My grandmother is a highly accomplished pianist—though if she heard someone put it that way, she might object, humble to the heart. Born in middle America during the Great Depression, she began playing after my great grandparents noticed her plunking out pretend concerts on a windowsill, as though it were a keyboard. Lessons cost a nickel, she told me once. They were worth it. Before she was even a teenager, my grandmother earned money playing at local venues with her father in a family band.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been mesmerized by her ability to pluck any melody from the air and translate it through her fingertips. And when I started piano as a child, she would often watch over my practicing. Sometimes, she would play and I would sing. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was one of our favorite duets. Back then, I thought it was beautiful—still do. But while I have long known every lyric, it took years for me to recognize the sorrow beneath the song.
The Wizard of Oz, for which the tune was written, premiered in 1939 and was adapted from Frank L. Baum’s novel of nearly the same name, published at the turn of the century. Judy Garland was a tender 16 when she appeared in the film, a touchpoint of her career. Born Frances Ethel Gumm to vaudevillian parents, she began performing onstage as a child and signed a contract with MGM at 13.
But though Judy Garland would grow into a screen icon over the next decade, headlining beloved hits like Meet Me in St. Louis and Babes in Toyland, stardom came at the cost of her childhood. She was failed by the people who should have been her protectors and advocates. The consequence was an adult life riddled with addiction, financial troubles, failed relationships, and abuse.
These elements of Garland’s story have been explored in biographies before and with brutal specificity in Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, set during a stint of performances Garland did in London months before she died, at 47, from an accidental overdose. That same era is the backdrop for Judy, which stars Renée Zellweger as the titular lead and is now in theaters.
Directed by Rupert Goold, the movie pivots between Garland’s teen years and troubled adulthood: lascivious threats and cruelty from Louis B. Mayer, the MGM head at the time she was filming The Wizard of Oz; extreme dietary restrictions courtesy of the studio; pills to stay awake, pills to go to sleep. According to the film, Garland takes a gig—a nightly act for sold-out crowds at a posh club called Talk of the Town—to pay off debts and make money so she can provide a more stable home for her two younger children.