Long Reads

Judy Garland: the true story of the misunderstood icon is at long last being told

Forty years in show business, five marriages, and one unforgettable voice: Judy Garland’s life had success and tragedy in equal measure. Yet, in spite of her phenomenal career, the troubles of the Hollywood icon still prevail. All that looks set to change with Renée Zellweger’s new biopic, Judy. 

The story of Judy Garland’s life is a tale of two halves. On the one hand, there is the golden age of Hollywood, the mesmerising voice of a child star, and the technicolour transformations of many a sing-along musical. On the other, there is a troubled entertainer plagued by financial troubles, substance abuse, and deep, abiding insecurities. The wondrous world of Oz, some might say, and the bleak reality of Kansas.

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Garland’s life story wouldn’t be complete without a mention of these two starkly different realities, but even as her legacy has endured throughout the 20th century, so has the tabloid preoccupation with her downfall. Decades have passed since her untimely death at the age of 47 in swinging London of the late 1960s, but Garland still remains a figure ripe for criticism, ridicule, and public consumption. A cursory scroll through any of Garland’s reviews and obituaries will inevitably recall how, in the last paying gigs of her career, audiences would pelt the drug-dazed performer with bread rolls.

And while the stories of Garland’s self-destructive behaviour and tragic exploitation have lingered, it is poignant that the performer is now returning to public attention with a level of love and adulation she always felt evaded her during her life. It’s especially fitting that Renée Zellweger, who recently revealed that Hollywood almost “broke” her, has sparked renewed interest in the star through her portrayal of Garland in the new biopic, Judy. A Hollywood A-lister of a newer but no-less invasive generation, Zellweger understands intimately what it means to be a public target, and constantly pilloried by the tabloids over weight, appearance and failed relationships.  

Comic actor Jimmy Durante with child star Judy Garland

Born Frances Ethel Gumm on 10 June 1922, in Minnesota, Garland was one of three daughters to Ethel Marion and Francis Avent “Frank” Gumm, vaudeville professionals who pushed their offspring towards show business from infancy. Not that the youngest and most talented child needed much of a springboard; at the tender age of 13, the co-founder of MGM, Louis B Mayer, signed her on the spot after an impromptu audition. 

So Gumm headed for the silver screen with a new stage name, Judy Garland. She was shy, inhibited, and a pint-sized 4”11; nevertheless, four years later, she achieved breakout success in The Wizard Of Oz (1939) playing the role of Dorothy Gale, an orphaned farm girl from Kansas who journeys to a faraway land. Back in the real world, Garland’s star was rising with an honorary Oscar (known as the Academy Juvenile Award). To this day, her rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow has endured as one of the most iconic moments in the history of film.

The Wizard Of Oz catapulted Garland to stardom, and with her newfound status as a Hollywood darling, a string of good-time films followed soon after: Meet Me In St Louis (1944), Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) and Easter Parade (1948). But behind her wholesome girl-next-door image manufactured by the ruthless Hollywood machine, Garland’s health was suffering. Plied with sleeping pills from the age of 10 by her mother, Garland’s traumatic childhood laid the foundations for a turbulent adolescence. Throughout her teenage years, the actress was continually exploited by studio executives who policed her weight, sexually harassed her and fuelled her drug dependency, by way of amphetamines to cope with exhausting 18-hour-days. Her negative body image and obsession with staying “camera slim” continued into adulthood, and she self-medicated with diet pills and stimulants.

Judy Garland in the starring role of Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

In spite of the tragic duality of Garland’s life, her phenomenal voice and commanding performances never left anyone in doubt of her supreme talent. And, while Garland was radically different to any of the glamorous golden era divas like Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, it is not simply her powerful vibrato that mesmerised audiences past and present. It is in Garland’s total vulnerability that she was able to forge a connection with her viewers, and make them feel as if she was singing to only them. “She sings straight into your central nervous system. Her voice undoes people,” observes Susie Boyt in the Guardian, the author of My Judy Garland Life. “Her best performances give you the sense that you are entering a good crisis, like hang-gliding or falling in love or having your stitches removed.” 

So raw and sincere were Garland’s performances, that it was often hard to separate the stage persona from the hope, anguish and longing of the real woman. That air of a survivor perhaps goes some way to explaining why Garland remains an important gay icon, because she embodied what it meant to hide, to role play, to bear the weight of your trauma at all times, and persist in spite of it. Indeed, last month, Rufus Wainwright, who duets with Zellweger in the new film, told Rolling Stone that “The Wizard Of Oz was one of the pyramids of culture that I gazed at as a small child”.

Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 film A Star Is Born

Whatever that potent quality was, in 1954, four years after her contract at MGM was suspended following a suicide attempt, Garland made waves with one of her most career-defining performances in A Star Is Born. Heralded as Garland’s comeback, the film tells the story of talented singer-turned-film-star Esther Blodgett, and fading actor Norman Maine (played by James Mason), who spots Blodgett’s true potential and guides her towards stardom. Tragically, the themes of addiction, loss and suicide explored by the film were mirrored in its leading lady, who was plagued by illness, substance dependency and hypochondria throughout its creation. Though Garland, whose incredible performance was hailed as “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history” by Time magazine, and earned her an Academy Award nomination, her career much like her co-star’s character, was already in decline.

In Garland’s later years, her failed relationships fuelled an everlasting unlucky-in-love narrative. Over the course of her life, she married five times; firstly to composer David Rose in 1941 at the age of 19, who she would go on to divorce in 1944. In 1945, Garland met director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she had a daughter, Liza Minnelli, but the couple parted ways in 1951. A year later came businessman Sid Luft, with whom she had two children, Lorna and Joey, but after claims of domestic abuse, Garland divorced him in 1965. That same year, Garland went on to marry actor Mark Herron, but they too separated in 1969. It was her final marriage to Mickey Deans in 1969, just three months before her accidental barbiturate overdose in London, that finally brought happiness. “Finally, finally, I am loved,” she told the press. 

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the new biopic, Judy

As much as Hollywood has been responsible for the downfall of screen legends, there always remains the potential for rebirth. And what Zellweger does in Judy, is bring Garland back to life. The film throws into sharp relief the way Garland’s life has been crudely sensationalised into a tale of talented ingenue vs fallen star, proving that no person can be neatly boxed and labelled. Garland wasn’t just an entertainer, the same way that she wasn’t just a drug addict. She was made up of multitudes, and while the film industry may have tried to suppress her idiosyncrasies in her heyday, Zellweger wants the world to know just how much she was woefully misunderstood. 

“There was so much that was not allowed for,” she recently reflected in an interview with Vulture. “You’re not allowed to be human. There’s no room on the schedule for her sanity - the choices that were made for her and how she was exploited.” With Judy, there’s a chance to see a fully realised character, put a spotlight on Garland’s magnificent achievements, and, as James Mason once memorably said at her funeral, “wring tears out of hearts of rock.” 

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Images: Getty, Pathé