- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2001

The casting seems so improbable — Judy Davis playing Judy Garland. This is a very contemporary actress with no known musical talent playing an old-school diva with one of the century's most distinctive singing voices.

But once you have seen how the difficulties are handled in "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," a two-part TV movie showing on ABC Feb. 25 and 26, it actually seems half-sane. The four-hour work based on the biography by Lorna Luft, one of Miss Garland's daughters, skirts the problems of nonmusical actors through lip-syncing.

While all the scenes from her movies and concerts were re-created, and we never see a shot of the real Miss Garland in the movie, it's Miss Garland's voice we hear on the soundtrack. This leaves the actors free to act, and that's the strength of the movie.

Tammy Blanchard plays Miss Garland through her years of teen-age stardom. In terms of physical resemblance, Miss Blanchard is nothing short of perfect. In the scenes of Miss Garland collapsing on the set from exhaustion, she seems a bit callow. But that's the other side of Miss Garland's teen personality — the illness at ease, the belief she was just plain-ol' Frances Gumm inside.

When Miss Garland ages a bit, she is played by Miss Davis, who gets off to an inauspicious beginning.

When "Me and My Shadows" re-creates the shooting of "The Trolley Song" from "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1944, Miss Davis has the same long red-orange hair as Miss Garland's and is wearing a dark velvet dress trimmed in white lace, identical to Miss Garland's. That technical perfection underscores how absolutely wrong her face is for these early scenes.

However, the casting pays off handsomely later in the scenes as Miss Garland grows older. Now, Miss Davis, one of the world's best actresses, can play her appropriately, and she is nothing short of marvelous.

The best scenes in the film come when Miss Davis plays Miss Garland onstage. What Miss Davis can do, and does brilliantly, is act like Miss Garland sang. She conveys in those performance scenes through her body language, through her facial expressions and sheer stage presence the same sort of over-the-top intensity and let-it-all-hang-out emotional nakedness that defined Miss Garland's 1950s and 1960s career as a singer.

After finishing "San Francisco," "Swanee" or "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," Miss Davis glows with a joy so intense and so needy that she has to press the flesh of people in the front row in the Rat Pack-era equivalent of a mosh pit.

She does just as well with the quiet rendition of "Over the Rainbow" and the spry "Get Happy" in the film's coda.

Miss Davis also is no mean shakes in some of the nonperformance scenes of Miss Garland's later life. She talks to a shrink about Frances Gumm, and Miss Davis' voice conveys, without saying, something of Miss Garland's insecurity and alienation. It's also hard to top Miss Davis' assured gestures as a tough old diva, when Miss Garland puts in their place (she thinks) the CBS executives who are having trouble with her TV show's low ratings.

"Me and My Shadows" also has some weak spots. The plot overall is a bit patchy — an inevitable problem with a biopic that attempts to cover a whole lifetime. I would have loved to have had enough scenes from the shooting of "A Star Is Born" to tell us how or whether the irony of the role spurred Miss Garland into the performance of a lifetime. As it is, you would not know from "Me and My Shadows" that she is playing an up-and-coming actress married to a fading star who is destroying himself with booze.

There's also the familiar story of how the role of Dorothy almost went to Shirley Temple. So we get a scene of Miss Garland being told the role will be taken from her. However, in the very next scene, she is told that the Temple auditions (never seen) didn't work out as hoped and also that 20th Century Fox would not release Miss Temple from her contract (no scene of moguls negotiating). This detail has no drama around it at all.

Everybody knows that Miss Garland's late career was pockmarked by pills, booze, weight problems, financial troubles, broken marriages and a series of increasingly less successful comebacks. I'm sure this is the material author Luft knows best, but the plot sets up some awkward issues, including what I somewhat uncharitably will call the "Mommie Dearest" scenes.

"Me and My Shadows" is not even remotely in the league of Christina Crawford's hatchet job, and Miss Garland's woes are so well-known as to be almost hackneyed, but there still are uncomfortable parallels.

Also, huge chunks of "Me and My Shadows" take place before Miss Luft was born, so it's hard to see what particular knowledge she would have, especially of the scenes in which a voice-over purportedly of an adult Miss Luft describes Miss Garland's childhood.

Then there's the character of the second daughter — a mini-Mother Teresa who just happens to be based on the source material's author. When she's about 8 and the judge in her parents' divorce case asks which parent she would rather live with, she says her father will get along fine without her, but her mother needs her. It smells of looking at a mirror through rose-colored glasses.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows"WHERE: WJLA (Channel 7)WHEN: 9 p.m. tFeb. 25 and 26

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