(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
This Friday would have been Judy Garland's 100th birthday. Everyone, of course, knows her iconic portrayal of Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard Of Oz," but Garland would go on to deliver a variety of unforgettable performances over her variously triumphant, troubled and ultimately tragic life. She was a legendary singer and actress who bared her soul in every performance, which engendered in her audience a feeling of deep, emotional kinship.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
If you're not familiar with Judy Garland's non-Oz-related work, we're going to suggest a few of her other performances that speak to her unique and enduring appeal. Think of this as Judy Garland beyond the rainbow. I'm Aisha Harris.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon, and today, we're celebrating the life and career of Judy Garland on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WELDON: Joining me and Aisha today is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey.
WELDON: Also joining us is NPR music alum and producer of the "Switched On Pop" podcast Reanna Cruz. Hey, Reanna.
REANNA CRUZ, BYLINE: Howdy.
WELDON: Howdy. All right, so Judy Garland, heard of her? She was born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922. As a kid, she got her start on the vaudeville circuit and eventually signed a contract with MGM. She was just 16 years old when she starred in the 1939 film "The Wizard Of Oz" as Kansas farm girl Dorothy, who dreamed of going somewhere over the rainbow and got her wish. Her work in "The Wizard Of Oz" and in "Babes In Arms" earned Garland her only Oscar, the Academy Juvenile Award.
As a teenager and young woman, she churned out an astonishing number of film performances alongside Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly and starred in splashy Hollywood musicals like "Easter Parade," "Summer Stock" and "Meet Me In St. Louis." Her life on stage and screen would go on to be marked by accolades, two more Oscar nominations, three Emmy nominations, a special Tony Award and three Grammy wins - one of which was awarded posthumously. But her personal life would be marked by struggles with alcohol and pills, financial instability and a series of rocky and very public marriages. She died of what was ruled an accidental barbiturate overdose on June 22, 1969, at the age of 47.
Before we get to our specific recommendations, let's quickly go around this virtual table to talk about our own relationships to Garland's life and work. Bob, my fellow friend of Dorothy, let's start with you.
MONDELLO: Yeah, well, you know, I came to her through "Wizard Of Oz" - I mean, I think all of us did. You almost have to. You know, I discovered some of her other movies on television as time went on. And then I had just turned 20, I think, when she died. And it was a moment of - you know, that was sort of formative for me in a lot of ways. I was sort of coming out to myself at that point. She was somebody who was a gay icon. And I sort of understood what that was all about. And it hit me pretty hard, but that's how I came to her. I've watched most of her films now, over the course of many years, and the things that she did toward the end of her life are sort of much more interesting than the things she did initially when she was a product of MGM.
WELDON: OK. Reanna, how about you?
CRUZ: You know, I came to Judy Garland originally through "Wizard Of Oz" - right? - because that's sort of how everybody of my age - right...
CRUZ: I'm 22.
WELDON: Mmm hmm.
CRUZ: That's how we sort of came around to her. But, again, I think around the same age - around 20 - I started to become more acquainted with Judy Garland in more of a queer sense, right? I read somewhere that, like, The Advocate had called her the Elvis of homosexuals, which I think like...
CRUZ: ...Is a really great way to put it. The separation of Judy Garland from Dorothy Gale wasn't really present until I started tuning in more to gay icons of a certain age. And I started to tap into Liza Minnelli, and then through Liza, I got very into Judy Garland. I think part of that for me was around the time her biopic came out - "Judy," starring Renee Zellweger - and I watched that, and it made me tap into Judy's ethos a lot more and kind of see her as more of a person and less of an icon.
WELDON: Mmm hmm.
CRUZ: And between the gay connection and kind of reevaluating her whole life as somebody persecuted by the media, very parallel to the sort of things that we're going through today with artists like Britney Spears, it was very culturally relevant. And I developed a kinship with Judy, as most people tend to do.
