A cherished movie star, two recent deaths, a shitload of pills, and an idiot have been on my mind recently.
I’ll work backwards.
Chris Hayes. MSNBC. He is Rachel Maddow’s creature, much as she was Keith Olbermann’s. Difference? Maddow is not an idiot. Too cute by half and often grating, but intelligent, potent and…well, not an idiot.
Mr. Hayes, sort of cute and sort of famous for his nerdy eyeglasses took it upon himself on Memorial Day to express his hesitation in referring to men and women who fight in our armed services as “heroes.”
Now, before I unload, let me make myself perfectly clear. I think “hero” is the most overused and debased word in the English language save for “love.” I don’t know where the 20th and 21st century “hero” concept originated. Maybe during the Iran hostage crisis back in the 70’s. I recall all the references to them as “heroes” and I thought—“Uh, actually, not. They’re victims, hostages. Heroes are something else, right?” I was wrong, apparently.
Victims are not heroes. Just volunteering for the Army, Navy or Marines doesn’t automatically make one a hero. Nor does serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not everybody serves for love of country.
Getting your legs and arms blown off and making a life for yourself despite that, without self-pity—yeah, I’d say that’s pretty heroic. I also think firemen are heroic. And good cops and good doctors. (Good luck on finding the latter two, however!) People who work in homeless shelters, women who escape abusive relationships, rape victims who testify, investigative journalists who bring down the greedy and corrupt, those who give all they can with a truly charitable heart—heroes, all.
So, I kind of understood where Mr. Hayes was trying to come from, in his tortured, hesitant, intellectual way. BUT. Really? On Memorial Day? That’s when you decide you have that little moment on air? How about just stay at home and barbecue? Call in sick if knew you’d have to be talking about soldiers. Mr. Hayes, naturally, was obliged to apologize swiftly. Too late, asshole. Not only did you reinforce the idea that all liberal Democrats are anti-military (anti-soldier, actually) But you undermined the incredible work of Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom have worked mightily with and for veterans.
More and more I am convinced that self-professed liberals are really conservative plants, doing damage from within. What else could explain it?
The passing of Donna Summer was for me—as it was for many around my age—another door on my youth closing. As soon as I heard the news, I recalled walking down the street with a friend inGreenwich Villagein 1975. We were on our way to a bar called variously “The Stud” or “The International Stud.” (This was where I had originally met B., a few years before.) My friend and I were breathless, discussing Donna’s song, “Love to Love You, Baby.”
“Oh, yes,” I said “She was definitely really having sex when she recorded that.”
My friend was goggle-eyed. “Really? How do you know that?”
“Oh, please,” I said with assurance of somebody who actually doesn’t know a damn thing, “Everybody knows that.”
My friend was satisfied with my “inside” knowledge, which came from inside my head. We trotted over to the bar, determined to have fun. We did. How can you not have fun when you’re 23? When pants are high-waisted, high-crotched and flare bottomed. (Really, jeans were downright pornographic in those days. Those happy days.)
Donna Summer’s greatest successes would arrive during the rest of the 1970’s and into the 80’s. By then B. and me were together. But I can’t say I stayed away from bars, or stopped leaning up against jukeboxes, or dancing my ass off. I was still young. I still wanted to have fun. And Donna Summer’s voice was part of the soundtrack to good times. And to more gossip, too. Media wasn’t what it is today. But there were gossip columns and fan magazines and supermarket tabloids. What fun we all had reading and speculating about Donna and Barbra Streisand getting together to duet on “Enough is Enough.” Who had the better part of the song…who sang better…who sang louder…who held the longest notes? It was such wicked fun.
Oh, I know. Donna supposedly got all Christian-y later in life and maybe “misspoke” about gays. Sometimes people go overboard when they discover religion. I didn’t let it bother me. She regretted what she said, IF she said it. Perhaps for her career, perhaps because she got hit upside the head with what Jesus really said and did. I met her once. She was lovely, funny, earthy. I’m not holding silly grudges. And I must say, her death from cancer certainly held up to the light all those who abused their gifts and died early from their own self-abuse—Billie, Janis, Jim, Jimmy (Hendrix), Judy, Marilyn, Amy, Whitney, etc. Donna took care, protected her instrument. Never made her fans cringe with embarrassment or be forced to make empty excuses.
