JUDY GARLAND WAS a few hundred thousand dollars in debt. It was the early 1960s, and she was still paying off taxes from the early 1950s. Enter wily David Begelman, a talent manager who brokered a deal with CBS for Garland to host a weekly television show and draw a weekly television paycheck, allowing the always-troubled, often performance-averse singer to pay down her debts and gain a measure of financial security. Judy was ready for some financial security, and she pulled herself together and buckled down to make it work. Many of her performances on the series qualify as personal-best renditions of the classics she’s still known for. “The Judy Garland Show” was the actress’ final public flowering, a last-gasp, Camelot-era incarnation that ended soon after Kennedy was shot (right after his assassination, Garland broadcast “Battle Hymn of the Republic” across the nation’s airwaves).
Judy Garland’s weight had been fluctuating for years; in the late Fifties, she became so overweight that she was barely recognizable, a fact she joked about in her Carnegie Hall concert of 1961. For “The Judy Garland Show,” which ran for one season (1963-64), Garland slimmed herself down to a flyweight standard (at one point on the show, guest Ethel Merman cries, “Look at you!” and blows on her hostess as if a puff from the Merm’s mighty lungs might scatter sparrow-like Garland away). The series went through three producers, and the second one, Norman Jewison, tried to bring Judy down to earth by having her insulted by a series of guests, a very bad idea that was abandoned by the last episodes, in which Garland just did a series of concerts. She was glamorously dressed for the series and heavily made-up in a way that made the brutishly applied eye shadow and eyeliner look like it might streak down her cheeks at any moment to indicate tears. Her hair was carefully coiffed, but she invariably made a bird’s-nest mess of it when she sang, clawing at it as if she’d like to pull it out and throw it at her audience. Most Judy Garland impersonators are impersonating what she was like on “The Judy Garland Show,” a small woman (4ft, 11in) frenziedly throwing her white microphone cord over her shoulder and then holding the mike itself over her head for one of her sustained “I’ll go even further!” climactic notes, the murderously violent vibrato that might have stunned even Edith Piaf.
Garland did not make the money she needed off the show because her manager Begelman robbed her blind, and this betrayal reinforced a lifelong pattern for her. When she was victimized, by her mother (“she was no good for anything except to create chaos and fear,” said Garland), by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (who called her his “little hunchback” and made her a lifelong drug addict), by director Busby Berkeley (who remorselessly pushed her through long hours as a young girl on his sets), she fought back by victimizing herself even more than they had. This was a woman who, at a certain point, repeatedly threatened suicide, but the attempts weren’t serious, or at least, not lethal. She would cut her wrists or slash her throat for the attention it got her. “I wanted to hurt myself and everyone who had hurt me,” she said, about her first suicide attempt. During an argument with her daughter Liza Minnelli, she even forthrightly declared, “Sympathy is my business.”
LOOKING AT HER early MGM films, where she aged from 13 to her early twenties, it’s clear that Garland is a performer so overtly sensitive, even overly sensitive, that she practically invites sadistic attention. It’s also clear that she was not just a phenomenal singer (she was billed as “The Little Girl With The Leather Lungs” in vaudeville) but also an actress of raw talent and untapped resources. She played a lot of girls next door with names like Betsy Booth or Patsy Barton, and the older characters in her films repeatedly refer to her lack of attractiveness, especially in the early movies like Everybody Sing (1938) (“You wish they wouldn’t,” cracked Pauline Kael). She worked her way through nine films with life-force hamola Mickey Rooney, who mugs up a storm while she just watches him silently and reacts like a body of water that is always rippling away with emotion. Garland got to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), of course, and that ensured her an almost mythological status, but all of those Mickey-Judy movies are a trial to sit through now, not to mention half-baked vehicles like Little Nellie Kelly (1940) and Presenting Lily Mars (1943). MGM under Louis B. Mayer in the early 1940s was a very wholesome and very dull place, and though Garland had her share of top-drawer musical material she was also asked to put over many sub-standard songs and far too many blackface routines with the Mick.
It was Vincente Minnelli who finally created a worthy frame for Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a musical masterpiece on fantasy family life where she was placed like a shining jewel behind white lace curtains. In their second film, The Clock (1945), a beautifully judged non-musical romance with soldier Robert Walker, Garland blossoms as a woman and a performer because Minnelli is obviously as sensitive as she is (it might also have helped that Walker was even more of a mess than she was at that time, and so her focus was on helping him). If you want to see why Judy Garland was a potentially major dramatic actress, look at the scene in The Clock after she and Walker have just gone through a disastrously impersonal wedding ceremony. They sit in a restaurant, and she tries to hold back, but finally she just explodes out with, “It was so ugly!” She’s close to total hysteria and breakdown here, as if all of her feelings have suddenly been unleashed at us. It’s perilously close to overacting, but Minnelli’s direction helps Garland channel this tidal wave, providing a formal cinematic structure for her outsized emotions with his careful framings and semi-dreamy camera movements. The two soon married.