WELDON: Yes, most people tend to do, eventually. Speaking of which, Aisha, on the surface, you know, we've got three generations of queer folk on this panel, and one token heterosexual, but...
WELDON: ...You have actual Judy Garland chops, girl. So talk to me about that.
HARRIS: Yeah, No. I did not come at this at a queer sensibility at all, but I was, you know, a impressionable 12- or 13-year-old girl when I discovered old movies, and I had always loved musicals. And of course, I had seen "Wizard Of Oz" as early as probably 3 or 4. I was terrified of the witch. Around 12 or 13, when I really got into old movies, I got into Judy Garland. I went down this rabbit hole - and I think the first time I got into her was actually borrowing a CD from the library of, like, 1950s Broadway and screen musicals. And it had "The Man That Got Away" on there, which is from "A Star Is Born." I listened to that song, and something within that song just, like, pierced my 12-year-old soul. And I was singing in that - in my bedroom as if I had lost a man, as if I had ever been near a man.
HARRIS: And I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be a performer, and I wanted to be Judy Garland. Like, I have a similar alto tone. I was never a soprano, so her voice, like, struck me. And so I went down the rabbit hole of watching all of her movies as much as I could on TCM. I also turned 13 around the time when the superior Judy biopic, "Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows" premiered on ABC. It's got that, you know, very ABC late '90s, early aughts sheen to it.
HARRIS: Like, it looks like a TV movie. But Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard, as the older and younger versions of Judy, are just, like, so striking, so amazing, doing so many other things that, I'm sorry, but the Renee Zellweger performance was not giving to me. So I loved her, and I have been a fan of hers ever since. And unlike Reanna, I kind of came to Liza through Judy. So, like, after discovering Judy and then realizing that Liza was her daughter, I was like, oh. And then, of course, that opened up a whole new world for me as well.
WELDON: Yeah, we all talked about going down the rabbit hole, which, of course, is a Wonderland reference, not an Oz reference, but it's about going someplace else to a fantasy world. For me, it was a complicated relationship at start. It's gotten a lot less complicated as I get older because when I was a young man - as Bob mentioned, she was not just a gay icon. She was a gay icon that even the straights knew about, which meant, of course, that she was already a gay cliche.
So to my parents' thinking - and these were not worldly, urbane people. Gays were florists. They were hairdressers. They loved Judy Garland. That's what they knew. And my internalized homophobia was so pitched that anything that even hinted at gayness was something I shunned. Yeah, I'd watch "The Wizard Of Oz" with my parents when it aired once a year, you know, in March, the same way I'd watch "The Ten Commandments" when it aired every Easter. But had I expressed any curiosity, any interest in her, even my famously slow-on-the-uptake parents would have been put on high alert. Generations before me, gay men used to ID each other by asking if you were a friend of Dorothy.
MONDELLO: Friend of Dorothy.
WELDON: But Judy Garland was such a cultural touchstone that somehow the straights broke that incredibly complicated cipher, right? They broke it wide open by the time it came around. I also - not for nothing, I was never really a ballad guy. I'm still not. And she's not known for ballad. She is known for torch songs, which are ballads on molly, right? So it was never my thing. I came of age in the age of David Letterman - right? - the age of ironic detachment, the age of making fun of showbiz phonies. And, God love her, if you look at her ungenerously, she is the ultimate showbiz phony. She is all performative, earnest, jazz hands, theater people. And it was so clearly a pose that she was adopting that it was easy to dismiss her as, A, outdated and, B, campy.
But something happens as you get older. You realize that that kind of ironic detachment is itself a kind of pose that is keeping you from engaging with the world, that's keeping you from seeing things as they are, without filtering it through your B.S. preconceived notions. So now I can and do appreciate her, not in spite of the artifice, but because of it. Because the way you can see her clinging to that artifice, to the showbiz of it - that's what I mentioned at the top. That is her humanity. That's her vulnerability.
MONDELLO: She's terrified.
