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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Call For Judy Garland Fans

Judy’s always been a hard sell with straight men. In fact, not only do straight men generally dismiss (if not dislike) Judy, they tend to prefer that their friends do so as well. Here are variations on that sentiment as they have been expressed to me over the years ---- "I’m not exactly a fan of Judy Garland, are you?" (always with a bit of an edge to it) ---- "I don’t like Judy Garland! You don’t, do you?" (as though the continued friendship may hinge upon your answering properly). Must real men conceal their pleasure in Judy? Must we renounce her in order to qualify as heterosexuals? The conflict only deepened for me when I brought the issue before my girlfriend this morning. "Too hard", said she, "… not feminine… you’d never want to take her home to meet the family". Well, there’s an understatement to be sure, but what’s the Judy cult coming to when even the sisterhood turns against her? So, we pose this query to our readers --- what do you really think of Judy Garland? For myself, I pondered that weighty matter today as I watched I Could Go On Singing for the first time.

This was Judy’s last feature ("sadly", as Maltin’s TV review says), and it was released in 1963, six or so years prior to her death. It’s surprisingly plush for a star who’d not had a hit movie in nearly a decade, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. Of course, Judy sings her lungs out, but I found all that less interesting than the drama, and she’s really good with the drama (plus, I didn’t think the songs were all that hot). Say what you like, but this woman could act. She had a spontaneity that’s really effective when it isn’t going overboard, and I found her a lot more restrained here than in A Star Is Born, where you always have the feeling of George Cukor sitting behind the camera going, "Wonderful, Judy, more! More! MORE!" The only thing with Judy is the intensity. Once she’s switched on, she’s gonna take you with her all the way to the breakdown, particularly in these post-MGM things where you always have the feeling she’s getting ready to crack up and flee from the set. Apparently, that’s very nearly how it was, according to what I’ve read. In I Could Go On Singing, she essentially plays herself, and the show’s full of those backstage moments designed to give us a glimpse of the real Judy. Her fans must have gone nuts over this one. It’s not like Gay Purr-ee of the previous year, where she gave voice to a Chuck Jones cartoon cat (and had to endure one of those hellish New York opening weekends where Warners put her on a sweltering bus and sent her to every crumbling neighborhood theatre in the five boroughs for personal appearances). I Could Go On Singing is 100% Judy, as the ad shown here will attest, and good as she is, that can be a little exhausting. The story is one of those mother love things, and I kept waiting for a Stella Dallas ending which never really arrived. In fact, the whole thing just kind of stopped instead of ending. Judy really looks her age too, bless her heart. You wonder if Ross Hunter could have done anything for her the way he did for Lana Turner. Probably not.

Based on our research, this picture really went into the tank commercially. After all the trouble they’d had with Judy (and the pic was barely finished at all, thanks to her misbehavior), United Artists went down to a crushing defeat in every market. One observer said they might as well have hung a sign in the boxoffice reading, "Smallpox Inside". Domestic rentals were a horrific $301,000 (UA had sci-fi and strongman fodder that did almost as well), and foreign was only marginally better at $455,000. There were only 4,339 bookings --- even Vincent Price in the black-and-white Tower Of London did better than that. People wanted to see Judy in person. That’s what hooked UA in the first place. What got them snake-bit was the realization that no one wanted to go see Judy on the screen anymore, unless it was The Wizard Of Oz on a TV screen.

One more anecdote about Judy, though not a personal one. This I’d find hard to believe were it not for the unimpeachable first-person source, a life-long Garland fan and not a man given to prevarication. It seems that during the early sixties, when Judy was often as not broke (sneaking out of hotels to avoid the tab, that sort of thing), she would sometimes econimize by crashing with fans during her concert travels. During one such layover with an acolyte who later dealt autographs and became an acquaintance of mine, Judy decided to entertain this guy, and a couple of his friends, with an impromptu concert in the living room of his apartment. Singing along with her Judy At Carnegie Hall on the phonograph, she belted out every single number on that now legendary double album, all for the benefit of three fans who must have thought they’d died and gone to Judy Heaven. This is one story I’ve picked up in collecting travels that really freaked me out. Totally incredible, but I believe every word of it.


Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

A semi-related point about this posting. Did you read Pete Turner's "Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool"?..A great record of the last days of a marvelous actress: Gloria Grahame.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm straight. I loved and still love Judy Garland. Her voice, her command of an audience, her acting have never been equaled.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is something to what you say about men's responses to Garland. I once knew a psychiatrist who blustered, "LIKE HER? _Like her?_ How? She's just A HYSTERIC! And that goes double for that daughter of hers." This unprompted analysis came when my wife gently asked the guy if he'd liked Garland's performance in A STAR IS BORN.

I'm not a fan of all of Garland's pictures, but her talent was extraordinary, and as the restored STAR IS BORN indicates, her range as an actress was astonishing. her scenes with Mason -- tender, funny, dramatic -- are flawless. Her near collapse in her dressing room as she talks to Bickford about how bad things have gotten is devastating -- not to mention her sorrow-masking reprise of "Lose That Long Face" that immediately follows.

