Frances Ethel Gumm, aka Judy Garland died 50 years ago in London. But she remains in the spotlight everywhere, particularly the LGBT everywhere, to this day, and that ain’t likely to change. Ever.
Judy Garland is a “gay icon” like no other.
Her life bridges the gap between the pre-Stonewall world when gay was “in the closet” to the post-Stonewall one, filled with the “out and proud” whose attentions are longed for gay icon wannabes like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift (good intentions sometimes aren’t good enough).
That Stonewall took place on the day of Judy’s funeral was mere coincidence, but like the film’s failure to mention Stonewall — even in a closing crawl — something crucial is missing from her performance, a sense of magic.
How is it then that Stonewall isn’t mentioned at all in “Judy,” the new Renée Zellweger-starring biopic — it doesn’t even count as a blip on the gaydar?
It’s a well-meaning, competently made film and Zellweger gives it her all, but like the film’s failure to tie her to Stonewall, something is missing.
While she’s capable of perfectly reflecting Garland’s facial tics and physical stance, she can’t reproduce her vocal power. No one can.
Judy, adapted from the play “End of The Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, is an attempt to reproduce Garland’s last days but wanes bathos rather than insightful. And in no matter more so than when it touches on LGBT history.
“Judy” features an entirely fictional British gay couple who come to know her. Clearly they’re meant to stand in for her many gay fans. But two men won’t do.
Nor does the film explore the fact that her fifth and last husband, hustler/promoter Mickey Deans was gay. You could make an entire film about Judy’s many gay husbands alone.
You could also make a film about the gay men so important to her career like producer-songwriter Roger Edens, directors Vincente Minnelli, Charles Walters and George Cukor and many actors including Tom Drake who played “The Boy Next Door” in one of her greatest films, Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
And then there’s the film that might be made about her gay appeal, which in her lifetime won her both adulation and opprobrium that has morphed her into a goddess.
In a chapter of his book “Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society Devoted to Garland,” gay scholar, activist Judy-adept Richard Dyer notes that while “Garland was the image of heterosexual family normality” in the films that made her a star she worked “in an emotional register of great intensity which seems to bespeak equally suffering and survival, vulnerability and strength, theatricality and authenticity, passion and irony.”
And it’s within this range she connected to gays at a time when so much as acknowledging our existence was controversial.
And she knew it. On “The Jack Paar Show,” which aired from 1957 to 1962, she declared her undying love for her gay fans.
She could also tease about it. In the climactic hospital scene of her last film “I Could Go On Singing,” she acknowledges to an ex-beau played by Dirk Bogarde (no you can’t get any gayer) that not only is she drunk but, “I’ve had enough to float Fire Island.”
That line like much of the entire scene was an ad lib, providing a quite insightful portrait of how insightfully Garland was about her gay fans.
How they reacted to those subliminal callouts is something of a story all by itself. Dyer quotes a gay British friend who with scores of other gays flocked to her concerts discovering “it was as if the fact that we had gathered to see Garland gave us permission to be gay in public for once.”
This “permission” enraged homophobes like writer William Goldman who in his foaming-at-the-mouth anti-gay screed “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway,” declared, “If homosexuals have an enemy it is age. And Garland is youth, perennially over the rainbow. And second, the lady has suffered. Homosexuals tend to identify with suffering. They are a persecuted minority group, and they understand suffering. And so does Garland. She’s been through the fire and lived — all the drinking and divorcing, all the pills and all the men, all the pundage come and gone — brothers and sisters she knows.”
This suggests that Garland was little more than a crying towel.
But gay activist and dedicated Garland fan Vito Russo said, “She had the guts to take a chance at dropping dead in front of a thousand people, and won.” And that for the gays who loved her was the point.
As for the straights who hated her, Goldman, whose “bromance” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” hovers right on the edge that “Brokeback Mountain” finally lapsed into, quotes another screenwriter friend who observed Garland at a Hollywood party: “I’m in the corner now, and she’s sitting all alone in the center of this patio and for a minute there was nothing. And then this crazy thing started to happen: every homosexual in the place — every guy you’d heard whispered about, all these stars, they left the girls they were with and started a mass move toward Garland. She didn’t ask for it. She was just sitting there blinking in the sun while this thing happened: All these beautiful men, some of them big stars, some of them not so big, they circled her, crowded around her, and pretty soon she disappeared behind this expensive male fence.”
One can only ask “Your point?”
In “As Time Goes By,” a play about gay life by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths produced in England in 1977, one of its many characters says of Judy Garland, “When they said she was fat, when they said she was thin, when they said had fallen flat on her face … People are falling on their face every day. She got up.”
No, Judy Garland didn’t “die for our sins.” She got up instead, until she could no longer stand. Her passion set an example.
Zellweger’s womanlike skill is strikingly admirable but the passion of Judy Garland just didn’t zing the strings of my heart.