Judy Judy Judy
Some people are not enamoured of Judy Garland, the subject of this issue's cover story. They say her self-medicating victimhood, her emotional neediness, her asexuality were flaws gay men should have rejected, not embraced.
But gay men of any era have adopted one particular female singer, from Garland to Cher, Madonna to Gaga, each woman progressively more sexual, more self-assertive. Perhaps gay men of the Fifties and Sixties were reflecting their era when they identified with Garland? Or was it that she seemed to live her life on the same emotional knife-edge they did?
Her “emotionality” is cited by Richard Dyer as her appeal to gay men in his book Heavenly Bodies: “Garland’s emotionality is twofold,” Dyer writes. “First, she is hysterical and vulnerable, which result from her suffering in real life (suicide attempts, career crisis and broken marriages); second, she is strong and subversive, so no matter what happened to her, she ‘comes back.’ It is this twofold nature of her emotional quality that makes her the embodiment of both vulnerability and strength, fragility and valor. Her gay followers could relate themselves to her because they, too, endured a lot of suffering in real life, especially in the early stage of gay movements.”
Garland’s story comes to the Brisbane stage in March: Christen O’Leary plays the singer in End of the Rainbow, a play set six months before Garland’s death as she performs a run of shows in a London nightclub. It sets Garland in her hotel suite, where she broods with her fiancé and piano accompanist, as well as performing the songs that made her famous.
It’s a daunting task, O’Leary tells me. “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.” Our interview contains frank reflections by O’Leary on Garland’s life and loves – including what attracted her to the gay men she married. O’Leary says that’s an area she’s also touched on.
“The first relationship I had in my life was with a gay man, as it turned out,” she 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.”
‘Judy Garland’ may prompt blank expressions from younger gay men who have Gaga as a champion and don’t need a dead woman singing about the man that got away. But she is important to the gay community – she married into it twice, she’s family – and whether you thought she was heroic or pathetic, the woman could sing.