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Does Judy Garland Still Matter?

An icon of vulnerability in an age of empowerment.

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If Judy Garland were just her mannerisms, a thousand drag queens would be stars. But the centrifugal limbs, semaphore poses, and vibrato so broad it seems to have swallowed another vibrato are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. So it’s merely a good start that Tracie Bennett nails the externals as late-stage Garland in End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s drama with songs, opening this week on Broadway. Indee­d, backstage at the Belasco, a small industry and several rooms are devoted to helping her maintain the illusion, with chestnut wigs, spangled shoes, and racks of costumes copied from Garland’s outfits of the period, including the vermilion beaded pantsuit and chartreuse scarf she legendarily nicked from the studio after getting canned from Valley of the Dolls.

But while all this makes for a great impersonation, what Bennett, a British stage actress, is doing is deeper, more dangerous, and, to some of us watching, therefore more disturbing. She’s playing a diva as an actual dramatic character, a kind of Hedda Gabler with pills instead of a gun. As such, she’s more real than any mere mimicry could make her, never more so than when belting “Come Rain or Come Shine” in the second act. Holding onto the melody for dear life, her Garland seems as if she might otherwise fly apart like an IED. “You’re gonna love me like nobody’s loved me,” she pleads, looking straight at the audience.

“It’s in the eyes,” says Bennett, who somewhat shockingly turns out to be a robust blonde with a North Country accent. “The costumes help, the wigs, the lighting, the whole world of magic. But it’s looking into the audience’s eyes, singing to every single person as if they’re the only one in the room, that really makes you Judy.”

At least if anyone’s looking back.

By the time I listened to her classic rec­ords or watched tapes of her CBS variety show from 1963, and took great post hoc comfort from them, I was in my thirties and she was long dead. Nevertheless, seeing Bennett as Garland, I had the familiar sensation of wanting to protect the great singer from what everyone, including she, could see was coming. Quilter’s play is set around Christmas 1968, when Garland came to London for five weeks of performances at a supper club called the Talk of the Town. By then her behavior had passed from erratic to irrational; she was broke, exhausted, often drunk, and probably suffering from cirrhosis. (She would die six months later, at 47, from an accidental overdose of Seconal.) It was during this period that she married husband No. 5, a 34-year-old musician and club promoter named Mickey Deans, who was no more appropriate for her than her exes. “To marry one gay man may be regarded as a misfortune,” says Quilter, channeling ­Oscar Wilde, when I reach him at home in the Canary Islands. “To marry three looks like carelessness.”

This is catnip to those of us—“friends of Judy” used to be the euphemism—who strongly associate Garland with our own embattled search for love. She was, after all, a woman whose death was so momentous for gay men that it has frequently (if fancifully) been tied to one of the foundational events of the gay-rights movement. It was on the hot June night of her Upper East Side funeral in 1969, after 20,000 had lined Madison Avenue waiting to see her laid out in a silver-lamé gown, that riots erupted in a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn. If she was not, as eyewitnesses testify, on the minds of the bar’s patrons, she was already intimately bound to the semi-secret brotherhood those patrons, in their confrontation with the police that night, came to represent.

But what could such a history—and the spectacle of Judy at full tilt in End of the Rainbow—mean to someone years younger than I? Perhaps not much: “I don’t think young people have any idea who she is,” Quilter says. Even if they know the story, why should they care? They have much more recent iterations of the theme, such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, to enthrall them. So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that when I asked a group of high-school kids, including my own, if they knew of a great star named Judy, they stared at me blankly. Finally, one lit up. “Judge Judy?” he asked.

Oh, how the weak have fallen.

Not quite 43 years after her death, Judy Garland is, to these teenagers, the girl from The Wizard of Oz at best. But Dorothy was just a role, not a brand statement. And to understand what happened to Garland’s icon status—to the performer so famous, and so famously endangered, that the Daily News supposedly kept the headline JUDY TAKES OVERDOSE permanently set in type—you have to understand what the brand really was and what it meant.


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