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Garland a gifted actress -- not a tragic figure

In 1936 Judy Garland made her all-American entrance to the world of movies, singing her 14-year-old heart out in a college-football yarn called Pigskin Parade. And 30 years ago this week (June 22) she died the new all-American way -- from a drug overdose.

In between, she touched most of the bases of the imagined America that Hollywood constructed for us. The frontier spirit of get-up-and-go was never more sweetly expressed than when Garland and Mickey Rooney, mere Babes In Arms, famously cried "Let's do the show right here!" When MGM fabricated the quintessential picket-fence and apple-pie Andy Hardy family series, Judy was called in three times to light a flame in Andy Rooney's heart.It was Judy who gave heart to Fred Astaire with the rictus smile and speedy feet, in the 1948 movie "Easter Parade."

And while it was 1939's "The Wizard Of Oz" that left successive generations as emotionally storm-tossed as Dorothy and Toto in the tornado, she was also, intermittently, a superb straight actress. Her first big chance came with "The Clock "(1945), a wartime romance directed by her husband Vincente Minnelli. You must remember her doing her number as Mrs. Norman Maine in "A Star Is Born" in 1954, though she was robbed of an Oscar that year by Grace Kelly ("The Country Girl").

It is often forgotten that although her last film, 1963's "I Could Go On Singing," was a disaster, she got rave reviews for her performance opposite Dirk Bogarde. A leading critic of the time, Penelope Gilliatt, described her as "a harrowingly good actress"; Penelope Houston wrote in Sight And Sound that "there is no counterfeiting this sort of talent."

So where did this extraordinary chameleon come from? The very first moment that an audience felt the impact of her talent was on Dec. 26, 1924, on stage in Grand Rapids, Minn., when the two Gumm sisters, Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia, aged 9 and 7, standing shoulder to shoulder, finished their number, stepped apart and revealed 2 1/2 year-old Baby Gumm, who began to belt out "When My Sugar Walks Down The Street."

According to John Fricke, in his book "Judy Garland: World's Greatest Entertainer," the audience went wild. Baby Gumm was out of control with joy, repeating the song three times until her father, the theater manager, tucked her under his arm and carried her off kicking and screaming.

The cult of Judy Garland was already born but did not mature until her father, fed up with seeing his vaudeville family described on billboards as The Glumm Girls, changed the name to Garland, which had the bonus of flattering Robert Garland, critic of the New York World-Telegraph.

We can only shudder at the narrow escape we had when Shirley Temple's studio refused to release her for the role. Would you follow that ringleted flirt down the Yellow Brick Road? Not unless you wanted to be arrested.

The film was made in total confusion. At least four directors were involved. Richard Thorpe took the job for a couple of weeks, then briefly George Cukor. The film was then taken over by Victor Fleming, who directed "Gone With The Wind," and finished by King Vidor. Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, got an allergic reaction to the makeup and had to be replaced by Jack Haley. Garland was the stout (and rather stumpy) eloquent heart of an enterprise that survived turmoil to somehow become a totally integrated masterpiece.

As the years went by, stories of Garland's drug addiction, alcoholism and late arrivals on set began to abound.

First Hollywood and then the television network, CBS, overworked her mercilessly, as did her employers in Las Vegas in the '60s. By then, Garland was the mother of a couple of potential show business stars: Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, whom she brought up the show-business way. But, I asked Luft, was Garland herself the victim of a heartless show-business mother? "If her mom had not -- if you want to call it -- 'exploited' her talent, then we wouldn't have all the great films and work we have today. But she loved doing what she did. She wanted to do this. She did blame her mom for a lot of things -- and I think unfairly so. But my grandmother was not the Wicked Witch of the West."

By the mid-60s, however, Garland was in constant emotional and physical distress. Her marriage to producer Sid Luft broke up and he sued for possession of the children, Lorna and Joey. She was hospitalized after an overdose. But at that time there was little clear understanding of the effects of overuse of prescription drugs.

The year 1967 seems to have been the beginning of free-fall. Lorna Luft tells in her autobiography how one day she was introduced to a "Dr. Deans." She was relieved that her mother had a doctor as a constant companion to look after her prescription-drug use. He was actually Mickey Deans, a disco manager.

Deans was under the impression that Judy was capable of a triumphant return to the stage. But on the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1969, he found her slumped in their bathroom. She had got up in the night to take another dose of Seconal and, either by accident or design, overdosed.

The image was set in stone: Judy Garland was a pathetic, ravaged drug-abuser and alcoholic. But the truth is not so simple. The pathologist at the inquest stated categorically that "no effects of alcoholism could be found in her body; no cirrhosis of the liver."

Luft said her mother hated being called a tragic figure. "Oh pulleezzze! We all have tragedies in our lives, but that does not make us tragic. She was funny and she was warm and she was wonderfully gifted. She had great highs and great moments in her career. She also had great moments in her personal life. Yes, we lost her at 47 years old. That was tragic. But she was not a tragic figure."