“If you have to be in a soap opera try not to get the worst role.” — Judy Garland

It’s the great, the irreplaceable, Judy Garland’s birthday.

The screengrab above is from John Cassavetes’ 1963 film A Child is Waiting. This film is not really well-known, except among Cassavetes/Garland completists – but some serious Cassavetes fans don’t know about it either. This was a “job” for him, it wasn’t a self-generated project, and so … to these purists … maybe it doesn’t “count” as much. Or something. I don’t know. He himself disowned it, saying the end result was not what he was going for, that there was a conflict between himself and producer Stanley Kramer about how to tell the story. All of this may be true, but that’s no reason for us to not watch the film and make up our own minds. It’s definitely filmed in a more “conventional” way than his other more personal films like Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Husbands and etc., all of which came later. But it’s interesting to watch because it shows what Cassavetes is like as a “director for hire” … and you can FEEL his sensibility in every frame, I don’t care what the purists say. A Child is Waiting is about a woman (Garland) who joins the staff of a mental hospital for disabled kids and immediately disagrees with the treatment of the patients, as decreed by the head doc (Burt Lancaster). She bonds with the kids – one in particular – whose mother, a chilly blonde played by Gena Rowlands, cannot deal with the fact that her son is not “normal” – she’s put him into the institution and basically never comes to visit, breaking the son’s heart and spirit. Garland fights for better treatment of the kids. The children in the movie were not trained actors. They were all mentally-challenged and disabled kids from a nearby state hospital. It gives the film a palpable and almost dangerous sense of reality that it certainly would not otherwise have. Cassavetes didn’t try to control the kids, or manipulate them, in either what they did, or who they were. This is where “he” is most felt in the film. He doesn’t film the kids with pathos, or pity, or sadness. He captures them in the fullness of their lives, mischievous, angry, sullen, pleased, whatever. And: He just thrust Garland among them. And the whole film, as far as I’m concerned, is about watching her take it all in. The screengrab at the top is what she is like through the whole thing: She takes them in – listens to them – intuitively cares about where they are at and what they are going through. Because it’s Cassavetes and his eye was always so tender and human – this does not feel exploitive. A Child is Waiting was produced by Stanley Kramer – who wanted to expose the plight of such children – (he was a very socially conscious guy as I’m sure you know). Other big actresses were considered for this part – offers were made, they all turned it down. Kramer had just worked with Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg so he got her to take the role.

If you want to see pure distilled empathy – felt in every thought/word/deed/gesture/expression … it’s in A Child is Waiting in Judy Garland’s performance.

Because that’s the thing with Judy Garland. She couldn’t do it any other way. It ALL was real for her. It’s how she was built, it’s how she received the world. It’s why she was a great actress, and it’s why she suffered so mightily. She paid the price for the easy accessibility to her own depths, of course, but it came from a place not of neurosis – as is so facile-ly claimed – but of generosity, fearlessness, and, above all else, reality. And actors must always “find a way” to make their fictional circumstances real. That’s the gig. Garland couldn’t do it any other way and so actors have much to learn from her.

If the pain was real for her, and it was, then so too was the joy, the love, the humor. It ALL was real. She had access to ALL of it.

This is a PHENOM in emotional availability and performance, in actors AND in regular people, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

She was DIFFERENT. This is why she is who she is and why she was who she was. It’s why she’s so wondrous to watch.

For me, one of the greatest single pieces of acting in the 20th century – and one that predicts Brando by over a decade – is the scene in Wizard of Oz when she sees Aunty Em in the big globe. This scene is one of my Talismans of Great Acting.

She’s not controlling the emotion, or even expressing it. She is IN it. And remember: Aunty Em is NOT in the glass globe. Judy is looking at nothing. Nobody’s there. She’s looking at a prop. Everything she does she does from her imagination. It’s astonishing.

Another high-water-mark: Judy Garland’s one-of-the-greatest-performances-of-all-time rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, sung on her TV show a couple of weeks after President Kennedy – a friend of hers – was killed.

Like I said: one of the greatest performances of all time.

Another high-water-mark: the scene in the dressing room in Star is Born. Again, for me, it’s another Talisman of Great Acting. Judy has a ton of those.)

It’s long. But that’s why it’s so masterful. Because I must point out: she does it with no cuts. She has to speak a huge wall of text – the scene is 5 minutes long – and she must “go” someplace during the course of the monologue. She doesn’t start out where she ends up. She can’t play the end of the monologue before she gets there … so she actually has to go THROUGH this. In front of us. No cuts, to give her time to prepare, or jump-start the final emotional state. The camera is placed on her and we watch her … she starts out sad but relatively calm, and at the end she is completely BROKEN. (The following scene is the huge number “Born in a Trunk” – which she is forced to perform with all of THIS churning around underneath it. And so that scene ALSO is a wonder, because in it she has to suppress all of THIS that we see here.)

No fakery. Never. She literally COULDN’T fake it.

Nobody like her. Happy birthday Judy.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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6 Responses to “If you have to be in a soap opera try not to get the worst role.” — Judy Garland

  1. Kelly linked to this. Judy was such a force in my life, especially after she died.

  2. Your hourglass video is “unavailable”; but a great scene. I saw the movie in a theater for the first time in April.

    • sheila says:

      Oh – sorry about that – that clip vanishes and then re-appears on YouTube every other day – probably for copyright reasons!

      // I saw the movie in a theater for the first time in April. //

      Wow! It’s overwhelming on a big screen, isn’t it?

  3. Debra T says:

    I have never heard of that movie. Thank you for that Judy birthday gift.

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