BOOK REVIEW / Follow the yelling sick road: 'Judy Garland' - David Shipman: Fourth Estate, 17.99
Saturday 31 October 1992
Born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922, she began performing in vaudeville at the age of two with her father (who was homosexual), her mother (who was workaholic) and two older sisters. In the next 12 years she worked her way through a series of stage incarnations that sound like aliases on a Post Office Wanted poster: Baby Gumm, Gracie Gumm, Alice Gumm, Frances Gayne and Frances Garland (as in 'pretty as a garland of roses'). Later she borrowed the name Judy from the Hoagy Carmichael song, which includes the line: 'If you think she's a saint and you find out she ain't, that's Judy.'
Garland's mother, Ethel, took the family to southern California, where they lived in the desert and commuted regularly to Santa Monica and Hollywood. Ethel escorted her daughters to auditions, radio performances, talent shows and music halls, and enrolled them in various workshops for child actors. A relentless hustler, she signed Judy to a contract with Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935. This was during the heyday of MGM, when it was being run by the likes of Selznick, Thalberg, and Louis B Mayer (whom the scriptwriter Noel Langley once referred to as 'a shark that killed when it wasn't hungry'). Garland was initially paid dollars 150 a week; after her salary skyrocketed, she dispensed with her mother entirely, and began accusing her of ruining her life.
Garland was no beauty, and MGM didn't try to make her one. She had bad teeth, an unphotogenic nose, no waist, and legs up to her neck; with his customary grace, Mayer used to introduce her to friends as his 'little hunchback'. With the help of a battery of cosmeticians and publicity hounds, Garland was made to look like the girl next door. She had her first break performing 'Dear Mr Gable' in Broadway Melody of 1938, and went on to play Andy Hardy's love interest, Betsy Booth, in a popular series of films about a middle-America that never was: small suburban villages filled with obedient children, all-benevolent Moms and strong, capable Dads. The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, pulled in a good crowd, but its initial run didn't even recover its production costs; the beginning of the war had closed it off from European markets, and the crowds of American children who attended only paid half price.
Garland's reputation was secured through musicals such as Busby Berkeley's Babes in Arms, and Vincente Minelli's Meet Me in St Louis. At 23, she made Minnelli her second husband, and he was probably the last productive, calming influence that her life would know. Like her father, Minnelli was gay - but, in retrospect, that was a minor technical difficulty. By this point, Garland was a complete mess.
MGM shaped Judy Garland as ruthlessly as any commodity. Studio handlers prescribed diet pills to reduce her weight, Seconal to help her sleep through the subsequent buzz, and benzedrine to post her off brightly to work in the morning. Drugs and alcohol were not Garland's only problem, but she was usually too doped up to recognise any others. She was an egomaniac who couldn't live up to the expectations she had of herself; she hated other people for not adoring her sufficiently, and she hated herself for not being everything she thought she should be. Whenever she was forced to do something she didn't want to - sing a song, act a scene, lose weight, or honour a commitment - she did terrible things, both to herself and others.
David Shipman has written a professional and respectful biography of Garland, but there are times when he sounds a little too star-struck. Garland, like Dietrich, Bette Davis or Monroe, has always generated a perverse fascination in her fans, and Shipman is always unfurling lists of famous stars who attended her concerts, lengthily quoting adulatory reviews, or rhapsodising about the contents of Garland's record albums and Las Vegas nightclub performances. On the whole, though, he tackles a tawdry subject with grace and generosity, gathering mountains of facts and letting them speak for themselves. And what the facts have to say is pretty ugly.
Garland staged a number of comebacks in her career - most notably in George Cukor's brilliant A Star is Born, with James Mason. But after she was fired from film after film, the industry simply wouldn't hire her any more. She began a successful series of concert performances, but then started cancelling dates, outraging audiences, showing up drunk and getting herself fired all over again. She accumulated four million dollars' worth of debt and back taxes, a toxic liver, a blizzard of fierce litigation and some awful husbands. During the final homeless years of her life, she was thrown out of hotel after hotel, and stores stopped honouring her credit. To pay her bills, she even considered writing her autobiography, saying that the story of her life would be 'hilariously funny, as most of my life has been most of the time. Even at the worst times there has always been something hilarious happening to me'.
By the end of Garland's sad life, however, she was probably the only one still laughing - probably because she never seemed to have any idea what was happening to her. Shortly before her death from what the doctor called 'an incautious overdose', she told a potential biographer: 'Isn't it remarkable that with all the horror, with all that I've been through, I never drifted into booze or pills?' Remarkable is right.
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