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Judy Garland's Magnum Opus: The Best Musical Sequence in History

The day that Judy Garland attempted suicide for the second time, Katharine Hepburn elbowed her way through the throng of reporters and paparazzi outside the Minnelli house, shouting back at them from over her shoulder, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” She sat Judy down, one legendary actress to another, and said, unsmiling: “Now listen, you’re one of the three greatest talents in the world. And your ass has hit the gutter. There’s no place to go but up. Now, goddammit. Do it!” Thus concluded Hepburn’s pep talk. It was July 20, 1950, and Judy Garland had slashed her throat with a piece of glass.

The wound was ‘superficial’, the newspaper headlines constructed to be reductive, but the cry for help was heard around the world. Garland may have evaded death, and her PR machine may have put a stopper in tabloid talk, but she continued to bleed on the altar of popular culture, and through every sob and tic forged on screen, became its martyr.

There are many previously told aspects of Garland’s life that lend themselves effortlessly to a Zizekian psychoanalysis of the celebrity as deity. One story goes that she snuck into a screening of Summer Stock at the Capital Theatre in New York. It was the last film she made with the star-making studio MGM before they terminated her contract, which had prompted her failed suicide attempt. As the lights went up, she was recognized by members of the audience who shouted messages of support: “Judy! We love you, Judy! Keep making pictures!” She shouted back: “I love you!”

Even the tragedies that befell her became inspiration for the artiste. When Garland arrived late for a concert in London during her four-year hiatus from film in the mid-50s, Andrew Lloyd Webber was there to watch an angry audience pelt her with cigarette packs. Inspired by the episode, he wrote Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Garland was ours in or out of the limelight.

But of all the tent pole moments from Judy’s Grand Guignol existence that were captured in film; for all the deleted and shelved scenes and numbers from her 45-year career, there is one 15-minute, autobiographical, near-self-eulogising, pop culture-defining scene in A Star Is Born. It’s the best musical sequence in film history, made for a quarter of a million dollars and worth a hell of a lot more; a meta movie-within-a-movie moment. It’s the film version of Judy shouting “I love you!” down to a gloriously supportive mob of admirers below when her character, Vicki Lester, attends the premiere of her breakout film.

To set the scene: she sits nervously in the audience with her movie star husband, played by James Mason. The screen fades to black and Vicki Lester, dressed in a vaudevillian Irene Sharaff suit with patchwork trousers, folds her legs in front of a wall of blood red flowers to tell her story. “Thank you. Thank you very much. I can’t express it any other way,” she begins. “For with this awful trembling in my heart, I just can’t find another thing to say. I’m happy that you liked the show. I’m grateful you liked me. And I’m sure to you the tribute seemed quite right… But if you kneeeew of all the yeeears, of hopes and dreams and teeeears, you’d knooooow it didn’t happen ooooooooverrrniiiight. Heh, overnight,” chuckles Judy Garland, before launching into the multi-number magnum opus, detailing just exactly how it didn’t happen overnight.

This 15-minute arrangement, Born In A Trunk, is special not only because it was a near-faithful reproduction of her own tumultuous journey to stardom – a classic retelling of the E! True Hollywood Story as narrated and sung by the protagonist herself – but also because it was her onscreen comeback. Who else has made a film about a star who makes a comeback and, as a premonitory result, has a comeback? What better example of art-imitating-life is there?

Even stranger is how she predicted that this would be her defining moment, her Final Reinvention, before she gave in to her demons. It was her Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where she, like Kanye West, gave the fans exactly what they wanted: her life, told to a tune assembled by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. Her eventual crash reverberates still as the greatest performance she ever gave.

A Star Is Born had one of the longest production periods in film history and was the lengthiest film since Gone with the Wind. At the time, it was the second most expensive film ever made, too. It’s all exceedingly well-documented: the higher ups wringing their hands, hedging their bets on Garland’s comeback after her public divorce with Vincente Minelli, her attempted suicide, and her long hiatus. A finished version of A Star Is Born had everything, save for proof of Vicki Lester (Garland) becoming a star. It was good. Really good. But then Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, gave the thumbs up to a crucial-to-the-story, 12-minute production number.

