Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Great Entertainer: The Legacy of Judy Garland

'If you have to be in a soap opera try not to get the worst role.' Judy Garland
Most people can remember the first time they saw Judy Garland. It is usually in connection with The Wizard of Oz. The moment tends to spark emotions full of vulnerability and tenderness in a child. I remember the first time I saw Oz, and I had no such experience. I had just turned 6, found its black and white prologue boring, and then the actual story terrifying, so terrifying that I actually wet my pants, literally. ‘What happened to the girl who played Dorothy? I asked after. ‘She got sick and died, it was all very sad.’ I was told. That about sums up the popular perception of Judy Garland.

Judy Garland was perhaps the greatest entertainer that ever lived, the equal to only Michael Jackson I would contend. There are books, documentaries and movies that discuss her life, career and tumultuous personal life. Those I know by heart now, as people with only a glancing interest in Hollywood history do. That is not my task here.  It is to explain why she was the best of the best, an unparalleled star of the musical genre.

Her best known work was when Judy was a star at MGM, a studio with expertise in the traditional movie musical. Between 1936 and 1950, she made around twenty five films: straddling between child and adulthood. Of course the populist approach would claim Oz to be her greatest work, but not me. Instead my favourite movie of Judy’s during her MGM years was also released in 1939. Babes in Arms was the High School Musical of its day, and it was also the first movie of ten in which she starred with Mickey Rooney. At age 17, Judy was just beginning to blossom into her talent and has the perfect mixture of innocence and confidence. Her chemistry with Rooney was also undeniable.

Aside from Oz, Judy is probably best known for Meet Me in St Louis, which includes the wondrous and iconic Trolley Song. Although that is an undoubted highlight, as a whole I prefer her last film for MGM, Summer Stock starring alongside Gene Kelly. Despite turmoil throughout production, the film radiates joy from start to finish. It is a showbiz tragedy that her Golden Era ended with that film when she was only 28.

Judy would only make four additional films before her death in 1969. The first of these is the melodramatic second retelling of A Star is Born, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 1954. Perhaps it was because by the time the film was made her character so closely resembled Judy’s own life that she was able to channel the pain and anguish that was required in her performance. It is well worth the three and a half hours of viewing, even if Warner Brothers did not think so.

The last decade and half of Judy’s life is well known as a professional and personal rollercoaster. For every landmark album there was a disaster, and this is where her legacy tends to get murky. Just this past weekend I attended a play detailing the last concert tour of her career. End of The Rainbow is set in London at the beginning of 1969 where she is escorted by her fifth husband, Mickey Deans and her loyal accompanist, Anthony. The play makes two things remarkably clear: she was a sensational performer, but also an addict with major psychological issues. While both these cannot be disputed, it is a tragedy that 'Judy Garland' now seems to be stereotypical shorthand for the ‘Hollywood Burnout’

Judy Garland's legacy is far more complex. After viewing her entire filmography and owning a great deal of her music, I can safely say that there is not a moment where I feel angry, depressed or disheartened when watching her movies or listening to her music. I just love to watch her numerous spellbinding performances because when Judy smiled, the whole world smiled with her.

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