On JUDY: The Road to Hell is Paved With Yellow Bricks

October 29th, 2019

JUDY captures the chaos-and heartbreak-in the final year of Judy Garland’s life as she bravely mounts a professional comeback in London while attempting to regain custody of her two young children. It also serves as a cautionary tale about the terrible toll Hollywood exacted on its most vulnerable performers-the female child star.

The film largely ignores her illustrious film career, a wise creative decision by the filmmakers since by the time she had moved to London, the film industry saw her as past her prime and had largely discarded her. Her brutal treatment at the hands of the industry is a major theme throughout the film, mostly told through flashbacks. These scenes are a bit clunky and heavy-handed, but necessary to understand how such a great talent had become so diminished a figure that she was reduced to being homeless and broke. She wasn’t just another self-indulgent film star making poor life choices. Her drug addiction and mental fragility were the direct result of being subjected to a childhood filled with tyrannical behavior from studio heads that was tantamount to child abuse. The film depicts Garland as being under the constant watch of studio handlers who wouldn’t allow her to eat a proper meal in order to meet studio head Louis B. Mayer’s strict weight requirements for her performance in THE WIZARD OF OZ. In one scene, MGM studios throw a young Judy Garland a birthday party, but literally won’t allow her to have her cake and eat it too. These same handlers were, under directives from Mayer, to supply her constantly with an endless cycle of amphetamines so she could work grueling hours without needing to bother with such distractions as eating and sleeping. In one harrowing scene, where the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ provides a surreal background as the shadowy figure of Mayer looms over Garland while he lectures her about how physically unappealing she is compared to other young girls, and how lucky she is to be in his employ. At one point, he suggestively strokes her chest as he simultaneously berates her, suggesting a Weinsteinian class of abuse. During this era, Garland had few legal options both as a child performer and as a female. Los Angeles was at that time a one industry town and that industry controlled the city, including politicians and prosecutors.

In my earlier post, THE VINDICATION OF GIRL-27, I wrote about the abusive, illegal techniques that Louis B. Mayer employed during his reign as studio head of MGM during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In order to put Garland’s life in context and appreciate the horrors she endured, one must understand the complete power the studio system had at that time over the lives of the performers they had under contract. Actors were considered property and the studio system dictated every aspect of their existence-including their relationships, diets, wardrobe, medical care, movie roles and so on. In one telling scene, a teenage Garland asks Mickey Rooney if they are dating. He tells her that he doesn’t think so, but “I’ll ask Mr. Mayer.”

In her real life outside of Hollywood, Judy Garland was a relentless survivor and the film does an admirable job of portraying her as the witty, self-deprecating woman who never succumbed to self-pity despite having every reason or right to. Early in the film, while at a party, she quips, “I used to have ambitions, but found that they gave me such headaches.” Despite being physically exhausted with no place to sleep that night, she retains her great humor. Garland never gave up, she never gave in, and it’s a testament to her indomitable spirit that she lived to be forty-seven—something of a miracle given the appalling treatment she endured for most of her life.

JUDY depicts its heroine as being a loving mother to her two young children. Her inability to provide them with a stable home is not due to parental neglect, but the structural violence that left her financially, as well as emotionally and physically, drained. Garland was constantly hounded by creditors and tax collectors and thus constantly needed to work in order to provide for her children—yet another great tragedy of her life. Despite  working non-stop since she was a toddler, Garland was constantly in debt, the victim of greedy managers and gold digging lovers. She is tormented by the loss of her children, and when told she must accept an engagement in London or risk losing custody, she replies, “You mean I have to leave my children in order to be with my children?” The injustice of her situation is infuriating and one wonders how such a brilliant entertainer had by the 1960s so few legal remedies to pursue.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but wonder if Garland would have had a different fate if she lived now. I think she would have. She had the great misfortune to be born during a time when there were no child labor laws regulating the film industry, and women entertainers in the studio system were seen as disposable chattel. Her great talent and tenacity offered her no protection, gave her no power. Alas, she never conquered her demons, but to her credit, she often faced them with humor and a fighting spirit. “Everybody has their troubles, and I’ve had mine,” she famously declared in an interview towards the end of her life. It is this courage that makes Judy Garland still, fifty years after her death, such a beloved heroine, and an enduring symbol of a female artist trapped in a bygone studio system who suffered needlessly for her art. Towards the end of the film, Garland pleads that she never be forgotten.

During her life, many of her pleas were ignored. Not this one. She lives on in a body of work so versatile and brilliant that Hollywood will never see the likes of it again. It is this legacy that ensures her immortality. In an industry where fame is often fleeting, she will never be forgotten.

~Amy

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