“SID & JUDY”— Garland’s Second Act


Garland’s Second Act

Amos Lassen

Documentary film maker Stephen Kijak’s “Sid & Judy” looks at the complicated relationships and career of Judy Garland following her leaving MGM in 1950.  The story is primarily told from Garland’s third husband and manager, Sid Luft’s point of view, The documentary moves through the meeting and marriage (1952-1965) of the couple through her death in 1969 at the age of 47.

Kijak had access to unpublished material including the Sid Luft Trust and he gives us a unique and thought-provoking story of Garland who was frequently over-exposed and misunderstood. Rare photos and recordings, including many of Luft’s taped telephone conversations with Hollywood insiders allow us to understand Garland’s environment and attitudes. We gain an intimate look into relationship and career shifts, transitions and challenges.

Narrated by Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Sid & Judy” has never before seen photos that highlight Garland’s beginnings. Kijak’s balanced approach lets us think about and the depth and problems that Garland faced as a  person controlled by those who saw her as a commodity. We see a new perspective on kind of what was going down and how people treated her and talked about her and, in fact, talked about women in general. Kijak was challenges was to “craft a counterpoint”

to soften the harshness that Garland sometimes conveyed. He believes that by contextualizing her words that sometimes became rants, we can get insight into the world that generated these responses and understand the basis of her rage and anger.

Kijak says that [Garland] “was a great interpreter. And it’s like the music is one aspect of it. I mean, she’s vaudeville, she’s radio, she’s movies, she’s stage, she’s— it’s TV. It’s like this one artist has arced over almost every great American entertainment art form over the course of her life. There’s very few people that have been that.” “…it’s the weight of history she carries through her in her voice and in her performances that is kind of unlike anything that we’ve seen before.”

The 13 years that Luft and Garland were married coincided with her mid-career “comeback,” as it was regularly touted in the press, after she was fired from MGM. Garland, who was at this point deeply into addiction resulting from the tremendous pressures of fame at a young age. She had a reputation for being volatile and unreliable. In spite of having several hits, she would never again achieve the movie star status that defined her time at MGM. 

Over the course of her 13-year marriage to Luft,  Garland had two children and he remained her manager until she died in 1969 at age 47. He would later write about their relationship in a book that was eventually published in 2017. Garland was never able to tell her own story in full. Looking for a way to stave off financial ruin in the 1960s, she attempted to put together her own autobiography. Some of her writings, as well as tape-recorded dictation meant to be used for the book, are today part of a Columbia University archive. We hear some of those recordings in “Sid & Judy.” But it is through the voices of others that a fuller portrait of Garland’s life comes forth.

The most astonishing material in “Sid & Judy” comes from the recordings Luft secretly made of his phone calls with Garland’s business associates. As their marriage began to disintegrate, Luft blamed his wife’s financial trouble. To insure himself against negative claims, he began taping his personal conversations  without the consent of the other party.

“Everyone involved is dead yet we get a firsthand peek into what was happening. What is most revealing about the recordings is the way in which Garland is discussed as if she were an object instead of a person. In one October 1963 call with CBS programming executive Hunt Stromberg Jr., Luft is told about a “very, very unpleasant and unfortunate night” on the set of Garland’s musical variety show. “I’m aware that when you get in that state, you’re not responsible for some of the things you do,” Stromberg said. “But if somebody has leprosy, Sid — it is highly regrettable, but you stay away from them.”

“Certain people are getting her too much junk,” Luft responded, speaking about Garland’s pill addiction. “It just reaches a point where you just say, ‘Aw, … it!’” the executive said. “Somewhere along the line, she got mixed up,” Luft lamented. “Maybe it was partially my fault. Maybe, uh, I mixed her up. I don’t know.”

The documentary does avoid Garland’s lifelong battle with prescription medication and alcohol. In excerpts from his memoir — which are read in the film by Jon Hamm — Luft describes how the actress’ weight was “constantly monitored” from the time she was a young girl working at MGM.

Luft admits that he was “enabling” her drug problem, coming up with a plan to employ an MGM doctor “to monitor her and keep her on an even keel.”

The addiction ended the marriage. When Luft tried to control Garland’s pill intake, she turned his “concern into a game” and Garland would later die from an accidental barbiturate overdose while traveling in London.

The relationship between Garland and Luft perplexed many in Hollywood, including those close to the couple. At first, their relationship was a slow burn. Luft even wrote in his memoir that he was “not attracted to her at first,” and in 1951 — before they were married — he reacted horribly when she told him she was pregnant.

Garland and Luft would go on to have two children together and Garland would sometimes stay up all night and leave love notes for her husband to find in the morning.

The degree to which men controlled Garland’s life, both emotionally and financially,  is a theme in “Sid & Judy.” Director Kijak has said he was astonished when he first heard the way that the men were discussing Garland, a grown woman in her 40s as a “sad, poor girl.”