Minnelli’s kindness was tested on their third film together, The Pirate (1948), where Garland’s drug habit caught up with her. That movie collaboration between Garland and Minnelli feels like some kind of psychosexual nervous breakdown. Her “Mack the Black” number suggests a wild longing for sexual indulgence borne out of sexual frustration, but her anger in The Pirate seems forced, as if she’s shut down emotionally. Garland was fired from MGM in 1950. The studio had chewed her up, sucked down the juices and spat her out, leaving her a hopeless mess for the rest of her life, a victim whose only way of retaliating was by hurting herself. You have to feel bad for Garland, but you have to feel even worse for those who loved her and had to watch her slash away at her wrists and her throat, the very throat that housed the once-in-a-lifetime singing voice she both needed and hated.
THAT VOICE REACHED new heights in her comeback movie, A Star is Born (1954), especially when she sings “The Man That Got Away” in a dark bar. “No more his eager call,” she sings, holding on “more” and then “call” and making them quiver. “The writing’s on the wall,” she continues, doing the same thing but shooting up even higher vocally. “The dreams you’ve dreamed have all gone astray,” she finishes, and the surprise is that she chooses to hit “The” before “dreams” with her full Phil Spector wall-of-sound lung power. Maybe this is just showing off (the emphasis on that word has nothing to do with the lyrics), but it’s unlike any other sound in movies, an enormous cry of pain dredged up from the bitterest experience.
As an actress in A Star is Born, Garland is often indulged by George Cukor, who’s slightly too fascinated by her emotional explosions and can’t help her to control them as fully as Minnelli did in The Clock. Garland in A Star is Born has moved bag-and-baggage into full-out 1950s Method acting, with its ties to psychotherapy, and she would continue in this vein for her turn as a victim of the Nazis in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and her last film, the underrated I Could Go On Singing (1963), where she does a magnificently self-indulgent six-minute take confessional with Dirk Bogarde that reveals the Monster Judy, hating her audience yet desperately in need of love from them or from anyone because she has no love at all for herself. (On the set of that picture, the crew started out by calling her “Miss Garland,” but midway through the shooting they were referring to her as “It.”)
If her voice was at its technical peak around the time of A Star is Born, it had gained in plangency and despair (and some low notes) by the time she did “The Judy Garland Show.” When she sings “The Man That Got Away” one episode, she feels her way into it semi-humorously, with little half smiles, as if to say, “Prepare yourself, we’re going in.”
Now when she sings, “Suddenly you’re older,” Garland lets herself feel this chilly line fully, in the way she felt things when she was young at MGM. It’s clear that whatever drugs she’s taking are keeping her this open (is that part of why she took drugs, to keep the performing vulnerability she had as a girl?) On “No more,” her eyes scan the auditorium as if she’s looking for this man that got away, and she still does the big third “The,” but this time it’s more in its proper place. Then, on “gone astray,” Garland chooses to look directly into the camera at us, and her look is candid, rueful, sour, as if to say, “You know what I’m singing about, don’t pretend you don’t.”
She starts to feel a little sorry for herself, but this self-pity is mixed in with the little half-smiles, so that all these fleeting emotions are working together like an orchestra playing a symphony. On “No more that old time thrill,” the camera switches to a rather unflattering low angle that allows us to see just what her mouth looks like when that VIBRATO thing of hers makes it pulsate. On “Never a new love will be the same,” she gives us a full-out smile, because still loving someone you’ve lost is a joke, too, of course. “But fools will be fools,” she insists, and she pulls at her hair, the sure sign that she’s agitated and ready to give us French chanson Judy, a middle-aged waif tossed by the storms of life. “And where’s he gone? To?” she asks, and her eyes narrow slightly on “To?” to bring home the loss, and then those spaniel eyes of hers start to blaze with anger. On “The livelong night and day,” her arms open out so that her body really does look like a pool being rippled by her vibrato. She clasps her arms around herself (by herself, alone), and then looks directly into the camera again, as if she’s staring expectantly straight at God.
Garland’s up-tempo numbers can be even sadder than her torch songs. On “It’s Almost Like Being In Love,” she keeps chugging uphill with measured “happiness” but makes sure to emphasize the “almost” in the lyric. Watch at 1:48 when she cries, “And yet I love to love!” and then, “Glad I’m alive!” This is Judy Garland singing “Glad I’m alive!” when that clearly isn’t the case most of the time, but it’s part of the lyric, and so she sings it, and then she closes her eyes for a second as if to say, “Well, I guess so, sure…I’m glad I’m alive, right now, for you.” Watch her hands as she works her way up to the big finish, the way that she lightly smacks herself in the face and then opens her left hand up like a flower for “Lo-o-o-ve!” and then the ferociously insistent climax, as if the sheer vast architecture of her voice can make her believe she’s in love or almost in love.