MONDELLO: And it's because she really was as vulnerable as she appeared to be. I brought with us a tape of her in "Wizard Of Oz" - an outtake that was not used in the film. It was when she was taken up to the witch's tower, and she's being held there. And she sings "Over The Rainbow." But she's desperate at that moment. And I know she's acting, but I feel as if it's so real.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JUDY GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale) (Crying, singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
WELDON: OK, thanks for bringing the show down, Bob.
MONDELLO: One of the reasons I think they didn't use it was that there was no way the movie would recover from it.
HARRIS: If I remember correctly, I think they included this as an extra on, like, one of the VHS versions...
HARRIS: ...Way back because I remember watching that as a kid and seeing that outtake. It is heartbreaking.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, that vulnerability is what she's about. So, Bob, that kind of ties into your pick for a quintessential Garland performance. Talk to me about it.
MONDELLO: Mine was "A Star Is Born," made in 1954. This was four years after she made her last film for MGM, and that was "Summer Stock." And basically, MGM let her go because she was unable to complete movies at that point. She just couldn't get through them. When she'd finished "Wizard Of Oz" and she was making all these other movies and they were - you know, MGM was using her two or three times a year, every year for a decade. So she made "A Star Is Born." It was sort of billed as her comeback picture. You know the story from other things. Lady Gaga and what's-his-name did it.
CRUZ: Bradley Cooper.
MONDELLO: And, of course, Streisand and Kristofferson did it. And they were - even when Judy Garland did it, they were remaking an older version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, I think. This is, I think, the definitive version because she has that oomph that you can imagine that James Mason would see and be sort of overwhelmed by. And the sequence that I brought from it is "The Man That Got Away." So this is for you, Aisha.
MONDELLO: Man, she was at the top of her game, and there's a moment in it she just sort of swings into it. And George Cukor, who was directing, managed to make all of the reflections on the instruments around her sort of pop on the beat. It was - it's just - you're watching it and you're thinking, oh, my God, this is showbiz times 15.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")
GARLAND: (As Esther Blodgett, singing) The writing's on the wall. The dreams you've dreamed have all gone astray.
MONDELLO: Now, believe it or not, this song was not the Oscar winner this year, which is sort of shocking in retrospect. And the show itself didn't get - I mean, it was nominated for a lot of awards but didn't win any at the Oscars. And I think it's an extraordinary picture. Partly because it didn't win those things, she then went into a slump for another five or six years before she did another movie. So this was a sort of an isolated, brilliant moment in the mid-'50s but just a remarkable vision of a performer on the ascendant - just a gorgeous movie.
HARRIS: I mean, I could talk about this movie all day. It's one of those movies that, like, especially for newcomers to this, if they're not familiar with it, we should warn them that because of some production issues, there are moments in the film where there are just stills that actually replace...
HARRIS: ...Full-on scenes because I remember the first time I saw it and being very confused...
HARRIS: ...And thinking something was wrong with the VHS I had recorded off of Turner - TCM. Going back to what you were saying earlier, Bob and Glen, about this vulnerability she has, like, even though she is - to some people, it might be considered an artifice or her really digging into the very showiness of it all. It does really seem to come from the nerves and also from the fact that she'd been doing this since she was, like, barely able to speak.
And so seeing the way this movie plays with that and also plays with the other side of it because her husband in the film, Norman Maine, who's played by James Mason, you know, he's an alcoholic. He's dealing with drug issues. And there's, like, a wonderful scene where she's backstage on the set, and she's in this, like, makeup and costume that kind of makes her look sort of like a clown or whatever. It's, like, so deeply emotional. And you can kind of see Liza (laughter) in, like...
HARRIS: ...something like "Cabaret" later on where she's talking about how hard it is to love someone who has an addiction and watch them and try to help them. And the way she was able to tap into that while her personal life was reflecting that person who needs that help - layers upon layers upon layers of just, like, stunning to watch.
