I’m back again to do another blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. There are several other entries to go check out which all celebrate the life of Judy Garland, who would have been 96 today.
When I first saw the blog post about featuring in a Judy Garland blogathon, I thought that I would use the experience to write about something which I have been extremely curious about. Somewhere I read, it was probably Wikipedia which isn’t the greatest source, that Judy Garland had a massive gay following because her life resonated with gay people. I’m going to mention this now in order to establish my standing in this piece. I do not consider myself gay nor do I have all the answers around this relationship between Judy Garland and the gay community. Even the text I refer to, which was written by a gay scholar, cannot give us a definitive answer. He just merely gives a perspective. I personally felt that I related to Garland’s life and her personal struggles, as I too am a woman who feels inadequate within the world she lives in. Instead of dismissing outright Garland’s relationship with gay men, like some would, it made my curiosity as to why grow.
The first, logical place that I could go and find this out was speak to a gay man I know. I asked him this question and he responded back by referring me to a Youtuber who speaks on the relationship between gays and musicals. This didn’t prove very helpful at all. It wasn’t until I started work on my dissertation where I found a section of a book titled ‘Judy Garland and Gay Men’.
The chapter was from Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies. He starts the section by recalling an incident which happened during the June 1973 issue of the Birmingham Gay Liberation Front Newsletter. The editorial collective, which Dyer was a member of, had a policy which meant that the G.L.F would print anything submitted to them, so long as it wasn’t sexist, racist or fascist. One article they received on pink paper was entitled ‘Born in a Trunk.’ It was an article on Judy Garland’s life. The fan’s retelling of her life made it into the militant gay political group’s letter which lead to numerous people, gay and straight, questioning why this was in the newsletter in the first place. He sets up the section by stating “Why was Garland in a gay magazine? And when they knew the answer – because so many gay men (especially) are into her – the next question was a bemused ‘why’?”
Before he goes into certain aspects of her image, he sets up the context of her image in relation to gay men’s ‘subculture’, and the period in which he is looking back on. The period he is referring to is post-1950. Here, there was change up from her usual happy-go-lucky small town image as she was sacked from MGM, and a suicide attempt made its way into headline news. This event, he argues, lead to a re-reading of Garland having a special relationship to suffering, ordinariness and normality. These aspects helped re-align her image in relation to her gay audience, through her career pre-1950, post-1950, and an article written in McCall’s in 1952 as well as her UK concerts before her death in 1969.
The start sets up her audience at her UK concerts, drawing on gay publications and eyewitness accounts from letters he received from the public. He critiques the writings of the likes of Brian Conley for Gay News and Woodcock as they internalise a straight reading of Judy Garland. Instead, the focus is on letters which transcribe two common themes. 1) How she was able to produce raw, intense emotions through her singing and 2) Her ability to always come-back and keep on fighting, despite the tendency some had to cling onto her ‘tragic’ figure. These points, however, could relate to any number of stars. Some like Vera Lynn could claim the first point and the second could be seen exclusively for someone like Marilyn Monroe. Both could be seen in artists such as Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. These singers are in some way important to gay male culture however what made Judy special was her symbol of survival as well as three key aspects of her Hollywood image.
The first point which Dyer argues as integral to her gay image is that of Ordinariness. The image given to her by MGM was an All-American, girl-next-door. This image establishes her non-gay and pre-1950 appeal. What he finds important in Garland’s ordinariness is her relationship with the image and how that is established through her movie-going ‘self’.
Her ordinariness is established by the fact that her films usually feature a small town; a small town girl falls in love with the boy next door. This epitome of this ‘ordinary American life’ is most present in the Andy Hardy series, along with the continual costuming of Judy in a blue gingham frock. This dress style features in various films such as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), ‘Pigskin Parade’ (1936), ‘Strike up the Band’ (1940) and ‘Till the Clouds Roll By’ (1946.) This point I would question because although the blue gingham may be a symbol for small-town America, it could also symbolise the fact that she is playing a young, teenage girl or be the capitalist tool used by studios which use costumes as a way to draw on previous notable roles so that people re-watch or remember her other films.
Dyer argues that her ordinariness relates to gay men as like Judy Garland, gay men are brought up to be ordinary. He argues that one is not brought up gay and that culture seems to work against it. If Judy retained her ‘normal’ image like that of June Allyson or Deanna Durbin who leave Hollywood and settle down into marriage, she probably wouldn’t have been the gay icon that she is now. The fact that after 1950 she wasn’t the ‘ordinary girl’ highlighted a relationship that was parallel with gay identity and two specific elements which resonate this in the MGM era are emotional intensity and her lack of glamour. Her emotional intensity is established through her singing-style range, from either loud, belting, peppy style or torch style song. This intensity was emphasised through the comparisons made between her and Deanna Durbin. Her ‘lack of glamour’ relates to the fact that her characters were always a demure girl next door, and even if she did live in New York or another city, the audience would find out that they come from a small town anyway. Her hair is in a simple perm and she wears plain dresses or party clothes that were usually found on nice young girls. Although she wasn’t marketed as beautiful, there are certain films such as ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ which attempted this.
Judy’s characters were often compared to other glamourous women in her films and one notable example he gives is that from ‘Ziegfeld Girl’. He notes that her character Susan becomes a Ziegfeld girl because of her talent, and not her looks which it clearly evident in the film. What I do have a problem with, however, is the way he describes the costuming choices used in the picture. The camp costumes by Adrian (pictured) show the differences between Garland’s Susan, Lana Turner’s Sheila and Hedy Lamarr’s Sandra. The part about Garland being covered completely whilst breaking up her body shape when compared to Lana’s which featured a high thigh split to show her legs is correct. The part I have a problem with is the description of Lamarr’s. Exotic flowers and orchids are placed around her breasts and vulva which he suggests highlight her ‘perfect’ body, and that the flowers resemble the haute couture wealth which Ziegfeld girls possessed. The ‘exotic flowers’ probably re-emphasise her MGM image of being a beautiful, ‘exotic’ foreigner whilst the idea of her breasts being perfect was actually considered a flaw by MGM executives who worked with Lamarr.
