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Bio Hazards

King, Garland Docudramas Both Get It Half Right

By Adele Marley | Posted 2/21/2001

Boycott and Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows

You may be maxed out on television's penchant for celebrity biography, but it's easy to see why programmers find the form hard to resist: Real life conveniently outlines a script in advance, and the fact that the subject was famous in the first place insures a ready-made audience of admirers (or, at least, curious rubberneckers). Besides, compared to cable's thrown-together, compressed profiles of such bottom-feeding personalities as, say, Kelly Preston (who's mainly famous for being somebody's wife, according to Lifetime's Intimate Portraits) or unctuous romance- novel cover-boy Fabio (on The E! True Hollywood Story), dramatized sweeps events like ABC's Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and HBO's Boycott come off as high-minded and classy.

In the case of the two-part miniseries Life With Judy, ABC might be shooting too high, trying to capture Garland's entire life in detail without really exploring either her artistry or her extraordinary following. It's exhaustive but rarely enlightening.

The narrative comes from Lorna Luft's 1998 memoir about her mother, sorting through events in Garland's life from age 2 until her death in 1969 at age 47 from an overdose of sleeping pills. The docudrama unfolds in a predictably chronological fashion, tracing Garland's career from vaudeville and the silver screen to television and the concert stage. Judy Davis is beyond convincing as the older, droll, increasingly out-of-it Garland (although the 45-year-old actress would need a time machine to pull off her scenes as Vincente Minnelli's ingénue bride). But the later, druggier stages of Garland's career that Davis portrays so well aren't necessarily what cemented her rep as a Hollywood legend (although maybe a Hollywood Babylon legend, I suppose).

The young, perky, bewildered Judy played--or rather, impersonated--by soap actress Tammy Blanchard is coerced into a tyrannical studio system contract by her pushy stage mom (what other kind is there?), Ethel Gumm (Marsha Mason). Later, Judy's already punishing filming schedule is exacerbated by wall-to-wall promotional appearances and radio performances, and the studio arranges for a prescription of pep pills to keep the budding star's weight down and energy up, sparking what for her would become a lifelong addiction.

Garland eventually lands the role of a lifetime (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, duh), becomes a screen fave, and runs through five husbands quicker than she can drain a bottle of bourbon. It's interesting that the script avoids any discussion of Garland's status as the gay icon while volunteering that two of her husbands (not to mention her father) were homosexual. Connection? Who knows? That's the program's primary flaw: It's long on narrative but short on analysis, spreading itself too thin in order to make sure that it hits all the highlights. You could conceivably watch all four hours of this miniseries and never stumble upon what it is that distinguished Judy Garland as a performer; her victimhood is emphasized, but her genius is never adequately conveyed.

Boycott, starring character actor Jeffrey Wright (Shaft) as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (and directed by Homicide actor Clark Johnson), has a lot less pizzazz than Life With Judy, but it's also a more focused, more detailed, and--not coincidentally--more relevant.

The film describes the 1955-'56 protest by blacks in Montgomery, Ala., of segregation laws, a galvanizing event that propelled King and the civil-rights movement into the national spotlight. The African-American community boycotts bus service after mild-mannered seamstress Rosa Parks (Iris Little-Thomas) is arrested for refusing to give up her seat in an area designated for white patrons. Parks' lawyer (Shawn Michael Howard) decides that his client's squeaky-clean reputation would lend credibility to a case designed to challenge the bus-segregation in court. King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), are recent transplants to the community when he's nominated to be the head of the upstart Montgomery Improvement Association, a collective created to oversee the boycott and negotiate with city government while the legal battle ensues.

There haven't been many TV movies about the civil-rights movement (compared to, say, the number of TV movies about the Kennedys or World War II), and after watching Boycott I think I know why: Many of the pivotal moments happened at community meetings in church basements and the like--not the most dynamic and telegenic of events. In HBO's drama, Wright's spiffy MLK gives the occasional rousing speech, but for the most part the film's inert staging renders it kind of a snooze.

But Boycott's strength lies in how it gets beneath the hallowed Great Moments surface that characterize so many dramatic treatments of the movement. The chameleonlike Wright shifts easily between King's public and private faces--the charismatic, inspiring orator and avatar of nonviolence we remember, and the philosophical family man trying to acclimate to a new job in a troubled community. Similarly, the film takes the time to limn the day-to-day struggle faced by Montgomery's blacks. (Parks wasn't the only person to be hauled before a judge and fined for a defiant seating selection--she's just the only rule-breaker we ever hear about.) Montgomery's elected officials conspire with local businesses and even ordinary citizens to make life difficult for the protesters. Taxi fares are raised; whites are prohibited from giving blacks--even their employees--a lift; protesters who get around by car or on foot are routinely harassed and detained by the cops.

It's an unusual level of complexity for a TV biography, especially one about a virtually sainted icon. Whatever its relative flaws as drama, Boycott gets props for its ambition, and for portraying a historical figure within his own context rather than in hindsight--a great man on the verge of becoming great. In a way, the HBO film is like a vintage automobile: It's smooth, lovely, detailed, and its existence tells of another era, but it doesn't move quite as fast as you'd like.

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