Film Studies: She couldn't act for toffee - until she burst into song

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The Independent Culture

If she were still alive, Judy Garland would be only 82. Put it another way, on a recent drive through Oregon, I noticed that at one of the new Native American casinos, Mickey Rooney was appearing "live" in Sugar Babies - and the Mick was always a couple of years older than Judy. As it is, Garland was discovered, collapsed on the lavatory in a London flat in 1969, when she was only 47. Her blood contained the equivalent of 10 1.5-grain Seconal capsules, and a kindly coroner declared that it was plainly a death by accident, a case of taking a dose, dropping off for a moment, waking and forgetting that you'd swallowed your pills already. If a coroner didn't buy that, he had to consider that the wreck of a woman was already weary of her fifth husband and the hopeless routine of trying to be "Judy" again and again, bringing a packed house and herself to tears with "Over the Rainbow", "Swanee" or "The Man That Got Away" one more time. As those who knew her reasoned in 1969, it was a wonder that she had made it to 47.

Many tried to rescue her from whatever it was, and that number includes two daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft (both of whom have now lived longer than their mother), and a son named Joey. You'd have to include the five husbands and many of the lovers, and it would be only fair to involve some people at the studio, M-G-M, the one that made her famous. There are provable stories of that same studio sitting the little girl on its knee and then feeling up her budding breasts, and of doctors hired to regulate her intake of uppers and downers to keep the actress performing. Between 1936 and 1950, at Metro, the Judy who was going through her teenage years, made 28 pictures. But then remind yourself that Judy's contemporaries were not just the Mick, but Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin (and why not Elizabeth Taylor?) - and all of that group except Bartholomew are alive still .

Biographies have made it clear that the person who introduced Frances Ethel Gumm (Judy's given name) to drugs was her own mother, who wanted to get the maximum income possible out of her own child. And while it's true that Judy lived her life according to pressure - her weight always fluctuating, her nerves or her temper always breaking - the engine for these drives was hers and hers alone. There was a side to Garland that was eloquent with her own hard-luck stories, of how men and the system had used her. But it's not possible to read the books (or hear that cracking, emotional voice) and reckon that there was ever any other life available. If Liza and Lorna are still here, still singing some of Mama's songs, it's because they were spared that terrible self-destructive drive. Which is cold comfort, indeed.

So what is it about Garland that makes her, indisputably, a central figure in the legend of show business? I don't think her greatest supporters can claim that she was a remarkable actress, or a great beauty. There is one film, Meet Me in St Louis, where a lush, amber wig and the extraordinary affection of director Vincente Minnelli have her looking at her best. That rapport with Minnelli was fragile, for it meant that both parties were having to persuade themselves that Vincente wasn't quite homosexual, and that Judy's very great sexual appetite would be satisfied by the best director she ever had.

And Meet Me in St Louis is really that look, that brief relaxation at being loved, and the very happy arrival of such songs as "The Trolley Song", "The Boy Next Door" and - one of the greatest things she ever did - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", a song that derives its dramatic point from being sung by an older sister (Judy) to the younger (Margaret O'Brien), who doesn't want to leave St Louis for New York. Thus the apparent festive celebration is underscored by melancholy. It's a torch song for those perfect Christmases that will never come back.

And there we come to the thing that is vital and dynamic still in Judy Garland. No, she was not especially good an actress in scenes that called for conventional acting. In Judgement at Nuremberg (one of her few non-musical movies) and in the straight scenes from A Star is Born she is adequate (though she never comes close to making us forget that she is too old, too plump, to be playing the ingenue in the latter movie). But whenever she had a song that really promoted or deepened the drama of a musical story, then she was without a superior - though Sinatra and Edith Piaf, I think, were peers in that rare breed of singers who are doing their best acting in songs.

Of course, this facility required songs that were more than musical interludes or illustrations. At the outset, with her hair done in pigtails and her breasts severely restrained, she had turned "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz into one of those immortal and heart-stopping odes to the cusp between childhood and adolescence. The lyrics are child-like, but the voice is grown-up, full of yearning - indeed, the mood is very close to the Christmas song in St Louis, where the singer knows she no longer really credits Christmas any longer and wonders if there are adult dreams large enough to replace it.

There's a third movie moment where the singing carries a scene into drama. In A Star is Born, James Mason's Norman Maine has sobered up and he goes in search of the band singer who rescued him from drunken disaster at the gala event. He finds the band in a club. It is late, but the kids are jamming just for the love of music, and in a magnificent single take director George Cukor fills the CinemaScope frame with the band and with Judy in a plain dark blue dress doing "The Man That Got Away". This singer is allegedly a kid with a whole career before her, but the lyrics were tenderly crafted for the Judy whose youth was gone:

"The night is bitter,

The stars have lost their glitter;

The winds grow colder

And suddenly you're older..."

Three songs, and all of them coloured by loss or the condition of being Judy Garland on the long downslope of her life. There's much more, of course, in the recordings of her live act in the last decades, and the enduring pathos of a jittery has-been or an overweight lady suddenly made 15 again by the overwhelming proof that an audience loved her so - so that as she sang, her own voice trembled. She was the kind of actress who left you wondering why all dialogue isn't sung.

Lorna Luft stars in 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' at Savoy Theatre, London WC2 (0870 164 8787), previews from Thursday, opens 6 July