If you look at Judy Garland's filmography, you'll notice that her output slows down considerably around the early 1950s. There's a good reason for that: studios had more or less decided that Garland wasn't worth the trouble. Her scandals had begun to outweigh her professional output, as she went through a series of very public battles with drugs, alcoholism and depression (not to mention going through a series of marriages). From that point on, her career proceeded in fits and starts, with projects falling apart as often as not. Still, there were late-career moments when she reminded everyone of her extraordinary talent: her Oscar-nominated work in A Star is Born, her legendary Carnegie Hall performance, her impressive dramatic turn in Judgment at Nuremberg and her near-autobiographical work in the melodramatic musical I Could Go on Singing.
That last one isn't as well-known as the others, but it's arguably the most revealing piece of art Judy Garland ever made. She plays Jenny Bowman, an American torch singer who is on tour in England. During her visit there, she reconnects with David Donne (Dick Bogarde, The Servant), a physician she was romantically involved with many years ago. We learn that David and Jenny had a child together, but that Jenny ran off shortly after giving birth. Now that child is a teenage boy named Matt (Gregory Phillips), and he believes that he's David's adopted son. Jenny hopes to get involved in his life in some way, and David reluctantly agrees. Things go well... until Jenny's old habits begin to catch up with her, anyway.
There are more than a few echoes of Garland's own life littered throughout the film (she was even going through her own custody battle at the time), just as there were in A Star is Born. Garland may have been falling apart at the seams (all involved with the movie felt she was nearly impossible to work with, and sometimes that frustration is reflected in the film's dialogue: “You haven't changed. You never will. You're nothing but a self-centered, grasping, egocentric little bitch!”), but she deserves credit for finding a way to use her despair as fuel for her increasingly-tormented performance. The film's high point arrives late in the proceedings, as a hospitalized Jenny delivers a monologue on the struggles of fame. Reportedly, most of the speech was improvised, as she tossed aside the script's purple prose and spoke from the heart about the cost of fame and the one thing that still gave her happiness: “I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to, just for me. I sing for my own pleasure.”
Admittedly, the film is more interesting as a not-so-subtle examination of Garland's life than it is as a piece of fiction on its own terms. Large chunks of the plot are standard-issue melodrama, and it becomes all too easy to see where the film is going long before it gets there. Still, the two leads work well together (Bogarde's oh-so-restrained demeanor serving as refined counterpoint to Garland's more nakedly emotional performance), and the frequently-inserted musical numbers (in which Garland's voice still sounds fairly rich and full) tend to give us a break from the story at precisely the right moments.
I Could Go on Singing would turn out to be Garland's final film. She would live for another six years, but could never manage to see another project through to completion. Watching the film, I occasionally thought of Richard Burton in 1984, Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits: the talent is still there, but there's a bone-deep weariness in the performance that almost hurts to watch. Yes, she springs to life when she sings... and yes, the film concludes on a note of hope and optimism. Even so, the undercurrent of exhaustion and sadness is what lingers with you. This is a flawed-but-fitting swan song for an eternally troubled star.
I Could Go on Singing
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 1963