CRUZ: I also think that Garland turned the role of "A Star Is Born," for a movie that's been remade so many times, into this sort of pinnacle of your career. The other people that have acted in the same role are Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga, both people that I think have similar gay icon status as Judy Garland. And those sort of intergenerational parallels, I think, were started because of Judy being cast in that role.
MONDELLO: Good point.
WELDON: Absolutely. And speaking of representing a career, your pick, Reanna, is a great one.
WELDON: It is one that captures a moment but also shows the breadth and depth of what Judy can do. Talk to me about it.
CRUZ: Yes. So my pick is the 1961 album "Judy At Carnegie Hall," the concert appearance that was recorded on April 23, 1961, so eight years before her death. It is a excellent double album that encapsulates her entire career. She does everything from "Over The Rainbow" to "Trolley Song," and it's very indicative of the place that she found herself in in the last few years of her life. She recorded this as she was coming back from, I believe, being diagnosed with hepatitis. So the year before, she was dealing with all of these issues that plagued her in her later years. She was ill. This was her sort of return to the stage. And it's truly excellent.
I love this recording specifically because you can hear the way that she interacts with the audience and the way that she feeds off the audience and the audience feeds off of her. And this album, you can hear that in her voice, how - the amount of reverence that she has for her fans and the way her fans love and respect her. The pick that I chose is my favorite on here, which, you know, the track listing is insane - right? - because it encapsulates her entire career. So there's so much to go off of. But I chose "Come Rain Or Come Shine."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RAIN OR COME SHINE")
GARLAND: (Singing) We're in or we're out of the money. I'm with you always. I'm with you rain or shine.
CRUZ: So you could hear it in her voice. She's coming back to the top of her game. And I think the message of the song reflects her sort of legacy, right? Like, it's, I will be with you come rain or come shine.
WELDON: Mmm hmm.
CRUZ: And I think for a lot of people, a lot of fans, people like myself that weren't necessarily around when she was alive, that kind of is how we experience Judy Garland, kind of in this omnipresent sort of way. And this album cemented her legacy status, in my opinion, and has been called quote-unquote "the greatest night in show business history," and I think for very good reason.
WELDON: I mean, this is the album, right? This is the quintessential Judy album. Music snobs hate...
WELDON: ...Best of albums, but here's the loophole, because this represents her at her peak, doing her entire career. It's also the album that whenever my husband are trying to figure out what to listen to as we cook dinner and I put this on, we both roll our eyes like, ugh...
WELDON: ...How gay are we? But then 20 minutes in, we are completely disarmed and we're like, oh, my God, she's so good. Listen to that. Listen to that.
CRUZ: That's exactly what my roommates say when I put my record on, because I also - I live in a home of gay people. And I put it on, and they're like, come on. Not the Judy again. And I'm like, sitting in my room, like, ding, ding, ding with the trolley...
CRUZ: ...Like, you know, doing my work. You know, you could throw it on any time, and it's engaging actively in camp, like you're in the audience watching her and doing the same thing that the audience in 1961 was doing.
HARRIS: Yeah, I feel like this is a perfect album that's also human...
WELDON: Yep. Mmm hmm.
HARRIS: ...Because - one of my favorite moments is when she's singing "You Go to My Head," and she flubs the line. She's like (singing) you go to my head, and I forget the god-darn words. (Vocalizing).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GO TO MY HEAD")
GARLAND: (Singing) You go to my head with, and I forgot the god-darn words. (Inaudible). You intoxicate my soul with your eyes.
HARRIS: I just love those little moments where it's, like, cheering and saying, Judy, Judy. And she's just like, I'll stay, and I'll sing all night.
HARRIS: And it's just like, I love those moments. It's just such a wonderful back and forth, and I'm - I only wish we could have seen it as well...
HARRIS: ...But I'm just so grateful that it exists in audio form at all.
WELDON: Absolutely. Now, Aisha, your pick has been mentioned already in this podcast - clang, clang, clang. Tell me about it.
