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Judy: A Legendary Film Career

By Mike McCrann

The current Frontiers has a lot of great holiday gift suggestions, but if you really want a super gift, check out this book.

What more can a gay critic or any gay man write about Judy Garland? For so many years, Judy Garland has reined as the Queen of the Gays. I think Judy Garland is the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. All of the stories about Judy and pills, Judy and her suicide attempts, Judy and her weight problems, Judy's burned out career all started taking precedence over Judy Garland the actress and singer. Stripping away all the sensationalized muck about Judy Garland reveals the brilliant career of a uniquely gifted woman. The new book Judy: A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke helps rescue the artist Judy Garland from all the garbage that has been written about her for years. This magnificent coffee table book is sensational. 
Judy Garland's musicals are the best made in the long history of Hollywood. Meet Me In St. Louis is probably the greatest film Vincente Minnelli ever made. It is a perfect time capsule of what Hollywood and Americans thought or hoped life was like at the turn of the century. Little Margaret O'Brien comes close to stealing the movie in one of the great performances by a child actress. (Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is in a class by itself!) The great songs from Meet Me In St. Louis are among the best ever written, and Judy and Margaret doing their cake walk number is a highlight of this incandescent film. (OK, one quibble—why did they make Judy wear that wig?!)

Judy Garland's greatest performance is in George Cukor's A Star is Born (1954). "Masterpiece" seems inadequate to describe it. The cast is tremendous. James Mason gives the performance of his long career, and Jack Carson and Charles Bickford are both brilliant. But it is Judy that gives Star its glow. All of her previous movies, disappointments, breakdowns, firings from MGM are all put to good use. Judy has some dramatic scenes (especially the dressing room breakdown with Charles Bickford) that literally are unparalleled in movie history. The high point of the film and film musicals is Judy's rendition of The Man That Got Away. This brilliant number is so incredibly filmed and performed that nothing much can ever top it. A Star Is Born is the greatest film never to have won an Academy Award.
Judy's other great performance comes in her last film, I Could Go On Singing (1962). Co-starring gay actor Dirk Bogarde, Singing is the soapy story of Jennie Bowman, an American singer who returns to London and her former lover to try and regain custody of her illegitimate son. The story in other hands would have been corny and maudlin, but Judy Garland's artistry and the last great movie score of her life elevate the film into classic status. The final dramatic scene (written by Dirk Bogarde) in which a drunken Garland spews out all the show biz bile that has been her life is one of the most spellbinding scenes in movie history. And when Garland goes from this to the final title number of her great film career, you can literally see the end of an era. Plus Judy was in top form in this film. She looks great, and she sings great.
Judy Garland died at age 47. How much more could we have had? Well, she could have played Julie in MGM's Showboat, and she did start filming Annie Get Your Gun. But these were really not great parts for Judy Garland. The one great mouth-watering part is Mama Rose in the 1962 film version of Gypsy. Judy might have capped her career with one more legendary performance, but it is silly to complain about what didn't happen in Judy Garland's career. What we have is the very best, and author John Fricke chonicles her brilliant career in a truly outstanding book. I think it is the film book of the year.

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