Does Judy Garland Still Matter?

Photo: Douglas Kirkland/Corbis

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.

Tracie Bennett as Garland with Tom Pelphrey as her fifth husband, Mickey Deans.Photo: Carol Rosegg

“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.

Does Judy Garland Still Matter?