“It’s your job to give those people dreams,” said Louis B. Mayer to a young Judy Garland. And he went on to tell her to make sure she didn’t lose her slim figure and singing voice: “If you want to become a legend, work hard, obey and go on a diet forever.”
The 2019 biopic “Judy,” starring Renee Zellweger, opens with this scene. Zellweger plays an older Judy Garland, the former star who, following a series of crashes and comebacks, tries in her mid-40s to gain once more a foothold in showbiz and in life — and fails desperately.
Drugged as a young star
Born on June 10, 1922, Judy Garland was first dragged on stage by her mother when she was a toddler. She was supposed to become a star, and that plan worked out.
At the age of 17, Judy Garland got the role of her life: Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” The soundtrack includes the ballad “Over the Rainbow,” a song that became a world hit and turned the teenager into an international star.
Hollywood loved and lured her, all while crushing the young artist. She was told in no uncertain terms to stay slim and fit, and was fed with pills to meet the industry’s demands — stimulants to keep her awake on set, sleeping tablets to sleep at night and amphetamines to control her appetite.
Her fans weren’t aware of any of this though, and worshiped her. Judy would sing cheerful and melodramatic songs as if her life depended on it.
While she made one hit movie after another and captivated people with her dark, powerful singing voice, she fought the demons of alcohol and drug addiction, with repeated withdrawal attempts and relapses.
She divorced four times, and was the proud mother of three children.
She was just three months into her marriage to her fifth husband when she died of a barbiturate overdose at age 47 in 1969. “Accidental,” according to official reports, but to this day, it is no clear whether it was in fact suicide.
A gay icon
Today Judy Garland remains a gay icon, for many reasons.
When the film “The Wizard of Oz” came out in 1939, homosexuality was a crime in the US, like in many other parts of the world. Queer life happened behind closed doors, even though a great number of people in Hollywood were secretly homosexual or bisexual.
Among them, Judy Garland’s father was apparently attracted to men, and her second husband, Vincente Minnelli, is said to have been a closeted bisexual. Their daughter Liza Minnelli is another gay icon.
So the queer scene in the US had to hide from the law for decades — in some states well into the 21st century.
“Friend of Dorothy” established itself as a code word in the 1940s.
At Garland’s concerts, there were often more men than women in the audience. The press in the 1960s described the fans as “men in tight pants” — and everyone understood what that meant.
When Judy Garland was buried in New York on June 27, 1969, there were a striking number of men among the crowd of 22,000. Some of them carried a rainbow flag.
Coincidentally or not, the day after Garland’s funeral, the Stonewall riots began in New York’s Greenwich Village. After a raid on the Stonewall Inn bar on Christopher Street, demonstrations and street fights erupted, marking the beginning of the gay emancipation movement.
Judy Garland’s 100th birthday has been celebrated for days on Christopher Street, with rainbow flags adorning the street and the building of the former Stonewall Inn.
Somewhere over the rainbow…
The song “Over The Rainbow” is one of the unofficial anthems of the LGBTQ community. It is even suggested that this song was the inspiration for the rainbow flag, which is the symbol of acceptance and equality for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, a proud commitment to one’s own sexuality and a sign of tolerance and diversity.
In “The Wizard of Oz” ballad, young Dorothy wishes to reach a better life on the other side of the rainbow. The film is in black and white, until Dorothy actually ends up behind the rainbow, in a colorful and crazy world in which everyone is allowed to be who they are.
Although her song provided hope to people around the world, Judy Garland tragically never found that happy place for herself: “I wanted to believe and I tried my damndest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and couldn’t. So what? Lots of people can’t.”
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