“Alone. What an awful word that is. And I know what it means.” (Judy Garland, I Could Go On Singing)
If you’ve read some of the posts I’ve done for past blogathons, you know I tend to write about actors and actresses in film roles later in their careers, like Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Katharine Hepburn. There is something about these more mature works that appeal to me over some of the earlier films. So of course I chose to write this blog post about Judy Garland’s last film performance, I Could Go On Singing (1963). I was intrigued by the way this film handled a familiar theme I’ve discussed before on my blog — the idea that a woman who has talent and pursues a career must ultimately choose between that career and love and/or a family, a choice men in films were almost never asked to make.
Most of us know how talented Garland was in musicals but many may not know she was a stellar dramatic actress in the handful of drama that she did in her career. It’s no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar for what amounted to a nearly-cameo performance in the post-WWII courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Singing is dubbed as a musical melodrama mainly because Garland gives some amazing performances at the London Palladium as part of her role as a successful torch-singing stage star but the film leans more heavily on the dramatic side. The musical numbers are mainly there to give us a taste of what it would have been like if we had been lucky enough to be in the audience of one of Garland’s sell-out stage shows which was where her career was focused for most of the 1960’s.
In many ways, Garland plays a character that mirrors real life. She is Jenny, successful singer and stage performer with a spot-on wit and a warmth and intelligence that comes out in every word she speaks. In this story, she does what many career women in film have done (and which she never did in real life) — she chose her career over family. She was in love twelve years before the start of the film with David (played by Dirk Bogarde), a rather stoic and conventional British doctor, but refused to give up her career to live happily ever after with him. This story has a twist that many of these earlier films do not. Jenny got pregnant and had a child, a boy, whom she and David both decided should be raised by David and the woman he eventually marries as an adopted child (why David decided not to tell his son Matt that he’s his real father is never explained, one of the flaws, in my view, of the film). So faced with the career vs family choice, Jenny chose the former. As I discuss in this blog post about two Bette Davis films that focus on the same topic, this would not have been the popular choice for these storylines.
Now Jenny is in London for some performances and she wants to see Matt. David is not only reluctant but downright unfriendly and forbidding though it’s clear she has no wish to harm the boy or even reveal she’s his mother. He finally does give in and as it turns out, mother and son are in the same boat emotionally and psychologically — they are both lonely and looking for a home. In fact, the original title for the film was The Lonely Stage (a much more appropriate title for the film’s theme, in my opinion). For Jenny, her years on the road have left her an empty shell and for Matt, his father has chucked him at boarding school for most of his life in favor of his busy career. As Jenny moves closer to Matt, she also comes to want what, in terms of the career vs family choice, no woman should — she wants it all. That is, she wants to have a relationship with Matt and even David and she wants to go on with her career.
What’s interesting about this film is the way in which Jenny is criticized and judged on all sides not so much for her visits with Matt but for her unwillingness to give up her career for him. Her manager George (Jack Klugman) and her dresser Ida (Aline MacMahon) both try to persuade her to forget about Matt and both are appalled when push comes to shove, Jenny intends to go as far as fight David for custody of Matt. Throughout the film, David is clearly apprehensive each time she sees Matt, rebuffing her friendly attempts to include him in their plans, and in one scene he calls her a “self-centered, grasping, egocentric little bitch”. He proceeds to turn Matt against her so that, in a heart-wrenching phone conversation, Matt makes a million flimsy excuses to reject Jenny’s attempts to see him.
This film does have its flaws. We’re never clear about David’s motives but it’s clear they aren’t exactly coming from fatherly love or concern for Matt’s well being. And the turn of events with both David and Matt (which I won’t reveal so as not to bring in too many spoilers) at the end doesn’t gel with their characters. Most people interpret the ending as a firm “no” to the question of whether Jenny can have it all, that is, a career and a family, but I think the ending is more ambiguous, perhaps a sign of the changing times. My discussion earlier of films with this theme talked about the 1950’s, but in 1963, we were moving away from the conventionalized images of women as housewives and recognizing that women could have it all and not be criticized for being selfish or insensitive. But even with the somewhat floundering storyline, the film is worth seeing for Garland’s memorable performance both in the drama and belting her heart out on stage in the performance scenes at the Palladium.