Cinema and Media Studies Judy Garland
by
Matthew Tinkcom
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0288

Introduction

Judy Garland (10 June 1922–22 June 1969) was the performance name of the singer, dancer, actress and public figure born Frances Ethel Gumm. Garland’s career spanned four decades and includes landmark films of the Classical Hollywood studio system, including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, The Clock, and A Star is Born; as well, she was successful as a recording artist, television performer, and live concert singer. Garland’s singing was characterized by a remarkable vocal range while her performance style approached hyperbolic emotional expression; her voice was a unique signature within the American popular song of the period and was at turns variously melancholic, ebullient, cheerful, and grief-filled. During her lifetime, Garland was the focus of intense public scrutiny and popular media coverage because of reports of the star’s mental illness and substance abuse as well as gossip-driven emphasis on her five marriages and fluctuations in her weight and body size. Garland’s biographers, as well as scholars who examine her life, emphasize her status as a central figure in the history of the American corporate film because of the combination of her unique performance talents with a reputation as a sometimes unreliable studio employee, with a primary question concerning her star emblem as one about the degree to which her challenges were the product of a Hollywood film studio (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) intent on extracting the maximum amount of labor in the manufacture of her films without regard to the effects this might have on her health and well-being. Simultaneously, she stands as a figure of strength, resilience, and the ability to come back from career disappointments, illness, and maturation from an adolescent singer to an actress capable of both great pathos and great comedy. Her death in 1969 has been attributed in many historical accounts as the sponsoring event for the “Stonewall Riots” in which gay men and lesbians protested their arrest by police at the Stonewall Tavern in New York City as they mourned the news of the actress’s death. Subsequently Garland became more publicly associated with her gay male fans and she endures for many in her LGBQT audience as an icon of strength under adversity. Much of the scholarly work on Garland addresses the relation between the performer and her audience, with the conditions in which the performance—here, the Classical Hollywood film—organizes but does not limit the ideas and values that come to be associated with the performer and the vehicles in which she appeared. Thus, while the particular problems of interpreting Garland’s career remain specific to her life and achievements, her role in the culture industry opens larger questions about research and writing on popular culture and its reception.

Biographies

Numerous biographies of Judy Garland have been published, with most titles appearing since her death. The earliest biographies that appeared after 1969 focused either on her films and accounted for her career as a performer or were sensationalist descriptions of her long-term struggles with mental illness and addiction. Three titles have continued to offer more complete accounts of her life and each has its own merits. The first biography of serious note, Edwards 1974, was more anecdotal, while subsequent volumes, like Shipman 1992 and Clarke 2000, flesh out fuller accounts of the star’s life from the increasing information we have about her.

  • Clarke, Gerald. Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York: Random House, 2000.

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    The most recent biography of Garland offers a psychologically nuanced treatment of her life and primary relations with her husbands, children, directors, co-stars, and personal friends. Clarke was able to interview many who knew Garland later in their own lives and at the stage that they felt more comfortable discussing with sensitivity and insight some of the most awkward events in her life.

  • Edwards, Anne. Judy Garland: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

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    Appearing only five years after Garland’s death, Edwards’s account of Garland’s life is briefer and more impressionistic than those of subsequent biographies, but it still retains important insights, particularly regarding Garland’s childhood and the culture of live performance and vaudeville in which she trained. The appendix includes some of Garland’s poetry and offers unexpected insight into the star’s poignant humor.

  • Shipman, David. Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

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    Shipman’s biography is detailed in its production histories of Garland’s films and provides historical commentary that illuminates Garland’s popularity as it responded to the larger political, economic, and cultural shifts over the course of her life. Many of his interview subjects spoke for the first time for this project and it broke new ground in the handling of the complexity of her star persona and the personal life that gave rise to it.

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