Tom Gliatto
March 05, 2001 12:00 PM

When Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows finished filming last fall in Toronto, singer Lorna Luft wanted to give something personal to Judy Davis, the actress who’d spent months playing Luft’s legendary mother. Luft decided on a leather photo album Garland had taken with her everywhere. “It had the JG on the front,” says Luft, “and originally had childhood pictures in it of us”—Luft, now 48, her brother Joey Luft, 45, a photographer, and half-sister Liza Minnelli, 54. When Davis unwrapped the gift, “she fell apart,” says Luft. “She’s not real emotional, but she just grabbed me and sobbed.”

After all, the 45-year-old Australian actress had just survived the emotional obstacle course that was Judy Garland. Still best known as Dorothy from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Garland was only 47 when, alcoholic and addicted to a dangerous array of pills, she died of a drug overdose in 1969.

But Davis wasn’t crying solely from relief. Studying hundreds of hours of footage for the four-hour ABC miniseries based on Luft’s 1998 memoir and airing Feb. 25-26, “she fell in love with Garland,” says director Robert Ackerman. “And it’s hard to break up with a lover.”

She became so infatuated, Davis said in January, that she eventually felt happiest dressed up as the other Judy. “Miss Garland,” she said, “was a much more interesting and talented person than me.” Yes and no. The two-time Oscar nominee (1984’s A Passage to India, 1992’s Husbands and Wives) is a powerful, nervy actress, and Shadows gives audiences a chance to see her really go to town. (Tammy Blanchard plays the younger Judy.) Davis doesn’t try to match that voice—the singing is lip-synched—but “she absolutely caught my mother’s essence,” says Luft, daughter of Garland’s third husband, producer Sid Luft.

Unlike Garland, however, Davis will probably never be close to the movie industry’s epicenter. True, she has won plenty of awards (among them, an Emmy as Glenn Close’s lover in 1995’s Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story) and been championed by Woody Allen, who cast her in four films (including Husbands and Wives and 1998’s Celebrity). “All I have to do,” he has said, “is put the camera on her, walk away and let her acting genius take over.” But Davis, with her ghostly complexion, is no conventional beauty. And though all went well on the Shadows set, she has a reputation for butting heads with directors. “The weaknesses in my personality,” she told Premiere in 1994, “are impatience and sometimes intolerance.”

She seems to have little use for Hollywood, preferring to spend her free time in a harbor-front home in the Sydney area, where she lives with actor Colin Friels, her Scottish-born husband, and their children, Jack, 13, and Charlotte, 3.

Davis herself was brought up some 2,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean port city of Perth. Her conservative Catholic parents, who frowned on movies, “didn’t want any social trouble,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “Their great misfortune was having me for a daughter, because it’s never been part of my nature, that.”

Indeed not. In her late teens she spent time in Tokyo singing in a pop band. By 1975, however, she found a better outlet for her energy at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. There she met Friels, whom she wed in 1984, and played Juliet to teenager Mel Gibson’s Romeo. “Every time…he walked onstage,” she later said, “a ripple would run through the audience.” By the late ’70s she’d made a big wave herself as a headstrong young writer in director Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career. The movie launched Davis’s own brilliant career, in which she has earned raves for films far from the mainstream.

Which seems to suit Davis just fine. “I’m not a celebrity. Never wanted to be one,” she told Britain’s Observer in 1999. “She’s very private,” says her friend, NIDA director John Clark. And devoted to her family in both hard times (Friels underwent an arduous cancer therapy in the late ’90s) and good. When Luft met Davis last year in L.A., she says, “Charlotte was running around, and Jack played the guitar. Judy had taken them to Disneyland.” The family is now back home in Sydney, where Davis is filming a comedy, The Man Who Sued God, with Friels. As for the other Judy, somewhere over the rainbow she may be smiling. “My mother,” says Luft, “would really have liked Judy Davis.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang and Irene Lacher in Los Angeles and Dennis Passa in Sydney

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