She is an empath. That is, she is someone who can not only feel others' pain but make the pain go away. I believe this quality is what makes Judy Garland so beloved even until this day.
I have known firsthand this gift of empathy having experienced it through my sister who died of breast cancer in 2007. She had the gift of human kindness, which she freely gave to all who were fortunate enough to know her. She was also a sensitive musician with a love and respect for all creatures, great and small.
My mom, who died in 2006 from Alzheimers Disease, shared and perhaps imparted this special quality of compassion to my sister. They were the ones our family members turned to in times of crisis or sadness. They took our pain and suffering upon themselves and in the process healed us, sometimes to the detriment of their own health.
I have come to realize that this ability of empathy is what has made me a recent Judy Garland fan. I miss the support and spiritual connection I had with my mom and sister. I have become obsessed with Garland's career and life, renting her past films and buying her CDs. Knowing that my mom was a big follower of Judy (even taking her name as her knickname) who also had a beautiful singing voice of her own and lived in Garland's time period may be part of my fascination. Garland's huge talent as a singer, actress, and dancer is also part of the draw. As a musician myself, I find listening to Judy is a learning experience.
But I think the biggest piece is this healing element of watching her perform. There's a special moment in Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert where as she is coming back onstage after getting a drink of water, an elderly fan yells "I love you." The audience claps in approval as though she is speaking for them as a whole. Judy yells back "me too."
The Carnegie concert has been described as a "revival meeting." Many who were there reported a love affair between the audience and the star. Where did this feverish, romantic devotion to Judy come from?
I believe it started in her teens and her early film career where MGM recognized this special gift of empathy and cast her in roles where she displayed a connection with the movie going public. They could relate to her. It is as if she represented those who have had adversity but stayed true to their own principles of decency and forgiveness and healing. Think of her films with Mickey Rooney. She always played characters whose storyline was "boy meets girl, boy takes girl for granted, girl forgives boy, girl comes back and saves the show."
She always did what was right whether it was turning down a big career break to support a group of kids to go to the country (in 1941's "Babes on Broadway"), feeling empathy for Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) when his girlfriend broke up with him even though she secretly had a crush on him (in 1938's "Love Finds Andy Hardy"), forgiving Fred Astaire in 1948's "Easter Parade" after he humiliated her by dancing with his old partner and former love interest in public, and deciding to give up her movie career to move away and support her alcoholic husband in 1954's "A Star is Born."
Judy played these characters so well because they were a part of her. In essence, she did for the film going public what my sister and mother did for me and my family. She helped them forget their pain by taking it on herself. She reminded everyone of the healing power of forgiveness and through her singing and dancing she enchanted audiences so they could escape their everyday problems, if only for a day.
In fact, her own life and career paralleled many of her film roles' dilemmas. Her daughter, Lorna Luft, recently on the Joy Behar Show, compared her mother's life to Michael Jackson's by bringing up the fact that they were both breadwinners for their families at very young ages. This can be very stressful on youthful stars. This was echoed in her films. The adolescent daughter she played in 1937's "Everybody Sing" felt compelled to sing in a nightclub to help pay her parents' bills. In 1943's "Presenting Lily Mars" she portrays a 19 year old who hitchhikes from Indiana to New York City to try to win a job in a Broadway play so she can support her mother and four siblings after her father has died.
Throughout her life, Judy had insecurities about her looks, having been told by the studio when she was a teen that she was an "ugly duckling", a "hunchback", and "fat", and was made to wear a nose piece. I believe this quality of not feeling pretty enough made her humble and different from the other glamorous, ego-centric actresses of the day and further connected her to audiences because she came across as "one of us" on the screen and in her real life. The irony is that she did grow up to become a beautiful swan and a truly gorgeous star, although she was always cast as the girl next door.
Even with this unwarranted insecurity, Judy had supreme confidence in her singing and dancing. Lorna shared that her mother once pointed out to her when a glamorous actress was near: "can't sing a note." The inside joke is that Judy knew she had this undeniable talent that no one could take away from her that distinguished her from other starlets of the era.
In real life, Judy was well liked by her peers. When the munchkin actors from 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" were honored in 2007 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they all shared how much they loved Judy and how well she treated them - one even stated that she was an angel.
The huge turnout by the biggest Hollywood celebrities to the movie premiere of "A Star Is Born" was quite impressive. Most said they were there to support Judy and they all had effusive praise for her talent. When the crème de la crème call you the best, it says a lot.
