There's something about Judy

Gay men love Judy Garland because she understands their pain. Rubbish, says David Benedict. As Meet Me in St Louis makes clear, what she offers is hope
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The Independent Culture

She nearly didn't do it. Judy Garland had had it up to here with juvenile leads. Hell, she was a 21-year old prime asset of MGM with 19 movies in the can. She was chomping at the bit to play adult roles, and the prospect of adding the lovelorn Esther Smith to her list of peppy adolescents was distinctly unappealing. Off-screen, she was separated from her first husband, David Rose, and was having an affair with (married) Joe Mankiewicz. He knew a thing or three about scripts – he went on to write and direct All About Eve – and when he read Meet Me in St Louis he opined that the picture would be stolen by Margaret O'Brien as Esther's baby sister Tootie.

It was the reverse of her earlier casting as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. For reasons of potential box-office insurance, studio boss Louis B Mayer had approached Fox's Darryl Zanuck to loan him Shirley Temple, a performer whose, er, sweetness continues to induce diabetic coma in hitherto healthy audience members.

Garland's mentor, music supervisor Roger Edens, came to her rescue. He smartly dismissed the idea of Temple on the grounds of her vocal limitations, thus giving Garland her first signature role. And it was another bisexual man, director Vincente Minnelli – (reader, she married him; and subsequently came home to find him in bed with a man) who persuaded her that Meet Me in St Louis might be a good career move after all.

How right he was. This surprisingly touching and dark turn-of-the-century family drama took four months to shoot and went 10 per cent over budget, costing an alarming $1,883,289.14. But it grossed more than four times that on its initial release alone.

Back then, and ever since, gay men made up a healthy percentage of those watching. Well, they would, wouldn't they? After all, enough of them were involved in manufacturing musicals. No-messing heterosexuals were in notoriously short supply on Arthur Freed's MGM musicals operation, which was unofficially dubbed "the fairy unit". Meet Me in St Louis used Minnelli, Edens and Charles Walters, the latter of whom – a long-term relationship with a fellow male choreographer notwithstanding – actually proposed marriage to Garland. This was 1943, remember.

Furthermore, upstanding John Truett – the boy next door Esther pines for throughout the film – was to be played by Van Johnson, another gay man. At least until, prior to shooting, he was replaced by the all-American Tom Drake, who Garland privately bedded, only to discover that he too was more interested in boys next door, like those glued to Garland in cinemas across the country. A decade later, she crowned her screen career playing another Esther – Esther Blodgett, indeed – in A Star is Born. But Meet Me in St Louis marks the sudden full flowering of her mature talent.

Certainly, no-one is likely to make a case for this film as a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. But the tight weave of music and drama is masterly, and has rarely been bettered. It was positively revolutionary, too, in an era that shoved songs and showgirls into trifling backstage stories willy-nilly. Garland's numbers are not show-off star-turns, they're domestic scenes that illustrate and advance the drama. And she seizes them with both hands.

"The Boy Next Door' is a sweet song of adolescent yearning, but she lends it a wholly adult depth, partly through what she chooses not to do. Paradoxically, her reserve stokes up the unaffected lyric, her cooly wondering face belieing the tangible power of her voice.

She knows that restraint, rather than open display, is affecting and effective. That's why she won a rewrite on the lyric for the number she sings before the family is forced to leave their beloved St Louis. Originally it began, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last/ Next year we will all be living in the past..." "It's too sad," she argued. "If that lyric is sad and I'm sad on top of it, the audience is going to say, 'Oh, my God'."

The final version – "Let your heart be light/ next year all our troubles will be out of sight" – is more moving because Garland's rendition is all about putting a brave face on things. She's a proper actress handling subtext and, better yet, she refuses to cry. That allows her on-screen sister – and the audience – to do just that.

To be honest, holding back wasn't exactly her trademark. As the addictions took over, so the performances became more neurotic. Ironically, this lent her work an edge that safer, more stable artists could only dream of. But that, in turn, led to misunderstandings surrounding the rhyme and reason of her fan base.

Judy Garland-worship – like Madonna-worship but earlier, more rapturous and approximately 12 times more intense – is the greatest of homosexual clichés. All gay men are, or were, allegedly in thrall to her. Like many clichés, that nostrum is partially based on truth. After all, it is no coincidence that the Stonewall riots – the 1969 Greenwich Village demonstrations that marked the birth of the modern gay movement – began 12 hours after the worldwide media event of Garland's packed funeral, in a city stunned by an outpouring of grief paralleled only by the death of Rudolph Valentino, 43 years earlier.

Yet the legendary gays-and-Garland connection is widely misread. Ever an unreliable witness to her own endeavours, she once told Dirk Bogarde: "I have a voice that hurts people when they want to be hurt, that's all."

Gay men are routinely and lazily described as clinging to her wreckage. We have, we're told, identified with her pain. This portrait of her as the ultimate role-model for sorrowing sad-saps is not only dangerously homophobic, it's also ridiculously wide of the mark.

Of course, there's plenty to get sentimental over with Garland, for whom tears were always a possibility. In the Charles Walters "let's-put-the-show-on-right-here-in-the-barn" movie Summer Stock, she bursts into tears over a ruined tractor, which is a bit of a worry. It also allows unreconstructed straight men to sneer. It's as if they consider such frank emotional displays to be unmanly, when the real reason they can't cope is that they're frightened of her intensity.

Her emotions are close to the surface, but that doesn't mean they're phoney. Far from it. It is impossible to watch "The Man That Got Away" in A Star is Born with your cynicism intact. The same minor key phrase repeatedly builds and drops back, making it a four-minute masterpiece of loss and longing. Subsequent singers use the number as a 24-carat wallow in self-pity, but not Garland.

"With hope you burn up," she sings, and that hope scalds the screen. She's not anguished, she's exultant. She's expressing determination and triumph and that's what the gays-and-Garland link is really about. It's not the pills, the booze, the despair. What's mesmerising is the giddy combination of her passion and her victory against the odds. For closeted gay men dreaming of release, it was vicarious living. That's why her final film, the queasy, quasi-autobiographical I Could Go on Singing is so hard to watch – because, this time, it really does look like she won't survive. The film threatens to destroy the fundamental gay belief that Garland is a winner.

Which is what you see in Meet Me in St Louis. She's barely five-foot tall, and the unfiltered passion of that tremulous, vast voice bursting out of so tiny a body is disconcerting but thrilling. Take the most famous sequence, "The Trolley Song". Minnelli gave the number dramatic impetus by building Esther's heartthrob into it, and he surrounded her with a bevy of friends whirling round in wildly colourful costumes. But no-one ever remembers that. All you see and hear is Garland. It's the movie's most preposterous scene, but she defies the dramatic odds. Whichever way you look at her, she's on song.

'Meet Me in St Louis' is re-released nationwide from today and shows daily at the NFT till 13 December 2001