HARRIS: Clang, clang, clang (laughter). Most of our picks are, like, later career Judy, and I wanted to get something a little bit earlier, so for those who are new to her can kind of get a sense of who she was before her life kind of went into more of a shambles in the later years. And "Meet Me In St. Louis" from 1944, it's one of her earliest film roles where she gets to play an adult character. So if you've seen any of her earlier films, whether it's "The Wizard Of Oz" or her Mickey Rooney films like "Babes On Broadway" and "Strike Up The Band," those are all - she's playing a cute, kind of cherubic kid who often might have a crush on Mickey Rooney or some other character, but that character is just not interested in her because she's just a little girl, and she has a song where she sings about that.
And here, she is playing, you know, one of the siblings of a giant family in St. Louis in the early 1900s. It's set around the World's Fair. Not much happens in this movie, got to be honest. Like, it is not a plot-driven movie. Basically, the father has potentially a job in New York, and he's going to move the whole family there. And the family is like, no, we love St. Louis. And the first, like, act of the film is centered around having dinner early enough so that one of the older sisters, Rose, can receive a phone call from her beau, who she thinks might propose to her. Like, that's what's happening here (laughter).
HARRIS: There's not much going on. It's a very low-stakes movie. But this is a movie that's about the bonds that tie the family together. It's not about these sort of grand pronouncements. And all the songs are just about feelings. That's what it is, and that's what I love about this film. You have so many hits going on here, and most of them are sung by Judy Garland herself. There's the title song, "Meet Me In St. Louis." "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" made its debut in this film, so you have Judy to thank for that. And, of course, there is "The Trolley Song," and we've mentioned it a few times, but I feel like we just have to hear this moment. It is a wonderful moment, one of the classics where she's on a trolley. She sees the guy that she has a crush on, John Truett, who's played by Tom Drake. He misses the trolley, and she spends the whole trolley ride, like, dreaming of this scenario where she meets her love on the trolley. So let's hear sort of the tail end of this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")
GARLAND: (Singing) As he started to leave, I took hold of his sleeve with my hand. And as if it were planned, he stayed on with me. And it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine to the end of the line.
HARRIS: Judy here just shines. And Vincente Minnelli, who directed it and is obviously Liza Minnelli's father - and that's how they met and fell in love - he frames Judy Garland like an adult, like a beautiful young woman, and that was tied into so much of her career - right? - was always feeling not just nervous about things, but also feeling not as beautiful as the other glamorous MGM stars of the day, like the Lana Turners and the Elizabeth Taylors. So to see her sort of presented in this more adult way and be treated that way - and it's just such a beautiful movie, and I think it's a great introduction to early Judy Garland that is not "The Wizard Of Oz."
CRUZ: "The Trolley Song" went viral on, like, gay Twitter, like, last year because it was people my age posting "The Trolley Song," and we're like, I'm trolley posting, clang, clang.
HARRIS: Oh, my goodness. I love that.
CRUZ: Yeah, it, like, became a meme, and that sort of continued proliferation of "Meet Me In St. Louie" and "The Trolley Song." It has that sort of intergenerational connection because it's so emotional-driven - like you said, all the songs are about feelings.
MONDELLO: "The Trolley Song" is so propulsive, you feel like you're moving on the trolley all the way.
HARRIS: You hear it...
MONDELLO: It's like, oh, my God...
HARRIS: ...That (imitating a trolley). Yeah.
WELDON: Yeah. Well, my pick manages to be - I think you will agree - somehow even gayer than all of your previous picks put together.
HARRIS: How is that possible?
MONDELLO: Good luck with that.