The death of Mary Kennedy also struck a note. I have no particular nostalgic feeling for the Kennedy’s. I was only eleven when JFK was assassinated. It was a shocking thing, but it had little impact other than that. My Kennedy memories are mostly the scandalous/sordid/tragic years of Jackie, Chappaquiddick, Joan, JFK Jr, and other unhappy events of that family.
However, Mrs. Kennedy’s death was an especially gruesome suicide. Hanging. Unusual for a woman. She was, it was reported, fearsomely depressed for many years. Nobody could help her. Certainly not her estranged husband, Robert Kennedy Jr., (As he was quick to point out at her funeral.) She left many friends and four children. It was her children left behind that impacted me most powerfully. I could not imagine what agony she must have been in to end her life. No, let me rephrase that. I do know that agony. Over the past ten years I’ve thought of it a lot. All the ways. Even to making it look like an accident—get drunk and walk in front of a bus.
Only one thing stopped me. B. I couldn’t leave him behind. I realize suicide is an act of desperation, of giving in, ending the pain—or thinking you’ll end it. (I imagine most people fight to live in the final seconds.) But no matter how low I got—and I got pretty low—I always saw B., alone and wondering how it happened, why I did it, why couldn’t he stop me, wasn’t his love enough? And…how selfish I remained to the end. I saw his face, and knew I’d see it beyond the grave. I don’t believe in hell but I have my superstitions.
Mary Kennedy’s death came just as I began—at the urging of my friends and B.—a new round of anti-depressants and some Xanax thrown in, for the incredible anxiety. I resist so much. I have a tremendous amount of shame. Why can’t I simply will myself to a better place, to be a better person, to be an adult? Well, I can’t. Tough shit, Mr. Wow. You’re weak. Take the damn pills and at least be pleasant to those who still have the patience to love you. And don’t think anymore about leaving.
I have been more pleasant. Though not an endless party. I don’t think about leaving. I’ve been drinking less after “work.” (Yeah, that sick situation is still going on.)
It’s so funny that I always resist medication. Because I never resist anything else that can make my life easier, or at least, I put myself in situations that keep me infantile. And that seems easier. Perhaps I’m afraid if the meds really work, I won’t have an excuse anymore. We’ll see.
Finally, and on a much lighter note, I just read the trade paperback biography of Jennifer Jones, which I’d somehow missed in hardcover a few years back. It’s called “Portrait of Jennifer” by Edward Z. Epstein. Miss Jones was always a particular favorite of mine—she was gorgeous, intense, tormented, quirky and wildly sexy. (Forget modern interpretations that are “truer to the source”—Jennifer Jones is Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Period.)
Jones herself was a mass of neurotic need, counter-balanced by extreme discipline and a mania for privacy. She was a more interesting, intelligent Garbo, a less messy Monroe.
Jennifer’s relationship David O. Selznick is one of Hollywood’s great psycho-dramas. He made her a star and he ruined her as well. Her tale—which includes the tragic story of her first husband, actor Robert Walker—just aches for big screen treatment at the hands of a Martin Scorsese.
Was she a hard-nosed girl on the make for a break or was she the victim of a system and mogul who wouldn’t say no?
I don’t know. But I loved this book!
P.S. To all of you—sorry I was away for so long.
Oh, Oh—wait. One more thing. Fox News doing a segment paying tribute to fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. The background music? “Amazing Grace.” A Christian hymn. Hmmmm…what about all the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists or the just-plain-weren’t-sure-about-God who died for this country? I guess they don’t count.
“Taps” is the appropriate accompaniment.
Earlier this week, President Obama offered his personal opinion that as far as he—and Michelle and Malia and Sasha were concerned–same sex-marriage was a-okay. Misty eyes and joyful whooping and hollerin’ emerged from liberals. MSNBC had a collective orgasm. (FOX, naturally, all but put devil horns on the president’s head.)
Well, there were no misty eyes or joyful whooping and hollerin’ at chez Wow/B. In fact, there was a lot of eye-rolling and tongue-clucking and “oh, please.” B. did not offer the big ring. I did not suggest a June wedding.