The fact is, this idea of Garland of not being glamorous shows her failing at her femininity and her sex role which leads to her being characterised as ‘one of the boys’. This ‘failure’ may register with gay men who feel inadequate in relation to their sexuality and sexual attractiveness as gender misfits. Yet this is undermined by the fact that she always gets her man, or her heart’s desire in these movies highlighting the wish fulfilment and happy ending outcome we desire when watching movies.
This brings us onto the last point regarding ordinariness which is Garland’s relationship to us as a movie fan. Early promotion material situated her as a move fan, showing that her character became a stand-in for the audience in the films she would star in. She becomes a point of entry into the film, and therefore acts as a symbol of escapism upon the gay men who watch her films. Cinema is an important aspect of gay culture and Garland symbolises the ‘ordinary’ person who can escape into the magic of a film.
The next aspect is that of androgyny. Even though she could be seen as ‘same’ and ‘ordinary’, she is also placed as being ‘different’ as a gender ’In-Between’. Named like her popular song on puberty, homosexuality (Dyer argues) is seen as an in-between from heterosexuality. The absence of true or full masculinity or femininity is lost as they don’t fit into the gender traits exhibited in heterosexual sexuality. Garland herself did not express ‘sexual androgyny’ like Marlene Dietrich however she exhibited enough androgyny for it to be regarded as ‘gender androgyny’ instead. The key way this would be expressed is through dress however it is also interesting to note that the assumption of a little masculinity is a standard feature in the idea of a woman-as-a-spectacle.
One notable example from her pre-1950 career is in the film ‘Everybody Sing’. In Fanny Brice’s ‘Baby Snooks’ routine, she comes on dressed in a short-trousered velvet suit. Brice, in a baby’s nightie, asks “are you a girl or a boy?” to which Garland replies “they call me Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Throughout the entire sketch she avoids answering the question outright.
Later on in her career, her androgyny is defined by two distinct ways: stylish and tragi-comic or vampish and trampish. The former is exhibited in Get Happy and You Gotta …. Symbolising a glamorous, Garboesque androgyny which oozes in sex appeal. Vamp gay men could identify with someone sexually accepted by the boys whilst in the tramp, gay men could see someone who has questions surrounding their sexuality which was without gender. The loose, male clothing complete the image as they conceal the shape of the body which highlights the escapism from her ‘sex role’.
The last factor is that of Camp. Dyer defines camp as a “characteristically gay way of handling the values, images and products of the dominant culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialisation, theatricalisation… making fun of and out of the serious and respectable.” A letter he receives talks about her being ‘unintentional camp’ however he argues that her campness was more inward; someone who expresses camp attitudes.
Most readings of her being camp came posthumously after her passing. This includes Liza Minelli quoting her mother – “When I die I have visions of f*** singing Over the Rainbow…” It is also present in her films, especially those she did with Vincente Minelli like ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ (1946) and ‘The Pirate’ (1948). These films contain elements of theatricality, parody and obvious artifice. Garland’s own camp humour usually had an effect on setting up the tone and conventions of her films. Just like in ‘Oz’, the magic world and the standing outside of it is symbolic of the ambivalence in gay culture constructing a scene which is both keenly desired and yet put-on. It is in this recognition that camp finds reality.
He ends the section by briefly talking about a film which is apparently her most ‘gayest’, ‘I Could Go On Singing’ (1962.) He says that all aspects mentioned above exhibit themselves in the film. Ordinariness doesn’t feature that much due to her co-star Dirk Bogarde. For those unaware, Bogarde was an English star who featured two years before in the British film ‘Victim’. The film was a thriller campaigning for reform in the homosexuality laws, making it a ground-breaking film during its release. Bogarde stated that he did this film for ‘social consciousness’ however his career after this coloured his image in relation to homosexuality afterwards. (I also think he came out as bisexual, or he was concealing it… Don’t quote me on that.) The most interesting point however is that Garland’s image outruns a gay reading of her because, unlike Bogarde and gay men, she cannot retreat to a patriarchal position.
Overall, Judy Garland appealed to gay men through a re-reading of her career post-1950 through ordinariness, androgyny and camp. Dyer wrote this chapter in 1975, and the ideas he writes down are symbolic of the time he was writing in and the gay movement as a whole. He also concludes the section by acknowledging that some gay men didn’t buy into Judy as a gay icon. In fact, he writes that “as with any star, the fan’s enthusiasm is based on feeling that the star is just wonderful”, highlighting terms which might be used for any star being prescribed by gay men onto Judy Garland. The fact that times have changed have allowed for other stars like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Celine Dion and so forth being declared ‘gay icons’. Sexuality has also been recognised as being more on a spectrum, rather than through the archaic ideals of ‘straight’ or ‘homosexual’ which are written here. This leaves me with one question, is Judy Garland still relevant for the 21st Century gay community? I think so but I feel she has a place more within those who admire Old Hollywood and the practices of drag performances such as that by drag lip-synch artist Dickie Beau. In 1969, the Gay Sweatshop did a production called ‘As Time Goes By’. Drag Queen Drew Griffiths recalls that “I loved her because no matter how they put her down, she survived.” To me, that was Judy Garland’s biggest legacy to the gay community.