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Tuesday, March 1, 2011


America's Eternal Sweetheart: Judy Garland.

The contradiction between the real and the reel life has always been stark. Still, despite the fact that we know that our stars and the drama and extravagance of the cinematic world are glamorized, we somehow come to identify a screen persona as the person herself. Judy Garland, therefore, remains a bashful, awkward, yet enchanting innocent. She represents the eternal, hopeful child within us, and her voice echoes the power and passion dwelling inside even the most silent or insecure of vessels. She was the Hollywood ugly duckling who blossomed into a beautiful swan, emerging as the personification of our own transformation of self-conscious youths to (hopefully) secure adults. Her humility in her roles and the profound grace of her musicality have made her eternal-- the girl unanimously loved and forever remembered. She is the only performer with the ability to gain our trust and carry us far and away, even over the rainbow. In front of the camera, Judy was at her best, but oh how different the tale of her personal life. As delicate and lovable as her Betsy Booth was, just as dark and tormented was her true nature. Judy Garland was ever-lovable. Frances Gumm, however, was plain shocking.

With good pal and constant collaborator, Mickey Rooney,
as Betsy Booth in Love Finds Andy Hardy.

A career in performance was almost inevitable for little Frances. Her father, Frank, who was said to have had an angelic, entrancing voice of his own, was notorious as an entertainer, singer, and theater manager. Her mother, Ethel, was an ambidextrous and driven, if not equal, talent who often played the piano while her husband sang. All three of the Gumm sisters would be pushed onto the stage, but it was the captivating presence and awe-inspiring voice of the youngest girl that would cause the most ruckus. After Ethel recognized the pint-sized girl's larger-than-life talent, all hopes for a normal childhood or a normal life were gone. Though Frances was a mug from the start, adoring life in the spotlight and the love of an audience, she was too young to be positioned as the family breadwinner. After her beloved father passed away, leaving her completely at her mother's mercy, things only grew worse. Smothered, ordered, and condescended to, she would grow up as many child stars do-- with brittle bones, never knowing the strength of independence or the liberty born of personal choice. Thus, the Judy Garland born at MGM in 1935 was destined for stardom and cursed with insecurity.

In her most famous role, as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.

The more Judy's onscreen persona was solidified as the good-natured, shy girl-next-door in films like Love Finds Andy Hardy or Babes in Arms, the more she tried to create a vastly different identity in her personal life. In her early roles, she is the hopeless romantic who is always passed over, which was indeed reflective of reality. However, Judy did not sit waiting for Prince Charming to wake up and notice her; she made him notice. While contending with beauties such as Lana Turner, Judy-- who was referred to by LB Mayer as his "little Hunchback"-- hurled herself into romance after romance in the hopes of finding absolution-- to prove her screen self as false and find herself as a woman. Thanks to Mayer and her casting in dowdy roles, Judy didn't think she was beautiful, and she never would. She wanted to be Lana, Hedy, anybody. Becoming sexually active early, she tried to disappear into the arms of men who at least in their actions would insinuate that she was someone worthy, someone better. She never understood her appeal, but as she matured, her natural beauty was unearthed from her teenage awkwardness; a dark and intense young woman and a sexual dynamo in lamb's clothing can be seen in Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Clock. Garland was gorgeous, and this coupled with her charm and humor endeared many men to her, as friends and/or lovers: Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, Mickey Rooney, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, etc.

Dark Side of a Bright Star.

But Judy's sexual confusion translated to a great many of these romances. In her quest for a loving man to replace her father and establish her feminine identity, she indeed replicated her father-- a homosexual-- by becoming involved with many men who too were homosexual. She married Vincente Minnelli, with whom she birthed Liza. Another lost love of her life was Ty Power, who was bisexual. She also had, or tried to have, an affair with the closeted homosexual Tom Drake in Meet Me in St. Louis, and in later life, she became involved with Mark Herron, who too was gay. In between she had legitimate relationships with first husband, the good-natured but fairly bland David Rose, mostly as a means of escape from her tyrannical mother, and the imposing bruiser Sidney Luft, who was the antithesis of the sensitive, creative, and artistic men whose sexual natures had been deteriorating to her sense of self. (Ironically, Liza would continue the strange trend of impossible love started by her grandmother Ethel by marrying homosexual actor Peter Allen in 1967, at Judy's suggestion). Judy became far too dependent on the opposite sex for gratification, validation, and love. Bled dry emotionally and financially, Judy was never short of men who wanted to give her attention and affection, but she was lacking a strong and supportive man who could give her the freedom of herself.

