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Does Judy Garland Still Matter?

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Tracie Bennett as Garland with Tom Pelphrey as her fifth husband, Mickey Deans.  

“If there’s ever been a more dramatic woman,” says Quilter, “I’d like to meet her.” And though Garland’s life was objectively entertaining, the brand was not just about identification with her Sisy- phean struggles: the studio doctors with their uppers then downers, the broken contracts, the comebacks, the relapses, the weight gains and losses, the Carnegie Hall triumph and the IRS debacle. Nor was it Schadenfreude, as Quilter cleverly illustrates with a composite character called Anthony. Played by Michael Cumpsty, Anthony is Garland’s London music director and the voice of the love gay men felt for her. “We have given her everything. Shown her the kind of loyalty and devotion that you couldn’t even dream of,” he tells Deans, who is trying to pass himself off as the star’s heterosexual savior. Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey, sees it differently. “What the hell is it with you people?” he asks. “The more she falls apart, the more you adore her … If she was found half-dead in the gutter, you’d all cum in your pants.”

The masochism-by-proxy card was once a common insult to gay men and their passions. William Goldman played it brilliantly as the opening salvo of The Season, his sulfurous chronicle of Broadway in 1967 and 1968. “At 11:43”—on the closing night of Garland’s concert At Home at the Palace—“she began to let them touch her,” he writes. “They had been after her flesh a long while, but it is only now, after she is done and it is ended, that she allowed them contact.” “They,” of course, are the “flutter of fags” and “obvious homosexuals” who, being “a persecuted minority group,” tend to “identify with suffering.”

“And so does Garland,” he adds. “She’s been through the fire and lived.”

Never mind that the fire included the condescension of men like Goldman; he understands that Garland had forged a different kind of relationship with her prime audience than other stars did with theirs. What he doesn’t understand is its nature or Garland’s. The relationship was one of enormous empathy, which flowed both ways: Garland, Bennett points out, “wasn’t afraid to go out to the gay clubs late at night.” She knew she would be among fellow travelers there. And however damaged, she wasn’t masochistic; she was a victim of intolerable treatment, mostly by men, and fought back in the only way she could. She was aggressive and plucky, nearly as strong as she was weak, and as determined as a rooster to get her voice out.

By the end of her life, that voice, formerly one of great trumpetlike flexibility, was nearly rigid. Still, she made the listener part of the adventure of her struggle, pointing out with weird pauses and an armamentarium of gulps and barks just how difficult it was to do what she did. The more the singing reflected the difficulty of its own production, the greater the expense of physical and emotional capital, the more it succeeded, diction be damned. If her consonants often went awol, it hardly mattered. You didn’t need to make out the words, any more than when Ella scatted Gershwin. Garland did a kind of emotional scat, taking basic materials we all knew—abuse, heartbreak, secret longing—and refining them until their terror became a kind of elation. In her most characteristic vein, she made furious demands that the world be better than it was: Get Happy! Gay men took the cue.

Which may be why the audiences at the Belasco this month are decidedly less ­fluttery than they were at the Palace in August of 1967. The torch, flaming or not, has been passed to other groups. “Every producer that has picked this play up thought the core audience would be gay men,” says Quilter, who is himself gay. “But it isn’t: It’s middle-aged women.”

In any case, the audience won’t be the teens I surveyed. They prefer a less neurotic brand of uplift from the likes of Lady Gaga. They don’t require hidden messages or indirect empathy: It’s all right out there, in songs such as “Born This Way” that announce their intentions without the need for metaphor. (“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.”) And though something is probably lost in the lack of translation, something more has been gained in getting to that point. No gay youth wants to identify with vulnerability (even if many are still dangerously vulnerable). And in an age when the fight for marriage equality assumes the best about life pairings, Mrs. Mickey Deans is nobody’s role model.

But Judy did her job, as the drag queens down at the Stonewall did theirs. Now they’re historical. And if kids, even gay ones, don’t know much about either anymore, maybe it’s because people like me are now, in part thanks to them, unremarkably parents.


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