The Tragic Trope of Judy Garland

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One of the key themes of For The Love Of Judy is ‘Tragic Judy’: the perception of Garland as a tragic figure and the tragic elements of her life-story. There is a general split between the fans: crudely, there are those who are against portrayals of Judy as a tragic woman with a life full of tragedy (the Good Fans) and those who are drawn to that side of her legend (the Bad Fans). On the whole, the former are vehemently against any suggestion that she was ever sad, preferring to think of her and to portray her as a delightful, happy woman full of laughter and strength in the face of adversity. Look at any Judy forum, facebook group or other fan gathering and you will generally find this the prevailing opinion with any suggestion otherwise invariably shot down. It is, of course, much more complicated than that. There are those fans who acknowledge and explore the darker aspects of Judy’s life – and of Judy the person – but who still take exception to the way these elements have become, two-dimensionally, who ‘Judy Garland’ is. A discussion on the topic occurred on the back of a FTLOJ facebook post: an artist’s images of Judy crying bloody tears. FTLOJ collaborator and artist Anthony Newell had such a strong reaction to it that I asked him to write a piece exploring his reaction to the artworks, as well as his overall feelings about the idea of Tragic Judy. – Corinna Tomrley

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Sad Judy, Bad Judy: A response to the images from ‘Vincente Minnelli Embroidered Bleeding Tears to Judy Garland’, by Francesco Vezzoli.

By Anthony Newell

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As I clicked in for my daily dose of ‘For the Love of Judy’, I was quite surprised by how disgruntled I was with yet another image of ‘Sad Judy’, in the strikingly beautiful, yet disturbing images Francesco Vezolli has created.

I don’t want to go into details of Vezzoli’s work, having known little of him before I am delighted to discover him and look forward to seeing more. His art is based on a fascination with celebrity culture and seeks to examine many aspects of it: he is certainly not trying to anger me by presenting one of my icons as solely ‘sad’. What I want to talk about is my general feeling towards seeing this perpetuated image (photographs, stills, paintings, clips) of ‘Sad Judy’: crying, frowning, exhausted, frustrated, angry, helpless.

I am fascinated by all things Judy. I have read about her widely, watched extensive footage and enjoy all aspects of all things Judy….For the love of Judy! As a happy/sad/confused/perfectly normal little gay-boy I remember being put in front of a black and white film as a child and angrily rejecting what my parents were asking me to enjoy. Kids don’t want black and white…

Within moments, whether or not the movie changed colour, witches appeared in bubbles, or horses turned pink, I was transfixed. The electric 80’s with its aspirational cartoons and videoed Simpsons humour, never really encapsulated the sheer connection Dorothy Gale offered me, someone who was lost, whom I believed in and empathised with.

There are a million accounts of this connection and I have no interest in making mine central to this idea. What I will point out is that this performance of wide eyed honesty, of a very non–camp, non-dramatic, genuinely moving portrayal of a sense of fear and loss, is central to Judy’s iconography.

I struggle to believe that the near contender (in fact, originally cast) Shirley Temple, or many other actors around could have portrayed DG with such humanity. Much has been said on this topic and I add the origin of my fandom to that moment: me in front of a TV in the 80s. Judy Garland became a part of my journey into adulthood.

What I enjoy, and continue to take inspiration from, is the story of a survivor. My favourite images of Judy are her triumphant stage poses, her ‘reaching out’ for the climax of a song, her strength of character attacking me from the screen or page.

Yes, she had a particularly chaotic life. She clearly suffered great sadness, great depression. She was given amphetamines by her employer as a teenager to work, and barbiturates to sleep. That in itself does not set one up for a healthy mental state, however interpreted.

Judy, like Marilyn and others is now an iconic image, as much a story as a legend. The legends have many lives and many stories as each fan, biographer, relative, whoever, recounts their interpretation of them.

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I love Judy. I love that lots of people love Judy. When I see a picture of Judy performing well I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction. When I see endless images of Judy not working, but crying, or in despair, I despair! Obviously I give endless credit and understanding to everybody’s right to a subjective interpretation of an icon. This week I have learned about a new artist and will take an interest in his work and make my own decisions about it. There are so many popular images of sad Judy. They challenge me – as art should.

Ultimately my reaction to a picture made me want to shout out ‘Why so sad?’ To me, Judy represents an ultimate survivor, a well documented, much loved mother, and a bringer of joy to so many fans. I know she had a bad side. I certainly do. If you are my friend on facebook you will see me at parties and out having fun, not pulling my hair out in the office at work.

I want to see more images celebrating a great performer, belting out ‘Swanny’ rather than a tiresome victim with a silent ventriloquist speaking sadness for her.

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Corinna’s response:

I posted these pictures because I saw Vezzoli’s art as a good example of an exploration of the idea of Judy as the ultimate tragic heroine. She is not only crying but she is crying BLOOD. That is how deep the pain cuts, this is how much such a woman feels! That’s pretty much the Tragic Judy trope. That he is a male artist using embroidery is interesting. Embroidery evokes women’s art as unsung and undervalued. And he is a man depicting women as tragic victims, using a woman’s art form. Intriguing. It made me think, in terms of Judy and other Tragic Victim Stars: is women’s art only of value if it is emotive high camp? I am fascinated by the portrayal of certain women stars as tragic victims. There’s something very wrong about it, of course (part of why I want to explore it). But I began this project because I couldn’t help but admit that although there are issues with woman as tragic victim (and men as conversely tragic anti-heroes), a lot of the women I love and admire fall into the tragic victim category – Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Maria Callas, Patsy Cline and, yes, Judy. I love them in spite of this and I love them because of this.

When I see a Good Fan complaining about the depiction of Judy as Tragic, I have a reflex against their protests. Their opinion is usually too knee jerk and more often than not disavows any torment, problems, hell in her life – or that she was sometimes responsible for it. I believe in exploring – and embracing – all of the aspects of who she was. However, Anthony’s passionate reaction to these images and the Tragic trope was very powerful. We had an amazing conversation, late one Friday night, all about the emotional pow of Judy and how she reminds us of our own complex relationships with difficult people – including ourselves. I was so taken by what he had to say about it – some of which I massively agreed with, some I did not personally feel – that I knew that conversation had to be part of this project somehow. So, thank you Anthony, for making me think about it all in different terms, and for offering your thoughts and feelings on the legend of Tragic Judy.

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Francesco Vezzoli embroiders bloody tears onto Maria Callas

 For The Love Of Judy facebook

Francesco Vezzoli facebook

 

 

 

 

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