Never have I seen such a load of horseshit as has been spread by Obama and giddy Democratic pundits and editorial writers on this “evolution” about civil rights. Obama has flip-flopped all over the place about same-sex marriage. “Yes” when he was nobody. “Evolving” when he was leader of the free world.
As a gay man, I found the lead-in (and follow-up) to this event insulting and unconvincing.
First, Joe Biden goes on “Meet The Press” and offers his personal opinion. Unlike his boss, he had evolved and was ready to say so. All hell breaks loose. Then North Carolina says “absolutely not” to same-sex unions. More hell bubbles up. What, what what would Obama do? Everybody who doesn’t want to control other people’s private lives, said it was time for the president to complete his growth as a human being.
Everybody who thinks that gay people marrying has something to do with them, waited, smacking their lips.
Finally, on the third day of this “crisis” (wow, where’d all the jobs and economy stuff go?) the president has a cozy chat with ABC correspondent Robin Roberts, and bravely ventures his personal opinion. He doesn’t say he’ll declare some sort of mandate or demand all states accept his opinion as the law of the land. He just wanted to get his feelings out there. Really? This is a Constitutional issue, Mr. President. The states should have no right to tell me, or you, or Malia and Sasha, what our civil rights are. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. In this country a heterosexual Death Row prisoner has the “right” to marry. I want the same rights as a as cold blooded straight murderer, please.
On the fourth day, amidst cheering on one side and brutal condemnation from the other, the White House allows a story to escape. Joe Biden trotted over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and formally apologized to the president, for having essentially forced his hand on the matter. Sooooo…okay. Obama didn’t really want to favor same-sex marriage right now, looking ahead as he is to a brutal fight to hold onto the presidency. He didn’t think it would help his chances.
The publicized Biden apology sent a message to those who are iffy/negative on the same-sex marriage issue: “I didn’t want to do it. Maybe I don’t mean it. Joe is an idiot.”
That Rachel Maddow, at least, did not pick up on this disappointed me. Maybe she just didn’t want to pick up on it. Despite her incessant “cutes” and her increasingly frantic performing, she is an intelligent voice in the shrieking world of MSNBC’s Sharpton, Matthews and Shultz.
The cherry on the sundae was digging up Mitt Romney’s almost 50 year-old bullying of a high-school classmate, who eventually came out as gay in later years. (Romney gave the kid a brutal haircut.) It’s an awful story, but come on—something from high school? People who hate gays are cheering the well-timed release of this tale. Finally, they have their narrative for Mitt. He hates gays too.
The White House wants to cover every base—yes we do…yes, we do but…Romney is a homophobe. They are gonna strap this haircut guy to the top of Romney’s car with the dog and try to drive to a second term. Good luck with that. Now, about the jobs?
I thought Romney’s remarks on this long-ago event were fairly good, considering—he regretted his youthful hi-jinks, didn’t recall that incident, but was sorry nevertheless. Though I think if I’d forced a haircut on a weeping classmate, I’d remember. Also—where’s all that Mormon peace-and-love-let’s-go-be-missionaries thing? (Maybe being a filthy rich Mormon does make a difference.)
And as B. pointed out, the bullies never remember. The bullied are marked for life.
Bleh! I don’t want to vote for Obama. I can’t vote for Romney. I can’t abstain—then I would have no right to complain. So I’m gonna hold my nose and vote for O.
However, there was something of a silver lining here. Maybe even more precious than silver. Now, I have never known what it’s like to be discriminated against because I’m gay. I never had a traumatic “coming out.” My mother’s disapproval was annoying, not heartbreaking. I’ve worked in a business that is gay-friendly. I never had to hide who I am. I’ve been lucky! Blessed, even.
With my multiple blessings in mind, I tried to imagine being a gay teen, or even a young person in their twenties. A vulnerable kid who is afraid, made to feel ashamed, thinks he or she is alone. To hear, to read, that the president of the United States thinks same-sex marriage is fine, must be a powerful message. They don’t have to understand the political ins and outs, the wussiness of what Obama really said. For these young people, it truly is a new world.
So, Obama did the half-assed right thing, for the wrong reason, but he did it. I give him that much credit. In time, I’ll probably give him more.
