As a kid I watched her early movies—the cheesy faux-America Andy Hardy ones—on an old TV I stole from the attic. I had a special routine for watching Judy Garland (June 10, 1922-June 22, 1969): lying on my bed, propped up on my elbows and peeling a McIntosh apple with the rusted bean peeler from our kitchen. It was obvious that the pale, big-eyed girl was someone you like—compelling and astonishingly natural. No question that Andy Hardy’s other girls—Lana Turner and Esther Williams and the rest—were the sort that come and go, the ones a smart girl waits out. As Judy once said about Lana (in real life, after Lana married one of Judy’s crushes), “It’s like talking to a beautiful lamp.”
The non-Garland parts of the movies were unbearably cutesy. I’d wait for her while trying to peel my apple in one long string: If the McIntosh was too young, the tough red skin would break; if too old, it would crumble. In the final reel, Judy always got Mickey. Because if you had Judy Garland in your movie, you’d be an idiot not to have her voice be the last thing the audience hears. When the pale girl opened her mouth to sing, all that lace-curtained, smotheringly smug MGM crap fell by the wayside. It was an instrument for the ages—an infinitely flexible and sweet, sad soul massage.
And though Garland was tough, in the end she both broke and crumbled. Rotted a bit, too (self-pity marred her performances, from A Star is Born on). That astonishing core of talent saved her and damned her again and again. She went from being run out of small towns with her shamed father to joining the greatest studio in Hollywood, from skipping out on hotel bills to performing Carnegie Hall’s most legendary show ever. In her final weeks, she married a man no one much liked in a wedding no one showed up to (her daughter Liza promised, “I’ll go the next one, Mama”). Continue reading