Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Stars I Love: Judy Garland

I'm sure the triple threat above needs no introduction, and any attempt I could manage to thread together probably wouldn't encapsulate her talent or my admiration of her. In the two years of running Oh So Geeky so far, I'm surprised that I've only mentioned this actress and singer in passing. When anyone mentions movie star worship, Judy Garland is as close as it gets for me.

Every one has his or her idol, someone that no other person in the history can hold a candle to. It may be a historical figure, movie icon, or music legend that arrives in the midst of our teenage years and wakes us up in a way no other person we've seen or read about had done before. Growing up, my mom was (and still is) obsessed with Classic Hollywood. My family has always treated films like its own religion; we devoured them for fun, debate, and even aspiring occupations. So when I say that I had seen Judy Garland movies during all of adolescent years, I truly did. Turner Classic Movie channel was something of a surrogate parent to me, where I had seen all of her movies like Meet Me In St. Louis, the Andy Hardy series, and The Harvey Girls dozens and dozens of times.

On a freezing cold evening in the fall, I was strangely adamant about watching The Wizard of Oz. It's not like I hadn't seen before, but like a moth to a flame I was stubborn about watching the musical without hesitation and without any family interference like dinner time or homework. I all but barricaded myself in mother's bedroom huddling into her bed and just fell in love with the girl I was seeing on our tiny television screen. At thirteen years old, she eclipsed every musical group or Disney actor that was a phenomenon for my generation. One isolated viewing was all it took for me to be absorbed with the singing and acting sensation who played Dorothy Gale.

Judy Garland's life is the stuff of legend, tabloid fodder, "celebrity tell-all's", and the underbelly of dark gossip. As a little girl she captured vaudeville audiences at the age of five singing alongside her sisters. Her mother wanted a better life for her family and uprooted the Gumm Sisters (Garland's original surname) to Hollywood, where MGM made her a household name as a teen. When she was chosen over Shirley Temple for The Wizard of Oz at sixteen years old, her performance and incomparable rendition of Over The Rainbow set her up in film history forever. But the troubled duet of Hollywood and Garland was just beginning.
"MGM had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pep-up pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills . . . Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep-up pills again so we could work another 72 hours in a row. I started to feel like a wind-up toy from FAO Schwartz." - Judy Garland
With a voice, vulnerability, and exuberance of a woman twice her age, Garland's life in film was met with plenty of co-stars who deemed her as the best performer they ever worked with or met. Personally plagued with expectations from studio execs like Louis B. Mayer for not being beautiful or thin enough, (he often called her "his little hunchback") and painful insecurities leading to excruciating diet restrictions set by the studios; she was often medicated with weight loss pills, sleeping pills, and pep pills to keep up with filming schedules, radio performances, public appearances, and recording studio sessions. By her early twenties, she had suffered psychological breakdowns and attempted suicide; incidents that continued as she aged. The substance abuse plagued the rest of her life as multiple marriages and financial woes contributed to her the soaring highs and debilitating lows of her career.

Despite of the grand nature of the MGM musicals she helmed, becoming one of the biggest box office stars of her generation, her performances are uniquely intimate.  When I watch Garland evolve from her early days as a juvenile actress to a mature woman on screen, television, and concert, I see a starlet who might just be the most vulnerable underrated legend the world has ever known. Her characters were often the gal that young soldiers and vaudevillian troupes vied for; not only for her talent but effervescent personality. She always radiated a special glow on the screen despite whatever may have been occurring in her personal life. Although she had the complete vocal and emotional range to go all out in her films, Garland kept her skillful talent on a good leash.

Anyone who has suffered terribly in life knows that the best ways to get through the dark days is with laughter. What I often think would most surprise people who aren't deeply familiar with Garland is that she had a wonderful sense of humor. Her openness to storytelling through song and film is delightfully carried and expressed with playfulness and childlike innocence.

Often in the most troubling moments of her life, she turned her sorrows and tribulations around with a joke or a smile. Famed comedienne Lucille Ball once confessed, "People always expect me to be funny. I’m not funny; the writers are funny. Do you know who was really funny? Judy Garland. . . the funniest lady in Hollywood. She made me look like a mortician." Through the endless troubles Garland faced personally and professionally, she persevered. Every time I watch her movies or television show The Judy Garland Show, I find myself always rooting for her - even knowing the terrible adversity she faced since her youthful fame.

Throughout her filmography, whether she is singing or playing the comedic partner of Mickey Rooney or love interest to Gene Kelly, Garland has a natural openness and sensibility to be absolutely vulnerable. She delights me in films like Strike Up The Band and Presenting Lily Mars, breaks my heart in For Me and My Gal and The Clock and showstopping performances like A Star Is Born.

Garland didn't just make memorable performances in film but song as well; every ballad had a story to tell just as important as any film she had starred in. Her covers for songs like By Myself, Old Man River, Caroline in the Morning, and Just In Time translate the emotion you could expect to see her share onscreen. Unlike other movie stars, Garland wasn't a screen siren steaming up the screen, a dramatic actress proving the value of her range, or a defiant queen of the box office. Garland was a pint-sized beautiful woman doing the best she always could with the tremendous amount of talent she had been gifted.

Throughout her forty-five year career in show business, Judy Garland commanded nation-to-worldwide attention on countless stages and radio programs, completed more than thirty feature films plus numerous vaudeville shorts as a member of The Gumm Sisters, and recorded over a hundred singles. Garland often strove to reflect the love, despair, and hope her audiences felt in their own lives, which made her fans feel that she was closer to them than any other entertainer. There was just as many debilitating lows as triumphant highs, and what she carried through was an easy-going personality, a thoroughbred work ethic and a undying love for her children and fans.

All of her colleagues recognized Garland’s genius. June Allyson observed, "She had more talent in her one little finger than all of us put together. When I think of a star, Judy immediately comes to mind." Because of her tragic life, Garland is most remembered by observers as one of those unfortunate stars of yesteryear who never seemed to stop suffering. I believe her daughter Lorna Luft said it best: "Yes, tragic things happened to my mother, but she wasn’t a tragedy."

Without a doubt, Judy Garland is one of the most talented entertainers of the 20th century. When Frank Sinatra said "We will all be forgotten, but not Judy", nothing could be closer to the truth. Joots (as she is referred to by devotees) was and is a masterclass songtress, actress, and underrated star that shown brightly despite Hollywood's darker golden age. For that, the legacy of Miss Show Business will live on dearly in my heart.

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