Judy Garland, America's Little Bride, tragic legend and gay icon

Judy Garland would have celebrated her 100th birthday on June 10. Bertrand Tessier, who has devoted a biography to the Hollywood star, delivers to the Journal des Femmes some elements to better understand it.

He is one of the greatest Judy Garland specialists in France. Bertrand Tessier is the author of the book Judy Garland, Splendors and Fall of a Legend, published in May 2019 by L’Archipel. He describes the trajectory of splinters and injuries of the American actress, still considered today as an icon of popular culture. We asked him about this figure which, since it was put into orbit with The Wizard of Ozhas never ceased to fascinate, move and shine with its timelessness.

You wrote the first French biography of Judy Garland. What prompted you to take the plunge?
Bertrand Tessier:
After making my documentary Judy Garland/Vincente Minnelli in collection Mythical Couples, broadcast on OCS, I had a feeling of frustration. The film being focused on her marriage to Vincente Minnelli, I had to ignore a lot of things. I wanted to tell in more detail his artistic and personal journey, his formidable rise, his rebirth, his successive falls. A veritable descent into hell, the last months of her life were both pathetic and tragic, as the film starring Renée Zellwegger clearly shows. Imagine that the one who had been one of the biggest stars of Hollywood and who had filled concert halls for years did not even have her home anymore. His residence in Los Angeles had been seized from him. She lived in a small rented house in the suburbs of London.

She was nicknamed “America’s Little Bride”. Where does this nickname come from? Until when was it and at what cost?
Bertrand Tessier: We cannot imagine, in France, the impact that The Wizard of Oz may have had in the collective memory of Americans. The film was a big success when it was released but, above all, American television showed it every year, for a long time, during the Christmas holidays. Judy Garland was 17 at the time of filming. In the process, she also shot a lot of musicals with Mickey Rooney, like Babes in Arms Where Babes in Hollywood, where she embodies the ideal young teenager, healthy, positive, optimistic. The women identified with her. She was the complete opposite of the glamorous and inaccessible stars of the time; the whole secret of Judy Garland lay in her closeness to the public.

What does its shadow and light trajectory tell us about the weight of celebrity?
Bertrand Tessier:
She is truly the embodiment of a star crushed by this studio system that reigned in the golden age of Hollywood. MGM constantly wanted to control his private life. She was convinced that “America’s Little Bride” would lose her audience if she got married. And the first time she got pregnant, MGM gave her an abortion—like many other stars when abortion was strictly illegal in California. This was when actors had seven-year contracts. They did not choose their films. They were workable at will. Judy Garland was the highest-grossing MGM star. From the Wizard of Oz, she continued to chain the shootings. When she wasn’t 20, the studio started prescribing her amphetamines to keep her going. But with the stimulants, she couldn’t sleep. So they gave him sleeping pills. They actually drugged her to get the most out of her. Then, she never managed to get out of this infernal circle which ended up killing her.

The biopic Judy, with Renée Zellwegger, looks back on her life. How could his personality and his experience not escape a cinematographic transposition?
Bertrand Tessier:
It is a unique destiny. That of a woman wrung out by cinema and then by men. There was a fierce desire to be loved in Judy Garland. She didn’t see how men used her. Mickey Deans, her fifth and last husband, central character of the film, was a low profile nightclub boss, half playboy, half dealer, who precipitated his final downfall. But at this point, she was at her wit’s end. Artistically, financially, physically. Look at their wedding photos: she was 47 and looked 60.

Why do you think she remains, more than ever, an icon of popular culture?
Bertrand Tessier:
Because she is the queen of the Hollywood musical first. Then because his song Over the Rainbow is a standard, an exceptional melody interpreted with power and emotion. Who does not want to escape the grayness to live a life full of colors? And finally, because of her tragic destiny, the huge mess that was her personal life, All this means that she has always aroused immense sympathy with the public, which has been exceptionally faithful to her. On the other hand, gays played a vital role in her continuing to be a legend. It is indeed in homage to Over the Rainbow that the rainbow flag of the LGBT community was born in the United States.

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