P.S. During the course of these recent events I found myself reading Time magazine. (Not the new one, with the nursing child.) It was a story about John Irving and his latest book, “In One Person.” The article tells how Irving responded when his beloved son came out to him. “I love you all the more” Irving said.
I was unaccountably moved when I read that. In fact, I began to cry. That is a real parent and a real human being. There is hope in this old world. It meant more to me, had more of an effect, than all the self-righteous, self-serving political palaver being dished out.
I wish every shocked, unfeeling, angry parent of a gay child could read that quote from John Irving, and understand—this is how you do it. It’s about your child, stupid.
I was reading Playboy over the weekend. Yes. Really. I love the articles. I appreciate the pretty pictures, too. Naked airbrushed ladies—what’s not to like?
Anyway, I got to the end of an interview with David Brooks, who is a conservative I don’t mind. (That means most far-right conservatives dismiss him.) He said something about change, how we really can’t change ourselves, only our environment and habits. But we’re always, essentially, the same.
It wasn’t a new or terribly deep thought. There was much more that was interesting and meaningful in the interview. (I certainly agree with his pessimistic/critical overview of President Obama.) It stayed with me, however, the idea of never really being able to change. My current situation demands change.
I’ve given change a lot of thought over the years. A lot. I’ve never approved of myself, and can’t ever recall a time in my life I didn’t want to be a different person—a different type of person. The only thing I accepted about myself without question was my sexual preference. In time I came to believe God or the Fates or whatever decided, “Look, this kid’s gonna be a mess. Let’s give him one thing about himself he won’t dislike.”
So, I was okay in that department. I honestly never understood what the big deal was—the gay thing. As I said to my mother once, “But it’s only sex. If I live a long life, I hope I’ll have more to remember than who I slept with.” She didn’t see it my way. At least not until it was almost too late.
Everything else? My basic personality, the person I always seem to have been? I did not like him. I did not like him when I was eight or nine—which is when I believe I more or less fully jelled. And I certainly haven’t grown any fonder of him.
By the time I was twelve, I was busy wondering, “What the hell is the matter with you, seriously?” In the catchphrase of the moment, I suppose I judged myself every day with an arch “Really?!
I was smart enough to know my childhood hadn’t been a picnic and surely had affected me. I was also smart enough to know others had it much worse and got over it.
It’s not that I sat around suffering my childhood, or feeling sorry for myself. It was more a matter of being kind of appalled by myself. And then shrugging. And then being somewhat amused. What twisted form of narcissism was this? I didn’t think I was much of anything, but I sure thought about myself a lot!
Aside from a rabid adoration of movies, I was without interests or hobbies. It’s not even as if I wanted to be in movies, or make movies or write movies. I was content to watch—rapt and inert. I loved to read but where did that get me? The more I read and understood, the less complete a person I felt I was. Where was motivation? Where was an innate sense of discipline. Where was self-respect? (Because I don’t believe you can have self-respect without motivation and discipline.)
And where were deep feelings for others? I wasn’t cold or mean. Quite the opposite, I was charming. The whole birds from the trees bit. I was selfish, but could be impulsively thoughtful and generous. I felt things sentimentally—crying over a movie or a book. But I seemed incapable of anything deeper. I thought. (I don’t know what I expected to feel deeply at the age of twelve.) I was profoundly lethargic emotionally. I didn’t have the gumption to become even a serial killer or a drug addict or a burglar.
I would sit on the stoop of my mother’s apartment in Queens and watch people pass by. I’d think, “They are real people. They have real feelings.” I was fascinated by the idea that we are all so separate; each one of us a little universe. I’d watch people walk on and away and still farther away until I couldn’t see them anymore. They hadn’t noticed me, but I’d noticed them. And whether they knew it or not, I’d been a part of their universe for a minute or two. It made me feel more connected. Maybe if I watched enough people, I’d catch what they had? Ah, but remember I told you I was smart about myself? I was. And even at 12 I knew “watching” wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to involve myself. But I didn’t want to. It was…too much trouble. Yes, as much as I longed for, or thought I longed for, or told myself I longed for “life”—I didn’t do a damn thing to achieve it.
