At the recently awarded Oscars, Renee Zellweger won Best Actress for the film Judy, in which she played to perfection the role of Hollywood diva Judy Garland.
From all accounts, Judy Garland was a successful singer, dancer and actress, who started her career as a child artiste and went on to become a hugely popular star. But her personal struggles came out much later, and it is sad to learn from her story just how oppressive the Hollywood studio system of the time was.
When plain Frances Ethel Gumm, daughter of vaudevillian parents, was turned into Judy Garland and presented to the public, behind the screen she had to suffer the kind of pressure than no young woman ought to be put through. When she was cast as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, her most memorable role, that made full use of her glorious singing voice, she was overage for the part; as a result of which she was scrutinised every moment by minders assigned to her by studio bosses. She was starved and given pills to prevent her from putting on weight or developing breasts and given tobacco to suppress her appetite. Her ambitious mother was privy to this and stayed quiet, because it was all a price to pay for the stardom that was guaranteed by a big studio release.
The novel Finding Dorothy is written by Elizabeth Letts from the point of view of Maud Baum, wife of L Frank Baum who wrote the all-time favourite children’s book The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (and other Oz books), on which the film was based. Letts observed the problems Judy faced with a pushy mother and studio honchos like Arthur Freed pawing her and MGM boss Louis B Mayer constantly mocking and belittling her. Because she was not as beautiful as the other actresses of the time like Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, she was called “ugly duckling” and “little hunchback.”
Mayer squashed her desire to be “normal” by telling her that she could be replaced by Shirley Temple (another child star of the time) or anyone else he picked. In the film Judy, when a defiant young Judy Garland jumps into a pool at a party, Mayer takes her into a property shed and reminds her that she is Frances Gumm and if he created her, he can break her as well.
She and other young actors were given drugs to make them stay awake for long shoots and then given pills to help them sleep. All the drugs that were pumped into her led to alcohol and substance abuse problems — Judy Garland eventually died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 47, after a history of depression, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts.
The trajectory of her career is comparable to that of any number of young women from financially unstable families, when they were pushed into showbiz by their families, if they showed the slightest talent or were good-looking. This was decades before women mustered the courage to speak up about abuse. The current MeToo phenomenon was not something they could even imagine, if they wanted a career to support their families. Ambitious stage mothers were part of the entourage, as was seen even in the Indian film industry right up to the late nineties. Many actresses, particularly from the South, were accompanied by their formidable mothers who controlled their careers and their finances.
Judy was called “Baby” by her family (as were many Indian actresses) and was talented enough to appear on stage at the age of three with her two sisters at their father’s movie theatre, to sing Jingle Bells. The Gumm sisters performed for the next few years with their mother, Ethel, playing the piano. When rumours started that their father was gay, Ethel made attempts to get her daughters into the movies while they continued to perform on stage, and later changed their surname to a more glamorous Garland.
As Judy’s career progressed, she was still plagued with insecurities, got into a string of affairs and even got pregnant with the child of an already married musician and was forced by the studio and her mother to have an abortion. She went to have many more affairs, five marriages, and three children, including star Liza Minnelli.
For much of her career, her then husband Sidney Luft (also father of her children Joey and Lora) had been her manager. After leaving him, she signed on other managers who mishandled her finances and embezzled money, resulting in her going into debt and having tax hassles.
In the eyes of the world, Judy Garland was a success story — her films did well, her songs were hits, and people clamoured to see her perform on stage, but real happiness and peace seemed to elude her. Despite her low self-esteem and often neurotic behavior, Judy Garland never saw herself as a tragic figure according to her daughter, Lorna, who is reported to have said, “We all have tragedies in our lives, but that does not make us tragic. She was funny and she was warm and she was wonderfully gifted. She had great highs and great moments in her career. She also had great moments in her personal life. Yes, we lost her at 47 years old. That was tragic. But she was not a tragic figure."
In the film, that covers Judy Garland’s stage performances in London that she was forced to take up to be able to hold on to her children, in a moment of joy when the audience joins her in singing her unforgettable song Somewhere Over The Rainbow, she asks, “You won't forget me, will you? Promise you won't."
She could not have known, that she would be remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
Today, showbiz struggles are perhaps not as acute or traumatic, but conditions are far from ideal for women with great talent and ambition. They may escape harassment and abuse, but it is still a steep climb towards a level playing field and recognition, as the Oscar snub to accomplished female directors like Greta Gerwig (Little Women) proves.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.