Judy Garland: By Myself

Judy Garland: By Myself

For years public television stations would dust off the great episodes of The Judy Garland Show from the early 60s or recreations of her triumphant stage show Judy at Carnegie Hall, to raise pledge money. They even would rerun tabloidy documentaries about the legendary self-destructive singer, who was only 49 when she died of an accidental drug overdose in London in 1969. Along with Garland’s image as a movie star from Hollywood’s golden age, her messy personal life held her up to crushing public humiliation. Still a beloved star, posthumously Garland has made a lot of money for PBS, so a more thorough (and thoughtful) tribute to Garland’s life and career as an American Master is long overdue.

For legions of fans of all ages who saw Garland go from her indelible portrait of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz through her tumultuous image as a boozy, uninhibited star with a voice as rich as Frank Sinatra’s, Garland was an American original. Broadway had Ethel Merman and Fanny Brice, but the movies had Garland, who became the most accomplished song and dance woman onscreen.She was singularly in the company of such stellar male stars as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Sinatra.

Despite Garland’s lingering infamy as a caved-in star, a string of messy divorces, suicide attempts and professional failures, Garland was undeniable a master at her craft.No one sounded like her then or now, yet her singing style and versatility influenced generations of singers.Her comebacks were legendary and she held a unique position of being a top Hollywood talent who had a cult-like following among the largely hidden gay community worldwide.In gay myth it is even believed that strong emotion over Garland’s death contributed to the Stonewall Riots in New York.

Tony Bennett calls her the greatest singer of the last century.Fred Astaire came out of retirement to dance with her and her TV special with Sinatra and Dean Martin, on the heals of her triumphant concerts in London and New York, was such a hit it led CBS to produce her concert-like TV appearances.

For Judy Garland: By Myself, Turner Entertainment allowed American Masters director and writer Susan Lacy (with Stephen Stept)access to never before seen archival material. An unexpected element was added–Garland’s recorded memoirs, dramatically interpreted by Isabel Keating, currently playing Garland on Broadway in the Peter Allen musical The Boy From Oz. “The history of my life is in my song.” Garland is quoted as saying of Oz.The writers comment: “Judy had the ability to believe herself into a role, an inexplicable gift which gave Dorothy universality and made…Garland an icon.

Keating presents a meditative Garland, creating an intimate atmosphere.Lacy smartly avoids the usual still-photo scrapbook look with voiceovers which leaden many documentaries.Instead she uses many previously unreleased takes from films and private movie footage.Best of all is careful editing along with penetrating commentary presenting Garland’s most important work.

By Myself works gloriously at times in rehabilitating Garland’s oeuvre and her bigger than life persona. In constructing the professional and personal circumstances surrounding the making of George Cukor’s A Star is Born, for example, Lacy focuses on lesser known details and, like a good biographer, examines Garland physically, emotionally and intellectually.

But, there is another crucial decision that doesn’t play so well in this portrait. Judy’s tapes in this version, touted as vital source material, have been completely sanitized.Those tapes, released in collectors editions on CD a couple of years ago, reveal the unexpurgated Garland, 41 at the time, completely soused and indulging in personal and professional rants.Listening to the actual tapes gives a definitive account in her own words and her unrestrained voice.It’s like getting drunk with her; she lets it all hang out and leaves you feeling like you have finally known this woman.

What the American Masters producers may have found uncomfortable is that the real flesh and blood Garland would untie the bow they were trying to wrap around her life. Her stream of consciousness tirades go to undeniable personal facts, crashing into painful drunken confessionals. Consider Garland saying: “I cannot take myself seriously because if I did I would have died a long time ago. And I don’t want to die.I’ve never met a cast of people I want to die with.”She talks vitriolically against her husband Sid Luft, who had gained custody of Garland’s three children.

Garland, always a realist, bluntly said, “I was trying to be a singer.I don’t know how to read music. You go with it even if you don’t know what’s going on.” Most of Garland’s bloody accounts of her experiences are neutralized in this film.Lacy’s take is completely reverent, but its alteration from the source material gives pause.It is also odd that Garland’s children, who have appeared in many tributes to their mother, were absent in this "for the record" documentary.

Garland reminisces about her start in vaudeville at age two and her start in films with her sisters at seven and there is remarkable film of the Gumm sisters’ stage performances.Great early film footage reveals that her talent was in fact immediately exploited from that moment that MGM’s Louis B. Mayer knew he had something special.He ordered all of his executives, producers and directors to stop what they were doing and listen to this girl sing. Not even ten years later, Garland was exiled from the MGM lot as washed-up.In between Mayer proved to be just as callous to Garland as he was generous.He made her feel ugly for starters and allowed her to use prescription drugs to fulfill the studio’s grueling regimen–she made 28 films in 14 years for them.

Garland’s development at MGM with under the guidance of musical director Roger Edens is vital new material to anyone interested in Garland’s artistry.The great writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz is quoted as saying “I was knocked on my ass…give me that face, that voice. But Mayer didn’t know what to do with her. The first person who knew what to do with that voice was Roger Edens.”

By Myself beautifully mines forgotten MGM footage that shows Garland’s scope beyond her most famous screen roles. It shows a virtuoso in training at the mercy of a crushing industry machine, still bursting out and immediately connecting with her audience.Garland chillingly says “The studio became a haunted house for me.”Lacy tastefully concentrates on her professional horrors rather than the stories of messy relationships, alcoholism, promiscuity, drug-use, suicide attempts and failed marriages. In the end, it was her magnificent talent along with her personal travails that became a heroic symbol for gay America.To straight America her marriages to gay men and her identification with homosexuals were a negative.

From the girl-next-door sound of "Over the Rainbow" to what is considered one of the finest musical moments in film with Garland singing "The Man that Got Away" in A Star is Born, Garland remained the reigning cinematic artist.She is truly an American Master, but her career was so large and human, it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate, even in her official tribute.Thanks to American Masters, Judy lives and sometimes even breathes.

Lewis Whittington

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.