Happy Birthday, Judy Garland


It is interesting that earlier today I posted on Bjork’s gestures in her “Black Lake” video. Because today is Judy Garland’s birthday, and (along with Elvis Presley and John Wayne), she is the Master of Gesture. Every moment full, every moment motivated, and every moment spontaneous, so that what you are left with is an impression of a woman who has no barriers between her feelings and the expression of said feelings. This is rare. People go to acting school to at least attempt to learn how to get rid of those barriers. Barriers against expressing our feelings are engrained in us from childhood. It is difficult to break that down. But watching a genius like Garland is a reminder that expression is possible, that purity of intent is possible, that human beings actually can say what they mean, say it strong, so that there is no doubt on earth what is meant. Yes, it helps that she was a genius. But that only makes her more essential.

Like this, one of her best vocal/acting performances.

Dave Marsh closed out his excellent Elvis with the words:

That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.

Judy Garland is of the same caliber. Three of the most important stars of the 20th century were Garland, Elvis, and John Wayne. Vastly different and yet strangely similar, too, in that they all shared that total lack of any barrier between their emotions and the expression of those emotions. The will to get it out and get it out right and get it out true was so compelling it was their life-force. It was automatic. They also never ever lie. Lying is forbidden. (You can lie all you want in your personal life, that’s human, but lying is forbidden in the sacred space of performing. People still do it all the time, which is why those who NEVER do are of such great interest.) If you’re a genius, these rules are very clear. You don’t need to be taught them. The rest of us play catch-up with such figures. They have much to teach us. If it sounds like I am putting these individuals on a pedestal, you’re damn right I am. This is not to say they were not fallible, or they had no flaws. Everyone’s flawed. If that’s news to you, you need to get out more. But as artists they were perfection. Their instruments were perfect. In a world of beat-up fiddles that play okay, they were a Stradivarius.

And, to echo Marsh, such people are the only maps we can trust.

The following famous clip for example. A short background for those of you not aware. Judy Garland hosted her own television show in the early 60s. It didn’t run for long, but it is a superb piece of American cultural history, with some indelible performances. In November, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy and Garland were good friends. On December 13, Judy Garland closed her show with a performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Garland had lost a good friend, but the nation had lost a leader and was traumatized. Who do we look to in such moments? Often we look to our artists. We may not even know we are looking to them to express our feelings FOR us, but that’s often how it goes.

And Garland, without speechifying, without making it about herself, without sharing a personal anecdote, or anything like that – addressed the national grief in her performance. But that makes it sound too clinical. No: what is going on here is much more primal. She feels the grief, her own, everybody else’s, it is in the air, it is in her heart, and she uses the vehicle of that song as a container to EXPRESS all of that stuff. She forces herself to put those enormous feelings into a FORM. And this – her ability to do this – is what provides catharsis for the rest of us.

The performance is a powerhouse and it is impossible to watch it (yes, impossible!) without getting swept away by what she expresses. But watch closely: She didn’t orchestrate what she was going to do. She probably was thinking, “Jesus, just let me get THROUGH this damn thing without losing it.” Her gestures are odd, awkward. At one point, she suddenly starts hugging herself when it seems like her arm should go up, and then at another point, she almost angrily puts her hand on her hip when it seems like it wants to go down by her side. She doesn’t WORRY about her body, and her gestures, because it is more important – it is life-or-death, actually – to get that feeling OUT of her, to get it out there, into the world, to share it, to let it do what it will once it is outside of her.

The herky-jerky quality of those gestures is part of the reason why the performance is so honest, so searingly unforgettable.

I would even call it divine, in the truest sense of the word.

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8 Responses to Happy Birthday, Judy Garland

  1. Farran Nehme says:

    She even blows up on the second verse in a big way (this Alabama gal knows it’s actually “Be swift my soul to answer him/Be jubilant, my feet”) and it’s not so much that she recovers as that she never gives a single hint that she hasn’t just sung the REAL WAY the lyrics are supposed to be sung. Amazing artist. Seriously, if you don’t know the song already you’d have absolutely no idea.

    • sheila says:

      Oooh, excellent catch, Miss Alabama. I had no idea! I will go back and watch.

      There’s also – as she launches into the final line – it seems like there’s a bit of a glitch when she comes out with “Our God” – tiny – like she was about to start to sing some other word – a small hiccup in the fabric – but it is irrelevant, because the power of what she is doing is unstoppable. Nothing can stop her getting that feeling, that sound, OUT. It’s life or death for her.

  2. Farran Nehme says:

    I am also always glued to the audiences in these live TV things from the 50s and 60s. Those people in the audience, who are they, like that guy with (I think) glasses, in the middle, who is one of the first to stand up? What about the two guys on the left who are already standing up when the camera moves over there, are they lovers, are they friends, do they even know each other? Which ones in this audience voted for Kennedy? Were any of them performers too?

    • sheila says:

      I was thinking the same thing! Who are they? Did they walk out of there like, “Well. THAT was one for the ages.”

      If it’s powerful to us watching a Youtube clip – or to those in 1963 watching on television – imagine what it felt like being only 20 feet away.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    A comparable performance comes in April, 1968, when Nina Simone sings “The King of Love is Dead” to a small audience just after MLK was assassinated. It is one of the most magnificent performances I’ve ever seen.

  4. I’ve seen both many times….but I’m afraid if I watched “The Man That Got Away” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” back to back I would simply dissolve.

  5. Tami says:

    I have chills watching that…I was just a baby at the time, but heard all about that tragic time from parents/grandparents…still touches me to this day. Thank you so much for sharing!

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