Entertainment

Sunday 17 February 2019

The misery of Oz: How Hollywood starved its great star

Judy Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz
The cast of The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland and her sisters, with whom she had a vaudeville act
Judy Garland and Robert Walker in The Clock

Film: Paul Whitington

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz, and to commemorate the event, Dublin's Cineworld will be screening a special IMAX 3D version of the classic film from September 12.

Needless to say it stands the test of time extremely well, from its stunning sets and saturated colours to the rousing musical numbers and the stunning central turn from Judy Garland.

But there's an odd poignancy to Garland's performance that's only enhanced when you realise how much she suffered in making the film. In fact her experiences on the MGM lot were so extreme that they'd traumatise her for the rest of her life, leaving her with a severe eating disorder that probably led to her problems with drugs. The Wizard of Oz made her a massive and enduring star, but at a huge personal cost.

Garland was just 13-years-old when signed by MGM. Born Frances Ethel Gumm, she'd made her stage début at two and had been touring as a vaudeville singing act with her older sisters since the age of six. In 1934 the group changed their name to the more attractive-sounding Garland Sisters, and Frances began calling herself Judy. After no less a scout than Busby Berkeley had been sent to catch the sisters' vaudeville act, Judy Garland was called to MGM for a personal audition with Louis B. Mayer.

Her singing voice was so pure and rich that Mayer signed her on the spot without a screen test, but that doesn't mean he didn't care how she looked. Because as soon as they got their hands on her, Mayer and his stooges began moulding Garland into the kind of star they wanted.

Her first feature film was a musical comedy about college football called Pigskin Parade. MGM's producers weren't happy with the result, and told Judy she looked like a "fat little pig with pigtails" on the screen. She was immediately put on a brutal diet.

The studio's monitoring of her intake was so extreme that sometimes a plate of food would be whipped away just as she was about to eat it. As a result she was permanently hungry, and fantasised about being allowed to eat chocolate sundaes.

They capped her teeth and made her wear rubber discs that changed the shape of her nose, and studio managers exchanged memos about her yo-yoing weight. "Garland gained 10 pounds," one MGM missive ominously reported "costumes refitted". "Judy sneaked out between takes seven and eight this afternoon and had a malted milk," read another.

Even after she'd stolen the show in a film called Broadway Melody of 1938 by sweetly singing You Made Me Love You to a photo of Clark Gable, one of the MGM executives humiliated her in public by telling her she was so fat she looked like a monster.

It didn't help that her adolescent stable-mates at MGM included such luminous starlets as Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. And though Judy quickly outshone all three at the box office thanks to her innate talent, she was constantly compared to those beauties to her detriment.

Somehow, Garland ploughed on, and in 1939 was considered for the role of Dorothy in a big budget musical version of L. Frank Baum's novel, The Wizard of Oz. Incredibly, Shirley Temple and the deadly dull Deanna Durbin were Louis Mayer's first choices to play the part, but when neither was available, Judy was cast instead.

She was of course outstanding in a hugely demanding role, and sung songs like Over the Rainbow with incredible feeling and depth. But MGM were still obsessed with her weight, and chose a chintzy gingham frock because it blurred her womanly figure.

And it was around this time that the studio apparently began feeding Garland amphetamines and barbiturates to help her cope with exhausting shooting schedules. She would later complain that MGM had stolen her youth, and she received little or no protection from her pushy mother.

Garland was 17 when she made Wizard of Oz, and a year later began the difficult transition to adult stardom. She also embarked on what would be a spectacularly tragic love life. In 1939 she fell in love with legendary band leader Artie Shaw, and was crushed when he eloped with one of her studio rivals, Lana Turner.

A year later, at just 18, she got engaged to another musician, David Rose, and after they were married Rose was shocked by how little Judy was allowed to eat. Louis Mayer insisted she live on just black coffee, chicken soup and lots of appetite-supressing cigarettes - up to 80 a day, apparently. This rank concoction kept Garland's weight at seven stone, but caused untold damage to her health.

Meanwhile, she was on the way to becoming one of MGM's biggest stars.