The scene in the movie that I most vividly recall, though, is the penultimate sequence in which old beau/nice guy Tom Noonan arrives to pick up the deep-in-mourning Garland to take her to a long-scheduled benefit. Garland, no longer Esther Blodgett and now not really Vicki Lester anymore, is unresponsive; she's going to give up her career and maybe never even leave her house again.

Noonan -- who has been remarkably patient with Garland for the picture's long running time -- will have none of this, and literally explodes with rage.

He tells her bluntly Mason had been a drunk and "he wasted his life, but he loved you... and took great pride in the one thing in his life that wasn't a waste -- you... Now you're doing the one thing he was terrified of -- you're tossing aside the one thing he had left." Noonan isn't remembered as a dramatic actor, but he misses no nuance nor expression of regret or pain in his performance here -- and his words hit Garland like a sledge hammer; we can see the blows, feel the recoil. Terror. Shock. Fury. Shame.

Then, she dissolves almost before our eyes. Esther Blodgett and Vicki Lester seem to merge in her face. She looks at Noonan with hesitation and shyness. She says, "Will. You. Wait. For. Me?"

There's nothing like this in any other movie.

That said, I COULD GO ON SINGING is pretty weak stuff...

3:43 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Possibly another reason why the film tanked was due to the overkill on her (just cancelled) TV series. I suppose it could be argued that most people were watching "Bonanza", but there's no doubt that Judy was drawing some kind of audience, coming on as she did right after Ed Sullivan. By 1964, the show had been through a few format changes and had emerged basically as a weekly one-woman concert. You've heard of too much of a good thing?

Anyway, after many weeks of Judy, Judy, Judy just singing, singing, singing her heart out for free in your living room, why would anyone pay to see it - especially with a title and ad campaign that promised only more of the same? The few that did go must've been drawn in by the opportunity to see her strut her stuff in Technicolor.

I'm hetero and enjoy Judy Garland, in small doses; the "Carnegie Hall" album is pretty much the one to own. Most of her MGMs are wonderfully entertaining. I've been told by those who were there that nothing compared with seeing her in person. A not-to-be-missed experience. The only latter-day entertainer I've EVER heard consistently described that way is Bruce Springsteen, which must mean something. I just wish I knew what.

By the way, in between "Gay Purr-ee" and "I Could Go on Singing" came a straight drama with Burt Lancaster called "A Child is Waiting". Have you got any material on that one?

1:11 PM  
Blogger M said...

I'm a 32 year old woman, and I do love her. My favorite Judy Garland movie is with Fred Astaire in "Easter Parade." Not that she wasn't excellent in her other movies, but it's sometimes hard to enjoy her talent when she's terribly coiffed and dressed, as it so often happened (I hate her look in these photographs, and it has nothing to do with her age.) In "Easter Parade" everything seemed to come together: her remarcable talent comes through, both for comedy and drama, her perfect timing, her wonderful singing. She wasn't a dancer, but she was expressive with her body, as well as with her face.

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judy's been my favorite actress for as long as I can remember. I find it hard to understand how anyone could hate her. She was so talented in everything she did - and sadly underrated as an actress. Her intensity could scare some people away, I suppose. But I've always been drawn to the expressive, emotive, vulnerable quality in her voice, and in her screen persona. She had an amazing ability to move her audience, and make them FEEL. I also greatly admire her real-life wit, which comes through in her comedic moments on film. I don't think she was given enough opportunities to display her sense of humour, or her dramatic abilities. But I treasure every moment that's captured on film.

I find it annoying that Judy's a Gay Icon, because it makes so many heterosexuals dismiss her. I mean, it's their loss, if they refuse to be exposed to such an amazing talent. But it's a damn shame. I even know one gay man who refuses to watch/listen to Judy because he doesn't want to be considered a stereotypical homosexual! This man is not in the closet, and seems perfectly okay with his sexuality. He just doesn't want to be a cliche. I understand that, but I still think it's sad that he won't give Judy a chance.

Fer cryin' out loud, Judy Garland had a great gift, and she was not meant to be exclusive property of the gay community! Her music and movies can be enjoyed by anyone with good taste and an open mind... and I don't see how anyone with a HEART could fail to be moved by Judy. And yet I've encountered people with callous contempt for her drug problems, and the way she died, without bothering to learn her history... Funny how these people have sympathy for other celebrities with addictions - like Marilyn Monroe for instance. I find it disgusting that someone has to be a sex symbol, in order for the public to show human kindness and understanding for their frailties.

(who over-identifies with Judy in some respects because I too was an "ugly duckling", insecure about my appearance, etc. I don't imagine I have even an ounce of Judy's talent, wit, or magnetic charm, however. I wish! Hmm, I wonder if some people feel threatened by Judy's intelligence? Is that considered unfeminine by some people? No wonder everyone likes sweet, childish Marilyn then!)

3:26 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Judy Garland is very beautiful and attractive, especially in close-up, in 'Meet Me In St.Louis'.
As with any film actor, the presentation counts for a lot.

1:02 PM  

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