I could have dealt with my mother, difficult as she was, differently. I could have made more of an effort with school guidance counselors and even one of those Big Brothers I had for a short while. (My mother felt I needed a male influence. I agreed. She simply didn’t know the sort of male influence I was seeking. My Big Brother was clueless as well—dumb, hot and straight.)
But I was already—how to put it—fatigued by life. I’d been nowhere, experienced nothing of consequence, and yet I was as tired as Garbo in “Camille.” And like Miss G. I didn’t mind being alone. I often preferred it. At times, the simplest question, “how are you?” seemed to me like a gross invasion of my privacy. Why did I have to explain myself to anyone? This quirk hasn’t been easy on people close to me—people I’ve lived with. Maybe it goes back to all the different “placements” of my childhood—the requirements expected of me in each new environment. No matter, it’s an unpleasant attitude.
Leaving home at 15 wasn’t a big deal. It had never felt like home, anyway. It was an inevitable consequence of lethargy. It was the easiest thing to do. And I knew just what I’d be doing, so no surprises there. I wasn’t unhappy yet. In fact 15 to 24 were the happiest years of my life. Sure, I had my periodic musing—“what the hell is the matter with you?” But it was the 1960’s and 70’s. I was young and cute and in New York. I had no money but I didn’t need any. A smile worked. I was indolent—reading, watching TV, listening to the radio. Usually all at the same time. Eventually, my indolence palled. I knew I had to move on. I did. I tried.
In all the years that followed, I can count on one hand, with maybe a finger (or two) left over, the positive, comparatively adult decisions I’ve made in life. They were difficult, I was full of fear—my usual state—but I tried to change. Yet I didn’t. I made the decision—this “right” decision–and then stood aside and allowed myself to be prodded along.
I was often prodded into quite reasonable facsimiles of motivation, discipline, and a pretty good work ethic, despite chronic procrastination. In the end, however, I found myself always forcing those who cared enough, to enable me—treating me as a fully functioning adult was a path to disaster. I would only allow so much of that! (I am the strongest weak person you’ll ever not meet.)
In at least one case, my best interests were not truly tended to by my enabler, but I had plenty of opportunities to turn that situation around. Did I? Not on your life. Self-sabotage was my middle name. I fell, eventually, into a steaming pot of resentment that looked like comfort food. Staying was killing me. Going was certain death.
Now I am gone from that situation, more or less. Am I dead? Not quite. But I haven’t felt truly alive—or in any case as alive as I ever allowed myself to feel—for at least ten years.
I’d like to say I had hoped to “change” once I was free of my responsibilities. That would be a big fat lie. I’ve never “hoped” for anything meaningful.
Okay, once I did hope. And I got it. I haven’t treated it very well. Certainly not in recent years. Or ever, perhaps. I don’t know. I did behave like somebody with a heart, when I hoped for B. (Shit—I behaved like Lana Turner—hysterical phone calls to airports, opening his mail and all-around messy, romantic disarray.)
Certainly, despite some rough years at the beginning, B. came to treat me like somebody who did indeed have a heart. Unfortunately, I also encouraged him to treat me like a boy with a slight learning disability—though I was a full grown man and not at all disabled. And then I resented that.
Never enough resentment to change, needless to say.
At no other time in my life has change been as vital to me, to B., to the few friends who remain, as it is now. And never have I been more resistant. I play the age card (but I’m not that old.) I play the helpless child card (I am way too old.) I sit silently in my room cluttered with dead-movie-star memorabilia. I read. I watch TV. Do I attempt anything constructive? No. Do I even speak at this point? No. Over this past weekend I don’t think ten words passed my lips.
I feel perhaps, at this point, B. is relieved, though hurt, all the same. I’ve said nothing new in years. But I am his and he is mine. Can I ever grow up? Can I ever alter our environment and habits? Is it all my fault? Can this marriage be saved, dear Ladies Home Journal?
So…I know at least one of you out there found a recent post of mine depressing, though it was not at all personal. (It was about Obama!) I replied saying if I’d written what I was feeling, you’d all kill yourselves or track me down to put me out of my misery. I don’t expect any suicides, but I will let you know I’ve put myself in witness protection, just in case anybody’s feeling the mercy-killing thing.