At first, Garland struggled to shake off the little girl image she'd been so carefully groomed into, and perpetrated one of the worst stage Irish accents ever during her first, uncertain adult role in Little Nellie Kelly (1940).

But the film included her first adult on-screen kiss, and went down pretty well with the public. Around this time Garland became pregnant, but was persuaded by the studio and her mother to have an abortion. She divorced David Rose in 1944, the same year she achieved top billing for the first time opposite Gene Kelly in the hit musical, For Me and My Gal.

She was given the full MGM glamour treatment for her next film, Presenting Lily Mars, the rousing tale of a smalltown hoofer determined to make it on Broadway. And she was at her very best in Meet Me in St. Louis, a classic musical family saga that's since become a Christmas favourite.

It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who would have a key influence in Garland's life. He asked the celebrated make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel to work with her: Ponedel immediately dispensed with the dental caps and nose discs, and used make-up to enhance the actress's natural prettiness.

Garland loved the results, and also fell in love with her director: she and Minnelli married in 1945, and their daughter Lisa was born in 1946. Minnelli began moulding her career, and in 1945 directed her in her first straight drama, The Clock, a touching story about a young couple's whirlwind wartime romance. Critics were impressed with Garland's acting, but the public were disappointed that she didn't sing.

Vincente Minnelli was good for her, but their marriage soon became turbulent, mainly because of Garland's instability. In 1947, when they were filming the musical adventure The Pirate together, Garland had a complete nervous breakdown, and was put in a sanitorium. Ever the trouper, she returned to finish the film, but subsequently tried to kill herself.

She recovered, and in 1948 returned to the MGM lot to make one of her best loved pictures, Easter Parade, with Fred Astaire. Her performance was so winning and perfect that no one could have guessed what was going on behind the scenes, but after Easter Parade she began drinking heavily, on top of her ongoing concoction of drugs.

In 1949 she was suspended by MGM after failing to show up for work on The Barkleys of Broadway. She fell out with Busby Berkeley during the making of Annie Get Your Gun the same year, tried to have him fired and ended up getting thrown off the picture herself. And in 1950, she left MGM for good.

There was more self-harm, drink, drugs and volatile relationships, but underneath it all Judy Garland had remarkable tenacity. In the autumn of 1951 she began what was supposed to be a two-day engagement at the Palace Theatre in Broadway. Her vaudeville show ran for 19 weeks, and won her a Tony Award.

And in 1954 she made a spectacular film comeback for Warner Brothers in A Star is Born, a moving remake of the 1937 melodrama. Garland was astonishing as Esther Blodgett, a young singer who falls in love with a fading movie idol and refuses to give up on him as her star rises and his sinks.

She was considered a shoe-in for Best Actress at the Oscars that year but lost out to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, a decision that's still considered one of the greatest travesties in Academy history. The film didn't make any money either, and her movie career never quite recovered in the way it should have.

Instead, Garland became a kind of torch singer in the mould of Edith Piaf, and sold out theatres across America and Europe through the 1950s and 60s. There were sporadic movie appearances, and an acclaimed but ill-fated TV show, but Judy spent most of her declining years belting out heartfelt emotional standards as only she could.

In March of 1969 she married her fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans, in London, but just three months later she was found dead in the bathroom of her Chelsea home. The cause of her death was most likely an accidental drug overdose, but her health had been failing for years, and as her Wizard of Oz co-star Bert Lahr movingly put it, "she just plain wore out". She was 47 years old.

Madness and Magic - the making of the iconic film

The Wizard of Oz has been a children's favourite for 75 years, and is a perfect film in a way, which is all the more surprising when you realise how chaotic the original shoot was. The film went through three directors. The first, Richard Thorpe, dressed Garland in a blonde wig and told her to play Dorothy as a coy little girl. George Cukor dispensed with all that, telling Garland to be herself. Victor Fleming finished the film.

Original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen was hospitalised after suffering a reaction to his aluminium make-up. While he convalesced in an iron lung, Jack Haley replaced him. Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch is one of the great screen villains, but she too ended up in hospital with second-degree burns on her hands and face after an accident during filming.

The stars and extras on Oz were worked like dogs during a hectic five-month shoot, but the finished film was, and remains, something very special.

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