CW: Substance abuse, mentions of suicide
When feeling frustrated by adolescence, or anxious about the future, after every mediocre date or mediocre essay, after spending two hours drafting a Tweet that only gets seven likes, after accidentally cutting myself while shaving or performing a luke-warm comedy set, after a period of debilitating anxiety about grease stains left on fancy chairs and being left on read by fancy men, there is something very comforting about Judy Garland: a voice you can lose yourself in.
When fully immersed in her music – with her experience, joys and struggles packed into her every syllable – it’s difficult to give much weight to the trials and tribulations of your own life. Judy Garland was something else.
I can go on about Judy Garland, about her rich vibrato, her unparalleled stage-craft (look at her hands…!), about how once a (very drunk) stranger told me I had a Garland-esque glint in my eye. I feel the need to give impassioned speeches about her talent whenever her name comes up in conversation. Though, half-way through said impassioned speech, the conversation will inevitably trail off into the salacious.
Gossip (is it still gossip if they’ve been dead for over 60 years?) about the cocktail of pills she took to get her through the day, the tranquilisers she needed to help her come down from those pills, coerced abortions, outbursts on set, gay husbands, abusive husbands, the list goes on. And that’s just from one WatchMojo video. People relish trading scandalous stories about her life, before adding a heartfelt ‘so tragic’ at the end, just in case anyone might accuse them of enjoying themselves a little too much.
It is no secret that Judy Garland had more than her fair share of troubles. From a mother who didn’t want her and pushed her into the bright lights of Vaudeville, to a studio that wouldn’t rest until she was just that little bit skinnier. Years of dieting, prescription barbiturates and alcoholism took its toll on her, costing her her movie career, her reputation and eventually her life. Pretending that Garland wasn’t a victim of substance abuse and of a cruel, misogynistic film industry, will not take back years of suffering.
But I question the motives behind obsessing over the more painful parts of her life. This is often the case when a celebrity dies: Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain. We have a cultural fixation with suicidal celebrities. Is learning about ‘their unhappy truth’ really a way of reclaiming their narratives? Of telling the story of the real person behind the legend? Or is it just an exercise in emotional masturbation? Wrapping the sum total of their lives – their successes, dreams, disappointments, failures – neatly up, labelling it a ‘tragedy’, putting it aside. Leaving a sad comment about suffering and tragic circumstances under a YouTube clip of an old interview of theirs, and clicking on another video without a second thought. Viewing celebrities as the sum total of the struggles they faced strips them of their nuance and their complexities. Their life becomes a tragedy in five acts, one we don’t fully engage with.
We should all be aware of the truth, or as much truth as we can get given the circumstances. Pretending that Garland’s life was one filled with joy, munchkins and perfectly cut fringes (see The Trolley Song) is silly. In a 1939 review for the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent wrote that “Judy Garland’s Dorothy is a pert and fresh-faced miss with the wonder-lit eyes of a believer in fairy tales.’” Choosing to remember this iteration of Garland, confusing her legacy with Dorothy’s, is equally problematic.
I propose a compromise between the good and the bad. I propose we accept that the good does not outweigh the bad, and that the bad does not undermine the good. I propose we acknowledge her suffering and celebrate her joy in equal measure. I propose we remember Garland as a figure who overcame, who gave hope to the marginalised and the outcast. I propose we recognise the toxic environment of Hollywood and our own role in perpetuating it. I propose we accept Garland on her own terms – not as a victim, not as an icon, but a woman with flaws, complexities, and desires. I propose that the next time you find yourself watching your favourite movie-musical or listening to ‘Over the Rainbow’ in the house of an eccentric elderly homosexual, you raise a glass to the ruby slippers, and the woman who wore them.