There’s no neat round-up to this post. This is what I’m feeling. This is my outlet. You are my hapless victims. I love you all, despite the battering I’ve just delivered.
If I was in better shape I’d do a column about that monumental egomaniac—and perhaps dangerous “medical adviser”–Suzanne Somners. She diverted me on CNN’s Piers Morgan the other night. Those lips, that face, the self-love. OMG, the self-love! Gotta admire it, grisly though it is.
Till next time, better times, I hope.
MR. WOW Sees Judy Again–Dead as Ever, Alas.
As some of you know, Mr. Wow did not become an admirer of Judy Garland until he saw her laid out, dead as a doornail, at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home in 1969. To better understand this—for those new to this site—please click on TO COME. Read it now, or come back to it later.
But on to more recent times. Turner Classic Movies ran two Garland faves—“Easter Parade” and “Summer Stock.” In the former Judy is skinny and strung out. In the latter she is plump and strung out. In both she imbues her cardboard characters with humanity, realism and neurotic tension.
In “Easter Parade” her musical high point arrives when she serenades Fred Astaire with “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.” In “Summer Stock” she soars plaintively on “Friendly Star,” mourning the (temporary) halt to her romance with super-hot Gene Kelly. (I know—we all love the raucous “Get Happy” from that movie. But for me, Miss G. was at her best turning the volume down, just a bit. Intimate ballads are the peak of her artistry.)
If you question the adoration Garland inspired, look at these two numbers. Hell, just look at her MGM movies, period. She brought something unique to American filmgoers. And later, to live, rapturous, audiences. As an actress who sang, or as a singer who acted—you choose!–she was nonpareil. It was total involvement. Visceral performing. She was The Method before The Method, wrapped up in silly musical comedies. Judy was the cheerful girl next door who might cut her wrists at any moment, because of the callous boy next door.
With those movies—and so many others—in mind, I was wary, approaching Broadway’s “End of the Rainbow.” This deals with Judy’s decline, indeed with everything that immediately preceded her death.
But…I recovered. (As Miss G. famously asides in “A Star Is Born.”) And I saw “End of the Rainbow.”
And this is what I thought.
“IF I am such a legend, why am I so alone?”
That was a familiar refrain from movie queen and live concert phenom, Judy Garland. She always liked to imply she was alone, friendless, powerless. It was a good story. She came to believe it.
The reality of the situation was that Judy was never alone. She was almost always surrounded by people—adoring friends…brilliant co-workers…bewildered but besotted children…an ever-present on-tap entourage. She was one of the most famous, worshipped and honored entertainers of the 20th century. She had it all.
If, toward the end of her life the crowd around her thinned, it was she herself who had done the winnowing. Garland was never quite the victim of her own self-generated legend. (“Sympathy is my business” she told her daughter Liza Minnelli. And those who were not sympathetic were out. As Liza herself would learn.)
It is the dark, white hot/ice cold finale of Judy Garland’s life that is captured in the new Broadway show “End of the Rainbow.” This is Judy in extremis, circa London, 1969. Her voice shattered (again) her career on the precipice (again) involved with an inappropriate man (again), fighting with agents and musicians and nightclub owners (again)
Those who are old enough to remember, still recall the tremulous wraith who impersonated Judy by this point in her life. There she was, encased in her glittering pantsuits, still trying to give her all onstage, sometimes achieving a miracle, more often openly asking (expecting) her audiences to forgive their long-lost Dorothy Gale.
Hmmmm…forget Dorothy. She had traveled far even from the paper thin, nervous woman—with a still glorious voice– of her 1963 TV series.
It was not a nice time, those months in London, and perhaps an odd, even unpalatable subject upon which to base a two-hour and ten minute play-with-music. But that is what writer Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson have done.
And if it is not appetizing for those with no appetite for a grisly wallow, it is fascinating theater nonetheless.
Garland is portrayed by Tracie Bennett. This performance begins on such a high note of near-hysteria and nerves—Garland arrives in England to appear at a supper club—that one feels there’s no-place to go but down. However to the contrary, Bennett raises the bar with every scene. She plays the latter-day Judy with all the familiar KayThomson inspired stances, the quirky facial expressions, the vocal oddities—coming down with particular emphasis on certain words. If she sometimes sounds more like Katharine Hepburn than Garland, one should remember that Garland herself adopted a rather Britishy, posh manner of speaking—as many of the MGM ladies eventually did. It’s an incredible performance, energy-wise alone. (Isabel Keating, well remembered for her Judy-turn in “The Boy From Oz” was more spot-on, but Isabel didn’t have to carry that show.)
