Judy Garland appears today as one of the most searched terms on Google. Why, more than 40 years after her death, does her story still intrigue us so?
The short answer behind the sudden spike in interest is that today marks the 71st anniversary of the premier of The Wizard of Oz, an occasion Google.com is celebrating with one its whimsical Google Doodles. Though she appeared in more than 40 films, won Golden Globe awards, received Oscar and Emmy nominations, won a special Tony Award and two Grammys during her lifetime, Judy Garland is still best remembered as the simple Kansas farm girl swept away to the magical, frightening land of Oz.
The film’s plot shares broad parallels with Judy Garland’s own life and career. Born Frances Ethel Gumm in the unglamorous locale of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, she began performing while still only two years old, appearing as one of the singing Gumm sisters at her parents’ vaudeville theater.
The tornado that uprooted her came in the form of scandal – her father was accused of making sexual advances towards some of the theatre’s male employees and the family was forced to relocate. The over-the-rainbow land she found herself in was California, specifically Hollywood, when her mother began trying to get the Gumm sisters into motion pictures. Judy Garland (still then Frances Gumm) would make her big screen debut at the age of 7.
By 13, she had signed her first contract with MGM, and was soon paired in a series of popular films with young Mickey Rooney. Garland later alleged that she was administered amphetamines in order to meet demanding shooting schedules. At night, she was given barbiturates to help her sleep.
For all its glamour, Hollywood must have been a frightening place, one whose demands flamed Garland's insecurities even as its flatteries fed her ego. This may have been particularly true during the period when she made The Wizard of Oz. Too old to be a child star, too young to be a leading lady, she got the part only when the studio couldn’t secure the services of Shirley Temple. During shooting, her breasts were taped down and she wore a corset to flatten out her curves.
It was not the first time she got the message, that her body was not fit for the screen. Louis B. Mayer referred to her as “my little hunchback” and director Charles Parker said, "Judy went to school at Metro with Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, real beauties. Judy was the big money-maker at the time, a big success, but she was the ugly duckling ... I think it had a very damaging effect on her emotionally for a long time. I think it lasted forever, really."
Adding to her insecurities, her first real adult romance ended when bandleader Artie Shaw left her to elope with sex-bomb Lana Turner. Garland's weight fluctuated as she struggled to shed the girl-next-door image and her first marriage dissolved. She had some huge successes in the early 1940s – For Me and My Gal and Meet Me in St. Louis among them – but the second half of the decade saw her in downward spiral. She was placed in a private sanitarium for a time, and as her prescription drug addiction worsened, was replaced on projects for failing to show up on the lot. In 1951 her movie contract was cancelled.
There would be comebacks, of course – nearly two decades of them – but she was never able to permanently overcome problems in her personal life and her addictions worsened through marriages and divorces, lawsuits and tax woes. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, there were no ruby slippers she could click to escape the dream-turned-nightmare she found herself in. One is tempted to say she never woke up after lying down in that poppy field.
Judy Garland died of a drug overdose at the age of 47. Her story continues to fascinate, as evidenced by the no less than two dozen biographies that have come out since her death. And her tragedy remains sadly relevant. Michael Jackson (who once starred in a remake of The Wizard of Oz) shared similar problems – body image and addiction issues, money woes – and met a similar end just last year. Add to his example all the former young stars who died struggling to find success as adults – Brad Renfro, Brittany Murphy, and Corey Haim, just to cite a few recent examples. By the time the Wizard of Oz reaches its 75th anniversary, we’ll no doubt sadly have added others to the list of people who sought life over the rainbow and never found their way back.