how the troubled Hollywood star changed the world

Frances Ethel Gumm was born, 100 years ago this week, to a pair of ­entertainer-musicians in Minnesota, with an unprepossessing name that did not deter her from the stage. By the time she was 12, she had changed that name to Judy Garland. By the time she was 17, she had changed the world.

In honour of the centenary of her birth, the BFI Southbank and its partner cinemas across the UK are running a season of Garland’s films, “A Star is Reborn”. It’ll feature the most famous of them – Meet Me in St Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade – and the lesser-seen on either end of her career, with gems like musical romance For Me and My Gal (1942) and the heart-wrenching Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

Garland was born on 10 June, 1922. Nicknamed “Baby”, the youngest of the three Gumm sisters sang and danced with her siblings constantly, and her showbiz-savvy parents moved to Los Angeles when she was just shy of four years old.

Enrolled in children’s talent schools from a young age (her ambitious mama embodied the stereotypical stage mother, even feeding her girls “pep” pills to keep them dancing and auditioning when they were tired), Judy auditioned in front of studio execs in Hollywood to little effect, until she was coached to sing a sentimental old Yiddish tune to the head of MGM himself, mogul Louis B Mayer. He hired the adolescent to a then-standard seven-year studio contract on the spot.

In a series of standout roles over the next decade, Garland would distinguish herself not only with that unmistakable voice, but with her ability to transmit a wholesome girl-next-door persona so believably: real innocence and wide-eyed vulnerability. She would later prove that her dramatic abilities were up to the task of less lighthearted fare, as she did with her comeback film A Star is Born (1954) – George Cukor’s classic tale of one rising and one falling star, locked in a doomed romance (the self-same one in which Lady Gaga recently starred).

Humble, Midwestern and perhaps not unlike the sweet 16-year-old girl in plaits and pastoral gingham who sang “Over the Rainbow” in that lush, tremulous voice, Garland would strike deep into the vein of small-town yearning. The Wizard of Oz – which of course sees sepia give way to a Technicolor fantasyland – must have only transmitted that yearning more in 1939, an era when technology had not yet spanned vast distances in the way it now can. The film would become one of the greatest box-office hits of all time.

Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sadly, behind the scenes, the purveyors of cinematic delight at MGM were often mired in hypocrisy and abuse. Mayer would regularly sit Garland in his lap and tell her she “sang from the heart”, while groping her breast to show her just where the heart was. Several other movie executives approached her for sex.

Meanwhile, as MGM actors often worked 16-hour days, six days a week, Mayer and the overlords of the studio continued to pump Garland with uppers and downers to keep her on her feet. Since she stood only 4ft 11in and was prone to weight gain, Mayer’s lackeys obsessively controlled the teenager’s diet, her dating life and anything else that they felt might risk her saleability as a wholesome young movie star.

By the early 50s, she had been dropped by the studio that had looked after her since childhood, with little money to show for it.

It’s impossible to know any of this and not draw a direct line between her treatment and her eventual end, aged just 47, from a barbiturate overdose in 1969. Decades of hard wear on her body and psyche had taken their toll, including studio-enforced abortion and substance addiction since her adolescence.

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In light of all we know now about Hollywood’s abuse of women, it’s easy to see Garland as an earlier victim of the same vicious cycle. Undoubtedly, she was victimised by the callous men who ran the industry. But it does Garland a disservice not to hold two things to be true at once: that her work brought others as much pleasure as it often brought her woe.

Even as Garland struggled with her addictions and her health in Summer Stock in 1950, proving unreliable on set, when you see her leaping through her ­specially ­choreographed number “Get Happy”, it will plant a grin on your face. She just as easily captures an air of swooning melancholy in For Me and My Gal, a First World War-set film made in the throes of the Second World War, one clearly a reflection of the other.

She was widely seen as a triple-threat for her ability to move seamlessly between acting, dancing and singing, and her almost God-given instinct to know precisely where to stand, how to turn, and how to make sure her face hit the best light. She always aimed to please, even when it hurt her in the long run.

Judy Garland in Summer Stock (Photo: BFI)

The gossip, whether it be apocryphal or confirmed by multiple biographers, ran rampant: that’s bound to happen when you’re one of the most famous women in the world. Some of them are tough, and sad. But it’s worth not only dwelling in the negative, and remembering that in addition to her performances, Garland would also become an LGBTQ icon to a generation of queer kids. She mentored other actors, helping to guide an up-and-comer called Gene Kelly in their time together at MGM. And as the recent film Judy (2019) shows, Garland never failed to sell out concert venues into her prematurely faded middle-age.

Garland died before I was born, and yet her fame and regard remains undimmed. In her lifetime, she had the rare luminosity of a once-in-a-generation talent. She met the ­Emersonian ideal of success, but with more than one life improved by her having been in it.

So take your children, or your younger siblings, or any kid in your life to see a Judy Garland musical this month. Turn on “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St Louis, see her ever-radiant face, a snapshot of youth, unknowing of the difficulty to come later. And you’ll know exactly what I mean.

‘Judy Garland: A Star is Reborn’ runs from 10 June to 28 June at the BFI Southbank

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