Bennett does her best to give some meaning to Garland’s lurching, collapsing, neediness, bitchery, vulnerability.
But she can only work with her material, which offers precious little in explanation at how and why this rare creature, referred to during her lifetime, and without argument, as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” ends up crawling around the floor of the Ritz Hotel in utter disarray, a hopeless addict. Brief mentions of Judy’s abuse at the hands of her mother and MGM don’t suffice. Especially when one knows that Garland never met a lily that didn’t require elaborate gilding. (Like her astrological sister, and personal friend, Marilyn Monroe, the truth about Judy is impossible to decipher or deconstruct. The ladies ladled out too much bullshit.)
But along with the grimy scenes of Garland at the dregs, there’s some wicked humor as well. Miss G was quick to find the ridiculous in her situation. In Judy’s heyday, time and again, people would recall “laughter, always around her there was laughter.”
Bennett also sings a number of Judy’s famous songs, delivered in the jittery Ritalin-infused energy of Garland’s last years. (Although I don’t think Judy ever became quite so tangled up in her microphone cord as Bennett plays it!)
Bennett is given nice support by Tom Pelphrey as her sleazy last husband, Mickey Deans, and Michael Cumpsty who portrays one of Garland’s musicians. Cumstry really functions as an amalgam of various people in Garland’s life, a Greek chorus of praise and condemnation, including certain aspects of her audience—the much-abused-and-mocked “gay clique” who never deserted her.
This is a niche play for a niche audience about a niche period in Judy Garland’s life. (To be perfectly honest, the audience with whom I saw it was comprised mostly of geezers and gays. Okay—I’m in there!)
It is undeniably exploitive, but let’s not pretend exploitation and curiosity about a great star’s fall is something new. Or something we are not curious about. Oh, so we turn up our nose after we’ve rummaged through the troth? How noble. How phony. Believe me, soon enough we will have “The Final Days of Whitney Houston” delivered to us in some manner.
Is it necessary or instructive to see Garland’s penultimate months ridiculously compressed, inevitably fictionalized and held up for display? No. Does it provide a surge of remorse and passion for that great talent? Yes it does. Does it make you want to rent one of her old films or listen to the Carnegie Hall album? Yes it does!!
Perhaps somebody young will happen upon this show and wonder—“what the hell was that? Who was this person? Should I go to YouTube and investigate?” Yes, young person—go. You’ll be amazed.
“The End of the Rainbow” spares us Judy’s death in the London bathroom of her rented house—an “incautious overdose” the coroner would state. She literally took one pill too many. As opposed to MM’s 25-plus.
Tracie Bennett concludes the evening singing Mort Lindsay’s tour de force arrangement of “By Myself,” best remembered from Garland’s final movie, “I Could Go On Singing.” It’s not a very good movie—a soapy, semi roman a clef. But it conveys a great deal of what Garland had become, and what she was till the end—a volcanic, indomitable survivor—feeding off her legend, feeding off her loved ones, feeding off strangers, feeding off her audience. Had she lived, she might have erupted brilliantly again. It would have been hell for her, and for those in the lava path, but it would have been glorious, too.
“End of the Rainbow” is by no means all of what Judy was, even at the end. But I think those who’ll go to see it, already know that. Judy Garland’s fans—straight and gay– didn’t “love” her unhappiness. That is a cruel myth. They accepted her played-to-the-footlights trauma as part of the brilliant package. When you have as much talent as Garland, and give so much of it, you have to take even more—from husbands, lovers, children, fans– just to survive another day.
Garland packed a thousand years into her 47—a miraculous testament to her strength and commitment.
If she ruined herself, doesn’t that seem appropriate? You can’t make or break a talent like Garland. The tornado must finally wind down, all by itself. Sadly, when it’s over, you never end up in Oz.
Oh, but Miss Garland—it only happened when I danced with you.