Judy Garland should have been a wealthy woman at the end of her life. After all, Garland starred in The Wizard of Oz, one of the most culturally important and successful movies of all time. The image of 16-year-old Garland as the windswept and wonderstruck Dorothy Gale, for which she won an Academy Award, was a symbol of Hollywood.
But going through life as a symbol was corrosive.
Her life as a byproduct of the Hollywood machine was hard, as she freely admitted to McCall’s in 1967: "Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland? "And for me to live with me? I've had to do it — and what more unkind life can you think of than the one I've lived?"
Rather than imitating the famous actress and singer, Renee Zellweger — herself an icon with a complicated relationship to Hollywood — reinvents the iconic actress and singer in Judy, a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While Judy has some flashbacks, here’s what you need to know about the tragedy of Judy Garland.
She was set on a path to stardom at a young age.
On June 10, 1922, a child named Frances Ethel Gumm was born to two vaudeville performers in Grand Rapids, MN. She was one of three siblings. Gumm was a performer from the start — her first stage performance was at two-and-a-half years old. Her home life was tumultuous. Her father, Frank, had affairs with young men.
In 1926, the Gumms left town to escape scandal and headed to California. Gumm’s mother, Ethel, quickly tried to shape her daughters into stars. Ethel, a controlling stage mom, was the first person to put 10-year-old Frances on a diet of pills: Amphetamines in the morning, sleeping pills at night. The pattern would continue once she signed with MGM and her diet was monitored.
In 1934, the Gumm sisters rebranded themselves as the Garland sisters. Frances gave herself the new name “Judy” after a popular song.
Of all the sisters, Garland stood out because of her extraordinary singing abilities — an adult’s voice in a child’s body. In 1935, when Garland was 13, she was signed on the spot by Louis B. Meyer of MGM, the head of Hollywood’s largest and most prestigious movie studio. Her contract tied her to MGM for seven years. Garland was making $100 a week, a windfall during the Depression.
But she was worlds away from her old self. “Actors live in a queer sort of double world. Not many of us have the names or identities we were born with. I don’t associate Frances Gumm with me — she’s a girl I can read about the way other people do. I, Judy Garland, was born when I was 12 years old,” she told Michael Drury for the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune in 1951.
She was a child star with adult problems.
Garland’s tenure at MGM got off to an ominous start. Not long after she signed her contract, Garland’s father died. She was left in the care of her mother, whom Garland later called “the real Wicked Witch of the West.”
As a part of MGM’s cohort of young stars, Garland was forced to adapt to a gruelling, nearly impossible schedule. Forever cast as the girl next store, Garland was often making two or three movies at a time. Three hours of early morning school were followed by singing rehearsal, and then a day of shooting — sometimes these marathons wouldn’t finish until 5 in the morning. She was sustained by a diet of pills; she was dependent on them by the age of 15.
In 1939, when Garland was 16, she got her big break as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Originally, Shirley Temple was supposed to play Dorothy — so the studio tried to make Garland look as young as possible. As in, she had to lose weight. The studio put her on a daily diet of chicken soup, black coffee, 80 cigarettes, diet pills, and amphetamines. Her waist was corseted, and her nose affixed with prosthetics.
The image of Dorothy followed Garland throughout her career. “I think some of them are pretty angry with me, too, for not wearing braids, and not dressing like Dorothy, and not being 11 or 12,” Garland told James Reid in 1940.
She endured rampant sexual harassment as a teenager.
Garland was harassed by some of Hollywood’s most powerful men. According to Gerald Clarke, Garland's biographer, she was frequently approached for sex as a teenger. Mayer, who’s been compared to Harvey Weinstein, is said to have groped Garland in his office. While she was singing, he placed her hand on her breast. Mayer also called her the “little hunchback” for her height.
According to her third husband’s biography, the actors who played Oz’s munchkins also sexually harassed her. "They would make Judy's life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress," recalled Sidney Luft in his memoir, Judy and I: My Life With Judy Garland.
She was married five times.
Garland’s first marriage was essentially a bid for freedom. In 1941, a 19-year-old Garland married 30-year-old composer David Rose against the wishes of her mother and MGM.
In 1945, she married director Vincente Minnelli. They had a child, Liza, but divorced in 1951, as Minnelli was having an affair with a man. Garland had two children with her next husband, Sidney Luft. Her fourth husband, actor Mark Herron, was gay. Garland divorced him after he was abusive toward her. After his brief marriage to Garland, Herron was in a committed relationship with another actor.
Garland met her last husband, Mickey Deans, when he was delivering stimulants to her. They were married only three months before she died. “He gave in to her and he fed her all the things she wanted,” Rosalyn Wilder, a colleague, said.
She was forced into having abortions.
When she became pregnant at 19, Rose and Ethel pressured her into having an abortion, insisting a child would ruin her image as an ingenue. This practice wasn’t uncommon. Bette David and Ava Gardner also terminated pregnancies to preserve their images. Sidney Luft also forced Garland into having an abortion.
She struggled with addiction, anxiety, and illness.
After getting hooked on pills at 15, Garland’s health declined throughout her life. Her obituary in the LA Times lists her illnesses: “hepatitis, exhaustion, kidney ailments, nervous breakdowns, near-fatal drug reactions, overweight, underweight, and injuries suffered in falls.”
Her drug habit had impeded her career before. While filming the 1948 film The Pirate with Minnelli, Garland’s pill use spiked, and she behaved extremely erratically, missing days of filming and shouting paranoid thoughts on set.
Take that, put it in front of a live audience, and you’ll get the series of London performances she did in 1969. Some nights, she put on a good show. Other nights, she came in extremely late, slurred her speech, and was booed offstage.
Her last concert was on March 25, 1969 in Copenhagen. She died months later in her London home, the result of an accidental barbiturate overdose. She was only 46.
fIf you are thinking about suicide, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.