My impression is that Judy never cared much for material things and therefore never fully took responsibility for her finances, always leaving that to her mother, her agent, the studio, her husbands, and her accountants. That later got her into trouble, having been scammed out of what should have been a huge fortune.
I think Judy concentrated on other manners: her skills as an actress, singer, and dancer. No one can deny she was one of the hardest working talents in show biz. But she was robbed of a normal childhood (touring with her sisters as vaudevillians) and her teen years, having been signed by MGM at the age of thirteen.
Lorna also pointed out that the studios then did not know the long term affects and addictions of amphetamines and barbiturates that they gave to their stars in those days, including young Judy. They also didn't have the facilities we have now such as rehab clinics and AA to treat addictions.
What makes the Judy Garland story so heroic is that she bounced back after every setback in her life. Even the early years, where she seems so upbeat and happy in her performances, were fraught with hardships and difficulties. Her father died when she was thirteen, she was in a car accident where she broke several ribs, there was a kidnapping plot against her, her heart was broken by bandleader Artie Shaw when he eloped with Lana Turner, all occurring before she even reached 17. To watch her performances in those beginning films, one would never know all of these horrific events were happening to her in her private life.
Just like her characters in her movies, she bravely pressed on. I believe she also had a quality that enabled her to survive those tough times which came through in many of the roles she played - true grit. Think of it. She was a bit of a whippersnapper in 1939's "Wizard of Oz" taking on Miss Gulch as well as the Cowardly Lion, the Wizard, and the Wicked Witch of the West. She was delightfully feisty in 1946's "The Harvey Girls", had a temper tantrum where she threw all kinds of things at Gene Kelly in 1948's "The Pirate", and she punched Tom Drake in the jaw in 1944's "Meet Me in St. Louis". Makes me wish she could have completed 1950's "Annie Get Your Gun", from which she was fired after a long illness. Having watched the outtakes, I think we would have seen her spunky side in that character. She was a fighter, despite her reputation as being "America's sweetheart" and the girl next door.
Another quality that may have helped Judy weather her storms is a trait that often gets overlooked: her sense of humor. Lucille Ball, known as the queen of female comedians, once said that though she, Lucy, was funny on films and TV, Judy was funnier than her in real life. There are tales of how in the early days of her career, Judy and her co-stars often stopped production with laughing fits. This was shared by Mary Astor who played her mother in 1938's "Listen, Darling". In fact, it has been said that famed director Victor Fleming had slapped her to get her to stop giggling and fooling around while on the set of "The Wizard of Oz." Legend has it Mr. Fleming felt so badly about it, he said someone should hit him. Judy overheard this and kissed him on the nose showing she forgave him. (Another shining empathetic moment.)
Judy's sense of comedic timing is evident in the first dancing scene with Fred Astaire where she has feathers flying everywhere and their hobo song and dance sequence "We're A Couple of Swells" from "Easter Parade." She is a hoot on Jack Paar's show where she shares her early experiences at MGM. No one can deny that she had an infectious laugh.
Her sense of humor comes through at her Carnegie Hall concert with all of her self deprecating stories about her hair, weight, and sweating. But the funniest line is when at the start of "San Francisco" she sings: "I will never forget Jeanette McDonald. Just to think about her gives my heart a pang. I never will forget how that brave Jeanette just stood there in the ruins and sang, annnd sang." She could have been singing about her own life.
As her health began to deteriorate causing her to miss rehearsals and filming deadlines, her reputation became tarnished with MGM. Yet, none of that comes through in any of her performances in the films of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In fact, one of her most popular musicals, 1948's "Easter Parade" and her famous rendition of "Get Happy" from 1950's "Summerstock" came during this tumultuous period.
You see, despite all of her inner sorrows, disappointments, lost love affairs and divorces, struggles with self-esteem and addictions, Judy Garland is a survivor. Whether it was through her engagement at the Palace, her movie "A Star Is Born", her Carnegie Hall concert, or her endearing 1963-64 TV show, she always came roaring back. And she still is.
The recent release of her new, never before heard, critically acclaimed CD "The London Studio Recordings" which was made in 1960 and led up to her Carnegie Hall comeback, shows the staying power of this great star. David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer claims; "This may be the best-sounding Garland release out there." She is still making her presence known from beyond the rainbow.
Maybe it is because she is an empath and knows she has a role to play for the public that still adores her. Maybe her fighting spirit and her sense of humor pulls her through. Maybe it is because she lives for her art which transcends time and space. Whatever it is, we are blessed by having her talent and empathy grace us through the years past and the years to come. For the gift she gave us is timeless and I for one am eternally grateful.