I’ve often wondered about my obsession with females in the spotlight who dangled off the cliffs of tragedy, heartbreak, and addiction. I also wondered why I and other gay men adore the same types of devastated divas… What is about our subculture that is fascinated with the Crawford/Garland/Taylor/Davis storyline? Why are we amazed and dazzled with the rise and fall of a female legend? Is it our slightly connected relation in fighting to be equal in a heteronormative patriarchal society? Or is it somehow not relation, but a subconscious misogynist satisfaction to see a powerful female fail?
The last idea terrified me.
Ever since I was a child I was drawn to powerful females, whether they be fictitious female villains, or powerful protagonist actresses of the silver screen. I looked up to the powerful female figures who dominated men, and fought tooth and nail to be accepted in the boys club. I suppose I also identified when the heterosexual male majority took them down … because I was gay, and felt a kinship to women in this sense (even though the struggle was and is definitely not comparable).
My fascination with Judy Garland was separate from the other female legends of the early 20th century. Rather than wanting to be like her, I sought advice, consolation, and maternal comfort from her. She seemed to be fragile, and yet unbreakable at the same time, like a stargazer lily made out of iron. I wanted her to teach me how to survive in a world that seemed so at odds with me, as I certainly was fragile and hurt from the experiences of my strange childhood.
It wasn’t until my early 20’s when I would fully research her, I came to understand that with great brilliance often comes great heartache.
Judy Garland (AKA Frances Ethel Gumm) was born on June 20th, 1922 out in Grand Rapids Minnesota. Her parents were vaudevillians who ran a theatre where she was born. Her first performance was at 2 and a half years old for their Christmas show, where she sang in the chorus for “Jingle Bells”. At four years old, Judy’s father, “Frank” Gumm had to relocate his family to Lancaster, CA due him being outed as a homosexual.
Out in California, Judy was swept into a myriad of vaudeville acts and Vitaphone shorts with her sisters. They performed throughout the U.S., and Judy caught the attention of MGM executives at the age of 12. She signed with them at the age of 13. This fact would also produce her infamous quote later on in life:
“I was born at the age of 12 on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot”
Since she was working at such a young age, she went to school at Metro with Lana Turner, Liz Taylor, and other budding actresses being prepped to be future femme fatales. Judy was made to be the complete opposite, and was to be cast in all ‘the girl next door’ roles. This was incredibly hard for her psyche at such a young age, and she spent many years in her youth being called ‘the ugly ducking of MGM’’, and quite famously “the little hunchback”. In her beginning roles, Judy was made to wear rubberized disks in her nose, flippers for her teeth, and heavy contouring on her face to make her resemble something different than she was. In addition, due to the unbelievably long days of work with little rest, she was prescribed amphetamines to keep her up and barbiturates to help her sleep.
While she was destined for stardom with MGM, she was also destined for instability due to these conditions. Movie after movie, year after year, she was subjected over and over again to prescription medication to battle the insufferable working conditions and the many personal compromises fame on the silver screen required. It was no wonder that a decade later she would suffer her first mental breakdown and suicide attempt by cutting her wrist with broken glass.
After a brief recovery, MGM sent her back out into the movie circuit, and within a year she began to break down again… this time due to her regular prescriptions, but with added morphine, and alcohol. MGM let her go, as she could not continue on the set.
She continued to do movies, but the whirlwind of drugs and alcohol continued to increase, and with multiple suicide attempts and mental breakdowns, she became this poster child of a woman out of control with addiction.
MGM consistently beat her down, telling her she wasn’t pretty enough and feeding her prescriptions to keep their pockets full of money. She was repeatedly eaten alive by the press who built her up and tore her down.. Judy just crashed over and over again, until finally she overdosed in June of 1969.
Now I’m going to stop right there on that subject.
I think its important to know that Judy was a woman beyond her addiction, suicide attempts, and media-built persona. Judy, who was a woman thrown into show business by her parents, became an unconventional female lead in films, and DOMINATED the screen with her presence and her voice. She was (and still is) the youngest woman to have won the Cecil B. DeMille Award for a lifetime achievement (at 39). She also won the Academy Juvenile Award, Golden Globe Award, Tony Award, TWO Grammy Awards, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and SIX Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
This tiny 4 foot 11 inch woman, had more vocal prowess than ANYONE at that time, and to many that is still true to this day. She was not a punching bag for the media or for the Hollywood chauvinist tycoons that sought to cage her, but a rebel among females that withstood the crashing waves of sexism and patriarchal tyranny.
Judy Garland was a legend that kept an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Sometimes I play her “Judy Garland” show over and over again, just to watch her. Seeing her in her later years zip around the stage with such pizazz just destroys me. I am overcome with such power from her voice, and yet I become so heartbroken from her death and how she passed away. When it comes to Judy… and the females I so absolutely adore from the silver screen, I know that could never and did never want them to fail… I wanted them to get everything that they wanted in life.
And even if they didn’t, and most of them didn’t, I want to fight for them.…I want to fight for the women in hollywood today, too. They still get held to terrible standards from our heteronormative, male-dominated industry.