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When people asked Negro League veteran Buck O’Neill how fast Cool Papa Bell ran, he’d answer, “Faster than that.” By the same logic, the answer to how good Judy Garland was could be “Better than that.”
Her vocal instrument was as good as any female vocalist, up there with Ella Fitzgerald. Wait through the 30-second commercial, and judge for yourself how her abused 40-something voice compared to Barbra Streisand in her 20′s. Judy and Ella Fitzgerald never performed together.
She connected to the emotional core of a song better than anybody because she was such a brilliant actress. And she danced toe to toe with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in movie after movie.
She turned in a gut-wrenching straight dramatic performance in Judgment at Nuremburg, holding her own with Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, and Burt Lancaster. Everyone who knew her talked about how funny she was in real life, and she showed that side of her often, as a frequent guest on TV’s The Tonight Showwith Jack Paar.
According to Hollywood legend, it took a week of rehearsal for the cast and crew of The Harvey Girls to get ready to film “The Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe,” a long, complicated song and dance. Judy reportedly came in after all that preparation, walked through the number once with the cast, and shot it in one take.
One of her best-loved movies, with several of her biggest hit songs, she did not want to do at all. Meet Me In St. Louis came along when she was in her twenties, and very tired of playing teen-agers. The director, Vincente Minelli, was a New York theater guy directing his first movie. She had several important scenes with child star Margaret O’Brian, one of the greatest natural scene stealers in Hollywood history
But she sang the Christmas lament “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret, who was upset about the family leaving home and moving to New York, and the two of them danced the Cakewalk, and they sang and danced “If You Like-A Me and I Like-A You and We Like-A Both the Same” together. She sang “The (Clang Clang Clang Went the) Trolley Song,” and married the director. So the movie, which is still popular and won her lifelong fans who were not even born when she made it, was not a total loss.
The best of many examples of Judy’s ability to connect with the emotional core of a song is “The Man Who Got Away” from A Star Is Born. Ira Gershwin gave her plenty of lyric to connect to: ”The wind blows colder, suddenly you’re older, and all because of the man who got away.” And Harold Arlen put an emotional jump into the music to make it more than a good cry: ”Good Riddance, Good-Bye!” then back to the lament.
And look at the emotional depth she found in “Smile,” Charles Chaplin’s anthem for crying clowns. Think of classical opera’s anthem to crying clowns “Besse La Juba” (“Ridi, Pagliacci”)
But in a concert performance that was preserved on film, it followed her re-creation of “Walk Up the Avenue,” the comic duet she did in exaggerated hobo costumes with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade. Then, she does “Over the Rainbow” in the same outfit. It takes on a quality of adult hope and defiance that little Dorothy never had in the 1939 movie.
Many of Judy’s most devoted fans were not even born when she was performing. Can anyone explain the adoration so many gay men feel for Judy nearly 50 years after she died? It even carried over to her daughter, Liza Minelli, a big talent I’ve never enjoyed watching. I know I’ll get in trouble for this personal opinion, but Liza’s singing and acting have always struck me as hollow at the center, where Judy was a bottomless well of emotion and substance. For me. watching Liza is like watching Judy’s shadow.