[June 10th would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Garland’s performances, leading up to a weekend post on LGBTQ icons.]
On two ways to analyze Garland’s most iconic performance.
I AmericanStudied a couple layers to The Wizard of Oz (1939) in this post last year, and since my thoughts there are very much related to what I’ll say in this post, I’ll stop this first paragraph here and ask you to check that one out and come on back.
Welcome back! Oz wasn’t Garland’s debut feature film performance (that seems to have been 1936’s Pigskin Parade), but she was still only 17 when it came out, and the film unquestionably relies on her freshness, her striking sense of youth and innocence (which, to be clear, are part of a performance, as she had been acting since she was six years old), for much of its characterization of Dorothy. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the film’s ultimate emphasis on and preference for that Kansas childhood home (despite its Dust Bowl dreariness) depends on a sense that Dorothy still belongs there, rather than in the infinitely more colorful (in every sense) Oz. As I wrote in that prior post, I’m far from convinced of any part of that concluding emphasis—but if anyone alive could have sold “There’s no place like home” convincingly for even such a home as this one, it was teenage Judy Garland (although she sure sold the desire for something and somewhere else captured by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” just as successfully!).
Yet the ending is never the only part of a film or story, of course, and I would argue that the depiction of Oz offers a different way to think about Dorothy and Garland’s performance. As Gregory Maguire’s Wicked has helped us recognize, the leadership of Oz is powerfully female (despite the pretend power of the film’s title character), a world where Good and Bad Witches vie for control (and are, perhaps, more similar than that dichotomy would suggest). It is those female leaders who contribute to every part of Dorothy’s story in Oz, becoming along the way striking models of adult womanhood at its most helpful and destructive. And while in some ways Dorothy seems to be less powerful (it is her accidental murder of one of them that sets off her Oz saga, for example), ultimately it is precisely Dorothy who through her strength and choices triumphs over the Bad Witch, lives up to the legacy of the Good, and unmasks the fraud of a male Wizard in the process. She may return home after that, but I believe it’s fair to say she does so as a significantly more mature person, well on her way to Good Witch status—and Garland captures every layer to that evolving character.
Next Garland performance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Garland works or moments you’d highlight?