Thursday, June 10, 2010

In Memoriam: Judy Garland

Before she was America's Addict and America's Falling-Down Drunk, Judy Garland was America's Sweetheart; despite all her subsequent travails, it was the beauty and innocence of her very public childhood that seems to have preserved her at her best in the public's mind despite a tragic and very public self-destruction later in life...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketA child star (along with her sisters, 'Suzy' and 'Ginnie', as the Gumm Sisters) in a string of minor, mostly singing, roles throughout the mid-Thirties - mainly in one- and two-reelers, where she was considered 'the poor man's Deanna Durbin' - led to her being cast as Dorothy Gale in MGM's all-star adaptation of L. Frank Baum's classic children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; the film was a flop upon its initial release, which should give you some idea how ahead of its time it was. Nevertheless, it made her a star.

She met the Forties with verve, belting her way through a string of highly successful musicals such as Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls, as well as tirelessly entertaining US and Allied troops over Armed Forces Radio; although no one knew it at the time, the heavy doses of amphetamines it took to keep her tirelessly entertaining (especially when countered with the barbiturates it took to bring her down again) sent Garland into the deadly spiral that would one day claim her life...

When her movie career got shaky after A Star is Born (1954) so great was her need to entertain that she took to the stage despite crippling stage fright, wowing audiences with a voice no auditorium in the world could contain. She made a few movies in the Sixties, but they were merely minor successes*, and eventually she became uninsurable, due to her failing health and increasing unreliability.

Yet through it all she kept her sense of humour about herself, and with a self-effacing wit - of the kind her daughter Liza Minnelli (by Garland's first husband, famed film and stage director Vincente Minnelli) has been turning into a grotesque parody of itself for years - Garland not only kept but grew her fan base through the lean years. It just goes to show how forgiving the public is; addiction, failed relationships, hospitalizations, rumours of being trouble to work with all mean nothing provided you don't start to take yourself too seriously, or start to believe the hype your own fans feed you. In Garland's case, her various comeuppances were very humbling indeed...

In the end it wasn't movies, records, or concerts but television which came to the rescue of her career, in September 1963; despite its troubled production**, The Judy Garland Show is today treasured by Garland's fans and scholars alike for its sheer entertainment value. Alas, television isn't about entertainment but pleasing sponsors, and the sponsors weren't pleased with the rumours of backstage chaos being circulated in the press and along the Hollywood grapevine. The show was cancelled in March 1964, after just 26 episodes.

There are those (myself included) who contend that her death, in June 1969, contributed substantially to the Stonewall Riots which began five days later, on the evening of her funeral. Whether or not that's true, I like contributing to the myth that the gay icon to end all gay icons played some, even indirect, role in helping us attain our current level of liberation. If only we'd been able to repay her by helping to liberate her from her considerable demons while keeping her alive.

Born on this day in 1922, Judy Garland died twelve days after her 47th birthday...

*And, in at least one instance - 1963's A Child Is Waiting - cult classics.
**At least according to Mel Tormé, whose 1970 book The Other Side of the Rainbow chronicled (some said unfairly) life backstage at the show.

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1 comment:

TheQuestionMan said...

Damn, I did not know she died.

I wondered. Thanks M.