WELDON: It features not one but two gay divas. It is a duet Garland performed with a then-21-year-old, - wait for it - Barbra Streisand, for one of the 26 specials that Garland made for CBS in 1963. Now, Streisand performed several songs on the show to promote her album, "The Barbra Streisand Album." One of the songs had been released - that was her version of a 1929 tune, that had been FDR's campaign song, (singing) "Happy Days are Here Again." Streisand's take on it, of course, was very much slowed down and melancholy, and Garland had the idea to match Streisand's version with one of her own songs, "Get Happy," which she first performed in the film "Summer Stock" in 1950. Let's have a quick listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY / HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN")
GARLAND: (Singing) Shout Hallelujah.
BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) So let's sing a song...
GARLAND: (Singing) Come on, get happy.
STREISAND: (Singing) ...Of cheer again.
GARLAND: (Singing) Get ready for the Judgement Day...
STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days are here again...
GARLAND: (Singing) The sun is shining...
WELDON: When Streisand first comes out to perform the number, the two of them do this little phony showbiz bit about how much they hate each other because they're just so wonderful, and Judy kicks it off by really trying to dig underneath the bit to really sell it. You can see her kind of reaching for the words. She's doubling down on the dialogue to make it seem like it's not on cue cards, and it's not all written right in front of her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW")
GARLAND: And you're so good that I hate you.
GARLAND: I really hate you. You're so good.
STREISAND: Oh, Judy, that's so sweet of you. Thank you. You know, you're so great that I've been hating you for years.
STREISAND: In fact...
WELDON: And this is what I mean when I say the artifice is there for a reason. We see how much she needs it. We see how much she loves it. If you were in the audience and you didn't know how showbiz worked, and you thought for a second that Judy might be serious about (imitating Garland) how much I hate you, as soon as Barbra starts talking, you're like, oh, it's a bit. We're back on firm ground. And this moment is often seen as a passing-of-the-torch moment, one diva to another. And Streisand is just perfectly comfortable in her skin. She is not about showing us her vulnerability.
MONDELLO: Yeah, no (laughter).
WELDON: That is not her. She is about showing us perfection. And as they're singing, she might glance over Judy a few times, but it's purely perfunctory. Judy's affect, of course, is entirely different in this number. She is hyperaware, she's a little twitchy, and, you know, in that opening dialogue, she's kind of searching Barbra's face. But then she starts singing - and this is something we've all talked about in different ways - as soon as she starts singing, it kind of melts all her cares away, to coin a phrase. She still emoting all over the place - right? - but it's so much more relaxed and assured and at peace. And it's - here, we really get that performing is the closest this woman is ever going to come to being at peace.
MONDELLO: You know, there was another kind of performance that Garland wanted to be known for - and I was torn, I almost picked "Judgment At Nuremberg."
MONDELLO: The thing is, it's a very small part, but she was wonderful in it and got a nomination for an Oscar for it. And she was taken seriously as an actress finally, after all those years. And people had said nice things about her, but as long as she was still performing music in her movies, she was never taken as seriously as she would have been had she decided to do straight parts. And she just sort of didn't. "Judgment At Nuremberg" is also - I mean, for her scenes, it's breathtaking. It's really amazing to watch.
HARRIS: Yeah, that and "The Clock" - that was another straight role where she doesn't sing in it. But yeah, I mean, we talked a lot about the singing, but obviously without that, we wouldn't also have the acting moments, and she does have so many just wonderful straight acting performances that I think - especially in a movie like "The Pirate" or - like, there's a lot of, like, screwball sort of physical comedy in there that - she's just - oh, she was just great. Love her.
MONDELLO: You think?
CRUZ: What a woman.
WELDON: Yeah, I think that's where we're gonna land. She was just great. Tell us what your favorite Judy Garland works are. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Bob Mondello, Reanna Cruz, Aisha Harris, thanks to all of you for being here.
MONDELLO: It was great. Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
CRUZ: Thanks for having me. Love to be among friends of Dorothy.
WELDON: A reminder before we go - NPR is doing its annual survey to better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts. Please help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. We would really appreciate your help to support NPR podcasts. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey.
Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides the music you may or may not be bobbing your head to right now. I'm Glen Weldon, and we will see you all tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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