AN ENDLESS PARADE of guest stars appeared on the show (Garland was chastised by CBS execs for being too touchy-feely with them, too physically needy), and she did sketches with Rooney and sang with Lena Horne and Peggy Lee, but her encounter with a 21 year-old Barbra Streisand is the one for the record books, a study in contrasts. When Streisand sings, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Garland sits by and quietly sings her own “Get Happy” in tandem, and her heightened, druggy sensitivity allows her to feel and enjoy Streisand’s gargantuan singing voice moment by moment. On their medley, Garland is able to get through to Streisand more; she’s so attuned to her, in fact, that it almost feels like she’s singing not just with her but through her. In general, she lets the younger singer shine (at one point, she maternally brushes Streisand’s hair back when it’s obscuring her face), but on “You and the Night and the Music,” when she belts out at 3:05, “Will I-I-I-I-I-I-I ha-a-a-a-ave you?” full voice, even the guarded Streisand looks taken aback and impressed. Streisand’s voice is an almost impersonal war-like instrument, a clarion trumpet, whereas Garland’s is all-too-human and tremulous, a morbid and gruesomely merry disaster area. Whereas the suspicious Streisand is like a hurt, sullen child who keeps herself safe behind a closed curtain, the flailing Garland is alive to every bit of stimuli around her and shows off her entire battered soul for us with often-unseemly recklessness.
“Don’t you enjoy singing?” Garland asks Streisand before their duet. “Doesn’t it get all the rage out of you?” She was a person who was filled with anger, and a lot of her talent came from a kind of transmogrified anger, so that this anger came out as humor, or “humor,” either low camp or high irony. She would tell long, rambling stories on her show and dither around words vaguely until she decided to leap on a word for a laugh, and she’d get one, but it would often be an uncomfortable laugh. Her friends and family are always insisting how funny she was because they think that this will somehow balance the tragic perception of the drug addict girl from MGM who had a hard life and died too young, but Garland’s humor to me is the scariest thing about her. Just watch the way her eyes open comically wide as she’s caught up short after singing the lyric, “Life is one long jubilee!” during “Who Cares?”:
Life is one long jubilee? Really? Garland obviously finds this lyric hilariously wrong, and she always keeps getting stopped cold by cheery lines like that in her songs but then plowing ahead to be sporting for us.
GARLAND TEMPERED HER manic numbers with a few slow versions of tunes like “Do It Again” or “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” that brought her audience to a suspended-in-time, foggy standstill, but she was most herself when spurred on to be both Dionysus and Bacchante rolled into one by this lighting-fast bongo drum arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine”:
Get a load of her on, “Wo-hont! That be fine!” at 2:35, where she closes her eyes and opens her left hand out and then hurls out “that” in “that be fine” with her whole body. Then the BIG finish of all big finishes: “I’m with you baby,” then “I’m with you baby,” higher and louder, and “I’m with you always,” as she smacks the mike cord down like a whip, “Come rain or shi—aw—in—aw—i—i—ine!” She pushes her voice to its absolute limit, and it’s all in her throat here, not coming from her diaphragm, which means that technically she’s singing incorrectly. She’s singing in a way that will eventually destroy her voice, but she obviously doesn’t care. Look at the childlike kick she gets out of flinging that last line out at us; she actually throws her head back and laughs gleefully afterward, like a kid who just got away with something. One of the all-time great singing voices? She’s sick of it, you can have it! To hell with you, Mother, to hell with you, Louis B. Mayer, to hell with you Busby Berkeley and then, inevitably, she turns on herself, too.
It’s always been said that this kind of all-out live entertaining began with Al Jolson, and Garland often sang Jolson numbers like “Swanee” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Jolson was the king of show business in his time, or at least live performing, and he was succeeded by Garland and Frank Sinatra (for 20th century live acts, they sit at the top with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Streisand herself). Sinatra sang “Old Man River” as a young man in Till The Clouds Roll By (1946), and he seemed totally wrong for it then, too callow, not soulful enough yet, far too white. He would try that song again in later years, and it never quite worked for him. But when Garland did “Old Man River” on her show, it expressed her nihilistic philosophy of life to a T. Look at the conviction she brings to the lyric at 2:23, “I’m tired of living but scared of dying,” where she lets her own voice buffet her as if she’s on the prow of a ship and a hurricane-force wind is hitting her body. She’s just untouchable here:
AFTER THE SERIES ended, Garland had a few more years of concertizing before her death in 1969 at the age of 47. She often didn’t even have enough money for food to eat, and there was no pension forthcoming from MGM, a studio that made millions off of her movies. In those last years, her voice started to fray and she physically aged until she resembled a careworn little old lady who had been felled by some drastic illness. Liza Minnelli recently related a story on stage about telling Garland’s lifelong friend and musical arranger Kay Thompson that Garland had died. There was a pause (they were speaking on the phone), and then Thompson said, “Your mother lived a marvelous life. She did everything she ever wanted to do.” That struck me as odd when I first heard it, like some kind of denial, but Thompson knew Garland better than anybody, and what she said about her is not just an attempt to soothe a grief-stricken daughter. Judy Garland did do everything she wanted, often to her own detriment, and there is still a lot to marvel at in what she left behind. She always advises us to throw caution to the winds, and her vibrato was a solid stone staircase leading up to a place where we might get happy. Hopefully it’s quiet and all so peaceful for her on the other side.
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen
“All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy!”, a retrospective of Judy Garland’s feature films, is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center July 26 to August 9th.
“Judy Garland: The Television Years,” a comprehensive retrospective of Judy Garland’s television appearances , is playing at the Paley Center through August 18th.