She stands at the front of a winding golden path in a blue dress and braids, carrying a not-so-practical basket. She charms a scarecrow, puts the heart in a tin man, and makes a lion brave. For many of us, the enduring image of Judy Garland is her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which she filmed at 16.
But the upcoming biopic about Garland, called Judy, will show a different side to the iconic Hollywood star. In Judy, which is currently being shot in London, Renee Zellweger plays Garland at the end of her career. The year is 1968, and a 46-year-old Garland is set to perform a series of sold-out concerts in London. After an exhausting and tumultuous life marked by addiction, abuse, and depression, she’s not sure she’s up to the task. The real Garland would die one year later, in 1969. She had been performing for 45 of her 47 years.
Despite being one of the most iconic Hollywood legends, this is the first time Garland’s story has been translated to the big screen — but it's worth the wait. Garland’s life exemplifies many of the conversations we’ve been having since October 2017, when the long-standing, long-silent prevalence of sexual misconduct in Hollywood was unearthed, following the toppling of producer Harvey Weinstein. In light of this reckoning, Judy will resonate more than ever.
Garland was born in June of 1921, and got on stage not soon after. Her mother, Ethel Gumm, whom Garland later called “the real Wicked Witch of the West," booked her daughter a show when she was two years old. As Judy got older, her mother brought her to vaudeville clubs and the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1935, Garland was signed to MGM after studio head Louis B. Mayer heard her sing — that’s when the star, and her trouble, was born.
As a part of MGM’s cohort of young stars, Garland was forced to adapt to a gruelling, nearly impossible schedule. Three hours of early morning school were followed by singing rehearsal, and then a day of shooting — sometimes these marathons wouldn’t finish until four or five in the morning. How did she keep up? Well, in her unpublished memoirs, Garland revealed how the studio kept her and the other child actors going: Forcing them to take pep pills during the day that suppressed appetite and provided energy boosts, and sleeping pills at night.
Until 1938, Garland was one in a rotating set of happy-go-lucky young actors cast in MGM movies. Everything changed in 1938, when, at the age of 16, Garland was cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Garland had always felt pressure about her appearance (Mayer called her “my little hunchback”), but the insecurities intensified during filming, when she was put on an inhuman diet of chicken soup, black coffee, and 80 cigarettes, and a regiment of diet pills. Her waist was corseted, and her nose affixed with prosthetics.
In addition to being practically starved, Garland was also sexually harassed. Mayer, who’s been compared to Harvey Weinstein, is said to have groped her in his office. 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.
Garland was swallowed by the system. The rest of her life was marked by depression, suicide attempts, addiction to pills and alcohol, and a series of public love affairs with messy endings — she was married five times.
Garland remained incredibly famous her whole life, selling out concert tours long after her last last movie, A Star Was Born, came out in 1954. Judy takes place at the end of Garland's career, during a particularly erratic tour in London. She walked off the stage one night after being heckled, and showed up late to many shows. On another night, she announced her secret wedding to Mickey Deans, a club manager, and gave a stellar performance. Deans is the one who found her dead on the bathroom floor on 22nd June 1969.
Judy takes place during a time when Garland's obvious damage coexisted with her incredible, still-intact star power. For a preview of this strange dichotomy, watch her unforgettable interview on Dick Cavett in 1968. Garland’s sentences were slurred and her memory foggy, but she’s charming and funny.
Likely, Judy will encapsulate the dynamics present in Cavett interview. She's entrancing and captivating, but so obviously unstable. At this point, Garland's life was a cry for help. Instead of listening, though, people bought tickets for her concerts, and heckled her off stage when her troubles overshadowed her entertaining abilities.
Garland never had a chance to talk back to the system that made her. Then, in 2000, 68 pages of an unpublished memoir were discovered in the archives of Columbia University by autobiographer Gerald Clark. In those pages, we see Garland’s rage about the mistreatment that governed the course of her life: “I’d like to expose a lot of people who deserve it,” she wrote, beginning an account of the people who exploited her for their own gain, and for profit.
In the age of Time's Up and #MeToo, Garland's life is a particularly harrowing emblem of how Hollywood can warp and abuse young women. With any luck, Judy will be both a realistic portrayal of Garland and the abuses she endured, but also a tribute to her incredible talent that persevered nonetheless.
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