Revelling in her inner clown in Easter Parade
with Fred Astaire.

Drugs too were a contributing factor. Pumped full of uppers and downers by her own mother by the age of ten, Judy didn't know how to function without the aid of chemical substances. Her emotions were erratic, undependable, and incredibly fragile. When not coddled-- like the child she was raised to be-- on the set, she was stubborn, uncooperative, and chronically late and/or ill. When shown support, favoritism, and friendship, she could forget her insecurities long enough to come to work energized, fresh, and willing. The triggers that set her off were as unpredictable as her nature. A harsh word from Busby Berkeley could send her on a crying jag; a kind word from Fred Astaire inspired one of her best performances in Easter Parade. To be near her was to live in constant fear, as her children could attest, and the need to walk on egg-shells for fear of upsetting her fragile psyche spawned tension wherever she went, which only added to her own nervous energy. In every still photo of Judy where she is not in the midst of singing, there is a barely discernible look of terror in her eyes-- something dangerous-- as if at any moment she may scream out and tear her own flesh off. Haunted, plagued, unglued, she could never seem to pull herself together. But then, she wasn't treated as a person. As writer J. Randy Taraborrelli so eloquently put it, she was MGM's favorite ATM: "deposit drugs-- uppers, downers, whatever-- and out comes money, and lots of it." Her welfare was not a prime concern.

In one of her elegant yet somehow fearful poses.

Raised in a dramatic world, Judy knew how to feed on the drama. She had several failed suicide attempts, which garnered public sympathy or antipathy depending on who was asked, but in each case her self-mutilations were barely injurious. She would cut at her throat with glass, just enough to draw blood, but not enough to do harm. These were not quests for death, but loud and resounding cries for help. Cries that went unanswered. Judy had to be her own defender, her own champion, but the only place she felt truly strong and secure was on the stage. After liberating herself from MGM in a bittersweet moment in 1950, she returned to public singing and underwent another transformation as the travelling, musical orator of all human love and pain. Judy wanted to be a dramatic beauty queen, of which she had the capability, but her gift was entertaining. When she hams it up onstage in "A Couple of Swells" in Easter Parade, she is magical in her absurdity. This is what audiences loved about her. This is what she brought to the stage, along with her supreme voice. Every time she sang "Over the Rainbow," no matter how old she got, it brought tears to her own eyes and the watching eyes of her fans. Up and down and up and down, with movie performances sporadically thrown into her older years, Judy journeyed, singing to whomever would have her and hoping that there would at last be an applause to embrace her and make her feel safe at each show's end.

In a brilliant shot depicting the dual nature of one of
Hollywood's most complicated ladies and the
mirror that haunted her.

Judy's show was over on June 22, 1969 when she died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 47. She was found hunched over on her own toilet. The little girl whose brightness and innocence had wooed us all the way to "Oz" had disintegrated under the pressures and clawing of a life gone haywire. How do you consolidate two such individuals? How can both exist from and within the same being? Such a thing seems impossible. There is one who lives on in wide-eyed wonder in an imaginary world of vibrant color and willful triumph, forever skipping on the yellow brick road, and there is another whose life was turned upside down by the ravages of the tornado and forced to deal with the wreckage left behind. One is a dream; another is a truth. Judy's final victory is that her fans have embraced the dream, and it is into this dreamworld that she continues to draw us like a nonthreatening siren quelling us with the lullabies and beauties a harsher world would otherwise not allow. Bless her for that.


  1. Gosh, Meredith, your post is so well written and dear to Judy that it made me cry. This is an excellent portrait of her, as great as she was. The ambiguity of the lady always amazes me. It's so sad she couldn't find anyone to help her cope with the complexity of her mind. She was so witty and emotionally deep that she was ahead of her time. I always wonder what could become of her if she was born in the middle of the female liberation of sixties and seventies and had the freedom to decide upon her body and life from the beginning. In the thirties and forties she had to respect the cruel demands of her parents and the movie industry, what crushed her physically and psychologically. There will never be another like her.

    Many congratulations on this beautiful post!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Danielle. I agree with all you said. Getting to know Judy was surprising and saddening, but her talent compensates for all the negativity in her life. Be sure to stay tuned, because next week I will be writing an article about the very subject you mentioned-- the treatment of actresses in a man's world! Judy will definitely take up a big chunk ;)

  3. Hi Meredith!

    I loved it! I'm looking forward to reading your text on the way women were (are, actually) treated in a men's world.

    Kisses. Have a great weekend!