rooney was unrequited. Rooney would go on to date fellow MGM stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner (the latter of whom he married), but he later told his mother that Garland was more like a sister to him.

Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux)

Side-by-side of Liza Minnelli, and Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli in the movie Judy.
Liza Minnelli; Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor and Roadside Attractions.

Liza Minnelli makes a brief appearance early on in the movie. Although the real Liza Minnelli publicly announced ahead of Judy’s premiere that she had not sanctioned the movie, Minnelli’s brief appearance in the movie seems fairly faithful to the facts. According to Edwards, “Liza has said of her early years that it was difficult to know who was mother and who was daughter,” but the two were nonetheless extremely close. And while Garland may have been an unconventional mother for that time, “the love she had for her children was always Judy’s most genuine quality,” as Garland’s ex-husband Sidney Luft wrote in his memoir, Judy and I: My Life With Judy Garland.

Marriage to Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell)

Side-by-side of Sidney Luft, and Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft in the movie Judy
Sidney Luft; Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor and Roadside Attractions.

Judy Garland was married five times. The two husbands who appear in Judy are Sidney Luft, her third husband and the father of her two younger children (Lorna and Joey), and Mickey Deans, the young nightclub owner who would be her fifth and final husband.

In the movie, Luft is more of a foil than a fully realized character—a plot device that threatens to separate Garland from her children. Luft’s visit to Judy in London, where he tells her that the children want to stay where they are (i.e., with him) is one of the two incidents that instigates Garland’s tardy, drunken performance at the London club the Talk of the Town, where she is booed and gets bread rolls thrown at her (more on that performance, and those bread rolls, later). Except for a few bitter exchanges in which Garland and Luft blame each other for their dire financial straits, the movie only shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Luft’s control over Garland. But it’s worth noting that, in reality, Luft had been much more than just Garland’s ex-husband: He had also been her manager for many years, and according to biographer Edwards, Luft’s decade of “absolute control” and influence over Judy’s life was akin to the control Mayer had over her at MGM.

The couple also really did battle over custody of their children—through multiple near-divorces, separations, and reconciliations—and their relationship was even more tumultuous than the movie depicts, with Garland having accused Luft in court of being an abusive husband. And while there is no account of Luft flying to London to tell Garland she was an unfit mother, the Edwards biography suggests that Garland felt guilty and inadequate as a parent, recognizing that Luft was “the more qualified of the two to be a parent” despite the fact that he was “unstable.”

Marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock)

Side-by-side of Mickey Deans and Judy Garland, and Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland with Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans in the movie Judy.
Mickey Deans and Judy Garland; Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland with Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans in Judy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Allan Warren/Wikipedia.

Garland’s relationship with the other husband depicted in the movie, Mickey Deans, similarly mixed romance and business. The real-life Deans became Garland’s lover and manager as well as husband. Unlike the way it was shown in the movie, however, Deans did not show up to Garland’s London hotel room hiding underneath a food trolley. Garland was very self-aware, according to an account in The Golden Girls of MGM by Jayne Ellen Wayne: She invited him to accompany her to London for the Talk of the Town engagement, “in need of a manager and husband.”

In the movie, one of Deans’ moves as manager is an attempt to finagle a deal for Garland, involving branding a chain of theaters with her name. Judy Garland Cinemas was a deal that could have been that did indeed fall through, just as it does in the movie. However, according to Scott Schechter in Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend, neither this failed deal nor the subsequent fight with Deans is necessarily the second cause of Judy’s disastrous performance at the Talk of the Town, the way it’s suggested in the film.

London Performances

In Judy, Garland’s five-week engagement at the Talk of the Town officially ends with her tardy, catastrophic performance. Garland stumbles onto the stage late and inebriated, directly as a result of the two pieces of bad news she hears from Luft and Deans, respectively. This fits neatly into Judy’s narrative of Garland as a hot mess: glamorous and empathetic but ultimately self-destructive and tragically flawed.

The truth is more quotidian, if darker. Judy was more than an hour late because she had been suffering from the flu and the audience had been upset because it’d been kept waiting but not properly informed. Accounts disagree about whether Judy was either one hour and 10 minutes or one hour and 40 minutes late, but they all confirm that she was ill. Deans was the one who insisted that she perform, despite her tears.

In the movie, the disapproving audience starts booing and throwing what appear to be bread rolls at the stage. But it was actually much worse than that, according to both Edwards and Schecter: The real-life audience also threw cigarette packs, rubbish from ashtrays, lumps of sugar, and even a glass, which shattered onstage.

Garland’s unofficial finale at the Talk of the Town was also different from what was portrayed in the movie. In Judy, Zellweger’s Garland begs singer Lonnie Donegan (John Dagleish) to allow her onstage for a chance at redemption. She redeems herself during this fictional impromptu performance with a lively rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which is met with applause. She then begins “Over the Rainbow” until she is overcome with emotion and stops, whispering, “I’m sorry,” to the crowd. The crowd ends up finishing the song for her, led by her two gay friends (who are fictional characters, presumably meant to reference Garland’s status as a gay icon). This uplifting scene is likely a dramatization of an incident during Garland’s last week at the Talk of the Town. According to Edwards, Garland couldn’t quite hit the final note in “Over the Rainbow,” and “a young girl in the audience with a soprano voice finished it for her. Judy laughed delightedly and applauded her.”

Talk of the Town impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), bandleader Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson), and Garland’s personal assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) were also real figures, although the real-life Burt Rhodes was white, and Wilder’s role in particular is considerably fleshed out for the movie, in a move that “surprised” the real-life Wilder, who was a consultant for the movie.