Judy Garland put a lot of unsaid things into that opening scene. For example, the lyrics at the beginning of Born In A Trunk go, “When my dad carried me out there to say hello/They tell me that I stopped the show.” And when Frances Ethel Gumm made her “official” stage debut aged two-and-a-half, years before she adopted the name Judy Garland, she “stopped the show” by singing Jingle Bells over and over until her father carried her off stage to deafening applause.

Garland also mainlined how she felt at that precise time in her career into the performance. Coming off the runaway success of her concert years at the London Palladium and New York’s Palace Theatre, she was vulnerable but buoyed up by a newfound feeling of being wanted – something that flowed through her singing long before it would ever be heard by the people who would pay to see her movie. How could she have known so early on that this is just what fans had missed?

After those concerts, there was public demand to hear her sing. As Vicki languidly warbles, “Come to me my melancholy baaaaby,” a man shushes the din that threatens to silence her, giving her the floor. That shushing could easily be translated as a collective cheer, which was echoed in the reviews for her concert performances: “She can command pathos without being maudlin. In fact, she is an artist,” said the Evening Standard of her London Palladium concert in 1951.

And my favourite, from Holiday Magazine:

“She wasn’t being judged or enjoyed, not even watched or heard. She was only being felt, as one feels the quiet run of one’s own blood, the shiver of the spine, Housman’s prickle of the skin. And when, looking about eighteen inches high, sitting hunched over the stage apron with only a tiny spotlight pinpointing her elf face, she breathed the last phrases of Over the Rainbow and cried out its universal, unanswerable query, ‘Why Can’t I?,’ it was as though the bewildered hearts of all the people in the world had moved quietly together and become one, shaking in Judy’s throat, and there breaking.”

Then there is Malcolm C. Bert’s art direction. Stunning in its simplicity (see the Peanut Vendor song) and aesthetically triumphant, each frame is an ice cream parlour of pastels. The set is hardly there – it’s all about the character that inhabits the tableau. It’s all about Judy, and her voice. Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted melisma; visual spectacle married with an overture of vocal acrobatics. She unravels her fame odyssey from the stage, in front of the red flowers, if you remember, catching the tiny spotlight with her elf face. She flips into the next number just as you settle into the last one and then returns for an earth-shattering last verse:

“So I can’t quite be called overnight sensation
For it started many years ago
When I was born in a trunk at the Princess Theatre

In Pocatello, Idaho.”

The most tragic part of this is how the film then fell. Before its premiere (the biggest in Hollywood history and the first to be televised), 15 minutes of footage was cut. Theatres complained that they couldn’t fit in more than one showing per day due to its length so Harry Warner ordered that another 30 minutes be slashed, making it, in places, nonsensical. Judy’s Pop Culture Standout had been cut short. The condensed version reaped inferior reviews and it saw a sharp decline in box office. To top it off, Garland lost the Academy Award for Best Actress to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. Groucho Marx called it “the biggest robbery since Brinx”.

Not since 1941’s Hellzapoppin had a film been so self-aware. Now in 2014, meta cinema has reached another peak with David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar frontrunner Birdman. Julianne Moore – a self-obsessed drama queen in the former intent on reminding Tinseltown of her existence – snagged the top acting prize at Cannes; Michael Keaton – who plays a has-been actor on Broadway making a comeback – could be scrambling up the rungs of the Academy Award ladder. They may have just Judy’ed their way, 60 years after A Star Is Born, into broader fame and acclaim. Only time will tell.

But one thing is for certain, for both the cultists who worship at the altar of St. Judy and for the arbiters and gamblers of modern cinema, there was once an actress who touched the cultural zeitgeist and reinvented herself through her art. Not before, not since, has anyone else come close to what she accomplished with this crowning comeback – a foreshadowing in the most meta way possible; a fake-it-till-you-make-it story of the highest professional highs and the lowest personal lows.

Did Judy predict – in a 15-minute time capsule of her career – the rebirth of her star? Or did she just do as David Denby wrote in New York Magazine and “reach out to people and make them feel something of what she felt.” I say both. And in its telling, this quarter-hour tribute feels quite right.

But if you knew of all the years, the hopes and dreams and tears, you’d know it didn’t happen overnight. Heh… overnight.

Originally published on Some Such

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