THE SKINNY LITTLE BITCH PROJECT: Judy Garland and the Studio System
You don’t need to be a musical theatre fan to look at Judy Garland and see something, well, magical. After watching some of her performances it seems like millions of times, beneath the talent – that face, that voice, those moves – you cannot help but begin to see what lay beneath the surface: A consummate weirdo of the un-look-away-able variety. In her earliest performances, there’s a doe-eyed sense of wonder, matched with a doe’s strange ambling quality. As she grew older, these sort of almost animistic tics remained, the mouth, the eyes, the face, all of it on the surface plastered over and perfect but unable to hide the sheer oddness that makes for true charisma and star quality the instant she locked into her voice.
Her talent is so often referenced hand in hand with her troubled personal life. In a way, it’s understandable. When Judy worked you saw talent, but you also saw the neuroses cultivated within her since childhood. To not talk about her addiction, her daddy issues, and her weight losses and gains throughout the years was to deny a fundamental part of what she was showing you when she performed. She was revelatory and driven. In her New York Times Obit, they described her stage shows as “compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances” which speaks to Garland’s own lifelong need to please – her show audiences, her general public, her keepers, and her men.
Garland was born Gumm — Francis “Baby” Gum – and made her debut as a virtual infant, performing ‘Jingle Bells’ on stage with her two older sisters at the movie theatre her father owned. From there on out it’s a story that is familiar if you’ve got any sort of fundamental knowledge of the studio system. Little girl with big voice is snatched up, molded into something the studio wanted her to be, doesn’t like being that thing, rebels against it, develops addiction, achieves iconic status, and eventually dies too young. Later in her life and career (though for someone who died at 47 it feels criminal to be using the phrase ‘later’ in anything…) Garland was always her candid self about the studio and their mode of keeping younger stars like her and Mickey Rooney making films at such a breakneck pace. They were given amphetamines for energy and then barbiturates to sleep. It is unfathomable to me how anyone could ever have been all “Oh yes, we are a money driven art making MACHINE and there is no way that DOPING THESE YOUNG BABY CH-CHILDREN SLASH OUR PRIMARY CAPITAL COULD EVER BACKFIRE TERRIBLY.”
While the doping was overtly terribly and definitely ushered Garland down a road of addiction, they undermined her developing sense of self in a much more subtly nefarious way. Because she was signed by Louis B. Mayer when she was 13, everyone was sort of “…the hell is this?” about her and kept holding out giant lollipops with one hand and bras in the other – because the idea of a ‘tween’ hadn’t been invented yet. As such she was too young to be all “GET IN MY PANTS” and too old to play roles meant for children. The great thing they did, was create the idea of the Girl Next Door for her. The bad thing they did was deny her any right to her sexuality or the notion that she might be attractive. Exhibit Love Finds Andy Hardy, clearly she and Rooney were made to perform together – but it was Lana Turner who inspired Andy’s devotion. To be fair the giant gingham sacks they dressed Judy in couldn’t have helped matters.
As if that weren’t enough – Judy had to go to school with people like Lana and Elizabeth Taylor! Yeah, because that wouldn’t give anyone a complex. While teenage insecurities are a known deal for basically everyone ever, Judy’s were different because she was one, literally was comparing herself to sexed up film demi-goddesses and two, because the people around her backed up those insecurities! Louis B. Mayer – who by all accounts adored her – called her his little hunchback! Under his direction she wore false caps on her teeth and these whacked out rubber rings in her nose TO CHANGE ITS SHAPE AAAAHHH! There is something altogether more unsettling about these temporary fixes than today’s plastic surgery to me. With the temporary fixes there seems to be a universal understanding that while looks are important for what she’s doing as a job, they also don’t define her – she could leave at the end of the day and in a sense return to herself. Maybe I’m being romantic – it was probably just cheaper.
So you’re thirteen, and you’re this kick ass contralto – there’s no one else like you. You’ve got a mother who’s basically a step away from Mama Rose, and an emotionally absent father who dies while you’re identity is still being sculpted emotionally, and the faux father figure you turn to is really only interested in as a commodity – so when he tells you that you aren’t pretty enough – you are going to believe him. Barf! And it wasn’t just her face the studio had a problem with – at 4”11′ – THE WOMAN WAS PETITE, SO PETITE! And when puberty struck, and her curves revealed themselves – so did the studio’s issue with her weight. But it wasn’t just the studio who noticed and found her lacking – it was the tabloid media. If you search the news archives from the 1940s on you will be hit with article after article chronicling her weight gain and loss and gain and loss – a cycle powered by the public’s interest in it, Garland’s addiction and insecurity – AND THE FACT THAT SHE WAS GROWING UP AND WAS NOT EVEN FIVE FEET TALL SO OF COURSE SOMETIMES SHE ATE A BURGER AND IT SHOWED!
I wanted to start this whole deal with Garland because I think it’s a great reminder that the awfulness of our paparazzi and tabloids sites and magazines isn’t something new – it’s just run by a different machine. for Judy, the studio didn’t like her weight, which meant she wasn’t protected from the media by them as she would have been otherwise – like when they helped her cover up the abortion they made her get. The studio did some shady shit, but only in as far as it helped promoted the stars it was their business to create. The minute one of their own did something to bungle their ascent, they had to accept that it was bound to be open season on them. Garland herself said,
“From the time I was thirteen, there was a constant struggle between MGM and me – whether or not to eat, how much to eat, what to eat. I remember this more vividly than anything else about my childhood.”
If the public is to be blame for their consumption of the tabloid’s weight-tracking-bash-fest, then it becomes a case of fingers pointed back at the original monster we demanded be created – the movie industry. Have you ever watched The Wizard of Oz and thought Dorothy looked chunky? Would you believe me when I told you they chose her emblematic blue dress because the gingham pattern was thought to be the best option to “blur” her thick figure? It’s laughable from this distance, but also a deeply troubling reminder of how these things don’t fix themselves – exhibit all the talented artists who’ve come after her and either born or not the same – and increased – level of personal scrutiny.
From this distance, Judy’s just another tragic artist, but the truth is she was tragic because she was designed to be the world that ostensibly created her for our own delight. Judy Garland gave her public everything – including her voice, and in the end, her own life. Married several times, she seemed to be – not simply chasing the proverbial rainbow but running away from countless headlines about how ill-suited she was to wearing slacks, and into the arms of men who could convince her for a fleeting second that she was beautiful, something she could never make herself believe. Her marriage to Vincent Minnelli is a great example of this – though they started off at loggerheads with one another, they ended up in a romantic relationship which began when he insisted on hiring a makeup artist for her on the set of “Meet Me in St. Louis” who would remove her nose rings and caps and showcase her very natural if completely unique good looks. It would have been impossible for her to resist a man who saw her as beautiful and fought to display that beautiful – it would have touched her deeply.
The greatest tragedy, second only to the loss of her life, is that her struggles with weight and her personal unhappiness are as a great a part of her legacy as her unerring and otherworldly talent. She lost and gained – in weight and success – at the whim of pills and her unhappiness. She was in that no different than anyone else, she just had to read about it every morning. Her life was replete with its ups and downs – like anyone’s life, just on a bigger scream. skinny or fat she was a woman defined by the demons that dictated her self-worth, and while thin did not seem to make her happy, there were times in her life – times that exist for us to view – where she managed to escape her body altogether, escape that pain, and the result – was transcendent.
“I wanted to believe and I tried my damndest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and couldn’t. So what? Lots of people can’t. Behind every cloud, there is another cloud.”
Catch up on the Skinny Little Bitch Project here!