Fame, fortune, and collapse. I've never been able to figure out why some public personalities go through this tragic arc while others don't. Sometime it seems that women are more susceptible to self destruction than men, or maybe it's just that the media pays closer attention to women because their collapses are sometime flamboyant. Once-famous men may wind up quietly drinking out of the bottle in some alley but they rarely go through what Judy Garland did. She was pretty nearly washed up at the age of twenty-eight, a fast case of self destruction. In later years, she was barely able to get through her stage appearances. The audiences loved her, especially the gay community, or so it seems. They pleaded with her to sing "Over the Rainbow" and were probably praying she didn't go irretrievably mad during a performance. Much of a man's celebrity depends on power and when he loses it, he tends to retire behind some kind of wall, like Citizen Kane or Greta Garbo. Women depend on something other than money and power, and when they lose it, the loss is far more personal and damaging. Garland's downfall wasn't nearly as tumultuous as, say, Frances Farmer's or Rita Hayworth's.
This biography is pretty thorough. There are scenes from Garland's movies and recordings of her songs. She had a unique voice that seemed to begin somewhere in her abdomen, to be expelled through her nose. It clearly wasn't an opera-trained voice but it was pure and carefully controlled. Her dynamic range was great, from wistful to defiant and loud, even in the same song. I don't know how she, or anyone else, could deploy a vibrato so effectively. (I speak to you as your expert on singing, because I was once in a college musical.) She was attractive too, but again not in any ordinary way. Her dark eyes seemed to dominate her features. Her build, on the other hand, never leaped out at a viewer. She was no Jayne Mansfield or Jane Russell. And she carried her pelvic girdle about one standard deviation higher than the norm, rather like Gene Tierney. Age eventually eroded her looks, and her voice became hoarse, just as her life was turning into a lunatic kaleidoscope. The years don't discriminate well between those who are famous and all the rest of us.
There are multiple talking heads, all claiming to have been friends with her at one time or another, sometimes dear friends. One of the more enjoyable is Ann Miller, a gal from Texas, who is forthright in condemning Louis B. Mayer for feeding Garland amphetamines to wake her up and barbiturates to get her to sleep. Miller get endearingly indignant over Garland's treatment. A surprising interview comes from Robert Stack, whose every screen appearance seemed to be modeled on a cigar-store Indian or a statue of some long-dead general in the park. When he's not making a movie, he's surprisingly animated and can be genuinely emotional, something I've noticed in his other live interviews.
The program emphasizes her successes and her resilience, I think wisely. She was capable of outrageous acts later in her life, storming into Sid Luft's bedroom in the middle of the night, screaming and rotating blindly like a whirling dervish, completely out of control. But to concentrate on episodes like that has a bit of the tabloid about it. It reminds me of those cheap newspapers at the supermarket check out counter featuring photos of celebrities now grown old and fat. If we need that much Schadenfreude all we need to do is watch our political campaigns where characters are assassinated willy nilly. There's suffering enough in everyday life.
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