End of the Rainbow: Judy returns to Oz
Christen O’Leary takes on the role of Judy Garland in a play filled with the life and songs of the girl who went over the rainbow. She spoke with Andrew Shaw...
As a teenage star, Judy Garland had a pinafore-clean image and the world at her ruby slippers. MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, with its eternally yearning ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ installed Garland in the collective consciousness. No wonder that 30 years later, ravaged by pills and booze, hounded by debtors and on her fifth marriage, she was still singing: ‘Why, oh, why can’t I?’
Even near the end, she ‘could’. Garland’s voice, with its broad vibrato and endless sustain, shimmers like a trumpet. Just listen to Judy at Carnegie Hall, the 1961 concert recording regarded as one of the greatest performances in show business history. The audience of Hollywood A-listers goes berserk. A generation of gay men – Friends of Dorothy – still identifies with Garland (although her relevance to the younger generation is not so clear). Her funeral in New York is said to have contributed to the emotional unrest that sparked the Stonewall Riots and the emergence of Gay Liberation.
The ‘gay’ connection is strong: Garland married two closeted gay men, a family tradition upheld by daughter Liza Minnelli. Towards the end of her life she married husband No. 5, discothèque manager and musician Mickey Deans. Then, as she attempted to revive her career in London, she died of an overdose of barbiturates on June 22, 1969, aged 47.
Now, a play filled with Garland’s songs is coming to Brisbane, a warts-and-all look at her final days. End of the Rainbow sees Garland holed up in London’s Ritz Hotel with then-fiancé Mickey Deans and her gay friend and piano accompanist Anthony. Savaged by the press, stalked by debtors, Garland is clutching at the straw she thinks will save her career: a five-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub. The play’s action moves between the hotel and Garland’s performance.
It’s down to Christen O’Leary to bring Garland to life. “Everyone asks me, ‘Are you going to do an impersonation or an impression?’” O’Leary laughs. “I have soaked myself with everything I can soak in and now I want to build – with all of that – a real human being.”
With cropped hair and large, luminous eyes, O’Leary is almost as petite as Garland, who stood about four foot eleven. She leans across the table to emphasise her points, reaching out with open hands, Garland-like.
“There are going to be some people who say Christen O’Leary doesn’t sing anything like Judy Garland,” she sighs. “And they’d be right. Because at my best I could never be Garland. That woman at her best... I’ve heard thousands of hours of her and I still, when I hear her at her best, I sit there and I—” She gasps. “When you see her do ‘Rockabye’ in full flight... It looks like she’s just a vessel. She opens her mouth and there it comes.
“There’s a line in the play where she’s incredibly nervous before a performance and her pianist is trying to get her on stage. He says, ‘I don’t know why you get so nervous.’ She says, ‘It isn’t nerves, Anthony, it’s blind panic.’ He says, ‘It’s not like it’s the first time.’ And she says, ‘No, but that’s what makes it so hard. It’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never get there.’”
Mickey Deans was 12 years younger than Garland, who was frail, addicted to pills and booze, her voice cracking. The marriage drew sneers from critics and friends alike. But was he good for her? “I think all of her partners were strange choices,” O’Leary ponders. “I think that comes down to a fundamental craving to be loved. And a fundamental belief that she wasn’t loveable. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the straight woman who falls in love with the gay man and I think it’s from an innate belief that she wasn’t attractive, fuckable – she was never the fuckable girl. She was never the glamour girl.” Her self-doubt was fuelled early in her career by MGM, who criticised the teenage Garland for being plain and fat, giving her ‘pep’ pills to help her slim, forming the basis of a life-long addiction.
"The first relationship I had in my life was with a gay man, as it turned out,” O’Leary says. “I was the dumpy girl and this man loved me. Guys were never attracted to me, but this guy was attracted to me. These unusual women that gay men go, ‘She’s fabulous!’ and you feel loved. They somehow do make you feel like a sexual being, but of course there’s an untruth there that comes out.”
O’Leary believes Garland’s appeal to gay audiences of her era is that she overcame the obstacles placed in front of her; that she never stopped hoping for something better – just like the girl who sang ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. “For me, everything about her fell back into that song, because of what the song said – and she sang it right to the end of her life – those final lines seem to encapsulate her wonder: ‘Why?’
“I never see self-indulgence in her [although] I’ve seen people playing her like that. When you watch her face, watch her eyes, when she’s singing some of the most tragic songs in the world – ‘The Man That Got Away’ could be a wrist-slashing, self-indulgent toss. But she seems to always have hope and an ironic kind of bemusement at sorrow. I never see bitterness in her eyes, I always see the wonder of ‘Why?’ in her eyes. Even at the very end, where I’m dealing with her, they still talk about that thing she can do. That’s intangible, a magic that makes her her. When she gave the gift, she gave it wholeheartedly.”
Australian actress Judy Davis played Garland in the 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. O’Leary recalls something Davis said about playing Garland: “She said, ‘It’s not about whether you’re going to be good or not, it’s whether or not you’re up for the challenge.’
“I get frightened, I get terribly frightened that I’ll let everybody down and they won’t fill houses and all this money’s been spent and they’ve all invested in me doing it...” O’Leary suddenly seems to be channelling the insecurities she portrays on stage. “Then you have children that want you home and a husband... So I try to do the best work I can... All I can say is I’m going to work my butt off and give it my best shot. And I love her. I’ll do my best to honour her.”
End of the Rainbow, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Southbank, March 2 - 24, 2013. Bookings: call 136 246 or online: qpac.com.au
IMAGE: Christen O’Leary as Judy Garland. Original 1960s fashion courtesy Retro Metro Paddington, Brisbane.