The Oscar that got away from Judy Garland could be won by Renee Zellweger

Perhaps Renee Zellweger will have better luck than Judy Garland did at the Academy Awards. Zellweger, who won supporting actress for 2003’s “Cold Mountain,” is the favorite to take home the Oscar next February for her haunting portrayal of the legendary star/singer in the acclaimed “Judy.”

Exactly 65 years ago, Garland was the front-runner to receive her first Academy Award for her powerhouse performance in “A Star is Born,” George Cukor‘s lavish musical version of the 1937 William Wellman classic tale of a matinee idol on the descent who marries an ingenue on the rise.

When the star-studded premiere at the Pantages Theatre aired live on TV on Sept. 29, 1954, star after star told host Jack Carson, who also appears in the film, that Garland was a shoo-in for Oscar gold. Dean Martin told the crowd Garland would probably take home every accolade and Lucille Ball echoed his sentiments.

Reviewers loved Garland in her comeback movie role and her leading man James Mason. New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther waxed poetic: “Cukor gets performances from Miss Garland and Mr. Mason that make the heart flutter and bleed.” I still get goosebumps whenever I hear Garland’s heartbreaking rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”

Garland was in Cedars-Sinai Hospital Oscar evening, March 30, 1955, having given birth to her third child and only son, Joey Luft the day before. But something like a birth wasn’t going to stop the Academy Awards from covering her win. The actress recalled in a 1957 McCall’s what happened Oscar night:

“There I was weak and exhausted…. As I lay in bed, the door burst open and in came a flock of TV technicians. I already had my television set in my room but they dragged in two more huge ones. When I asked why two sets, I was told that I would have to talk back and forth to Bob Hope, who was the master of ceremonies at the awards, and they couldn’t take a chance on one of the sets not working properly. Then they strung wires all around the room, put a microphone under the sheets and frightened the poor nurses…..

Outside the window I could see the cameraman on the tower getting ready to focus on me in bed. We listened to the whole ceremony, the excitement building up. Then Bob announced the winning actress. It was Grace Kelly. I didn’t have time to be disappointed, I was fascinated by the reactions of the men. They got made at me for losing and started lugging all their stuff out the room. They didn’t even say goodnight.”

So it was “Golden Girl” Kelly who won for her performance as the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic singer (Bing Crosby) in “The Country Girl.”‘ There was outrage.

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Groucho Marx didn’t find Garland’s loss a laughing matter. He sent a telegram stating “This is the biggest robbery since Brinks.” And gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that Kelly only won by seven votes stating: “You know who those seven votes were, don’t you? They belonged to those bastards in the front office of MGM.” Of course, Hopper was referring to Garland’s old studio who fired her after “Summer Stock.”

Because unabashed Garland fans — I converted to “Judy-ism” myself when I first saw “The Wizard of Oz” on TV at the age of five — are still angry she didn’t win the Academy Award, Kelly has gotten a bum rap. The fact of the matter, the future Princess of Monaco was very good in “The Country Girl” and also won the Golden Globe for lead actress in a drama, the National Board of Review best actress honors for the film as well as her two Hitchcock classics she made that year-“Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window” and the New York Film Critic Circle best actress for all three films. Garland won the Globe for comedy and was a nominee for the New York Film Critics Circle best actress.

“The Country Girl” had strong backing from Paramount, but the same wasn’t true with Jack L. Warner and Warner Brothers for “A Star is Born.”

Last year,  I interviewed Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft about the book, “A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away,” which she wrote with film historian Jeffrey Vance. Her mother and her father, Sid Luft, had produced the expensive production. “I’ve always said, they won the Kentucky Derby,” she noted. “They ran the race. They crossed the finish and the horse came up lame. “

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Luft acknowledged there were many delays in the production because Warner looked at various formats in which to shoot the film-they decided on CinemaScope and Eastman Color. And her mother’s well-known personal demons, which are also depicted in “Judy,” lead to delays. “The movie is about watching someone’s star rise, watching someone’s star fall. It’s about love and it’s about tragedy. It is truly art imitating life, imitating art.”

The $6 million, three-hour “Star is Born” started well at the box office, but Jack’s older brother Harry wanted more bums in the seats, so ordered the the film to be cut by 30 minutes. Critics were not happy. “A star is shorn…..every cut leaves a gaping hole,” groused Crowther. And the new shorter version bombed at the box office.

Despite any major campaign by Warner Brothers, the film managed to get six nominations. Besides Garland’s best actress loss, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin‘s brilliant torch song “The Man That Got Away” lost the Academy Award to the white-bread romantic ballad, “Three Coins in the Fountains”

And with the film’s failure, Garland’s hopes for a movie career ended. She starred in three films in the 1960s, earning a supporting actress nomination for supporting actress for 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg. She lost to Rita Moreno for “West Side Story.”

She was broke and more dependent on pills and alcoholic in 1968 when went to London to perform at the Talk of the Town and where she would die a year later of an overdose. And it is this Garland at the end of her tether that Zellweger captures so hauntingly and tragically.

If Zellweger wins for “Judy,” she’ll also be winning for Garland.

SEE A Best Actress Oscar win for ‘Judy’ would make Renee Zellweger the 7th member of this elite group

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