Posts Tagged ‘Judy Garland’

The Academy is fickle; no breaking news there. But every once in a while, I remember a single scene from an Oscarless movie and think, “That scene should have been awarded its own Oscar.” Would we honor the director, the writers, the actors, the musicians, the editors, the cinematographers, the costume designers, or the countless others who came together to assemble a single piece of art? Below are some scenes for which I would award the whole gang, and on today of all days, particularly the great Penny Marshall.


Saving Grace (2000)
Either you have never heard of this movie, or you scream, “Those ladies in the store!” when someone else brings it up:


Home for the Holidays (1995)
Dinner scenes must be difficult to shoot, but many end up close to perfect when they’re done right. Especially when there’s a relative who scares a child into whimpering for help from Mom:


A League of Their Own (1992)
If not for her dancing, then it’s an award for that laugh when Rosie throws Madonna back on the dance floor. This clip is brought to you by the letter “L” (and all the other the letters that spell “Penny Marshall”):


The Addams Family (1991)
It’s the only reason why I like Christmas music:


Big Business (1988)
We should have seen a four-way tie for Best Actress in a Leading Role:


Fatal Attraction (1987)
Never in a million years would I take away Cher’s Oscar for Moonstruck, and Glenn will win in 2019 if I have anything to say about it. It ain’t swing, but oh, the way that they dance here:


Clue (1985)
“Flames on the side of my face” would have been too easy, so instead I nominate these two minutes in which every member of the cast gets a shining moment, including the (look up “genius” in the thesaurus) Madeline Kahn:


9 to 5 (1980)
I came close to excluding Dolly’s classic scene from this list because, well, you don’t enjoy hearing about guns, and I don’t enjoy talking about guns. We could ’round and ’round saying things like “It was a different world back then but did it shape things today?” or “Dolly would be a responsible gun owner,” but ultimately I landed at, “I’ve been laughing at this for 38 years, so ehhhh what the hell?


The Birds (1963)
I don’t rewind this as much as some others on here, but a special award goes to Bernard Herrmann and the Sound Department. Notice when you notice that you’ve been holding your breath:


A Star Is Born (1954)
I will absolutely fight with anyone who says that Judy didn’t deserve five or six Oscars for this one, but so did Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, and company:


To Have and Have Not (1944)
Can a cigarette win an Academy Award? In the 1940s, it may have been possible:


The Women (1939)
Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell (no additional caption needed):




Click here to read Part I.


I fall asleep. Or do I pass out and pass back in? Do people pass in, like they tiptoe into a room? I guess hazily that we touched down and came back up somewhere over Las Vegas, so that first pill must have worked.


“Did it?” Judy asks, still sitting next to me but with greater distance between us. We no longer shared an armrest in coach but now each of us has our own – somehow we had moved up to the first class cabin. I have no recollection of taking such a status leap or, in the process, transferring my rattling knapsack down what a potentially resentful aisle. Like denying a memory before someone produces photographic evidence, in those first few moments I would have sworn on a stack of Judy albums that our arms still remained locked in battle over an armrest back in coach. But here we are, Judy Garland and little old me, soaring over Las Vegas on the first anti-anxiety pill that I have taken for its intended purpose.


“I passed out for, what, ten minutes? I ask her. “That’s gotta be some kind of record for my sleeping on a plane. Draining the consciousness out of a plane ride is a dream scenario.” I lean back into my roomy seat. “That, and flying first class with Judy Garland,” I add, unable to delay the precious moments between thoughts and words.


And yet she doesn’t take the compliment, no doubt immune to gay men gushing over her after so many years, at times, sadly, by way of a marriage license. After decades of living next to the gay track, I suppose she has to make an effort just to notice the train . . . the rambunctiously flaming train, emitting rainbow-colored smoke that was probably good for the environment. I knew it well, for recently I began to feel like just another faceless passenger.


Planes, trains, contraltos.


Gotta get off, gonna get

Have to get off from this ride


“You never told me what happened on the Valley of the Dolls set,” I tell her, shifting into “tabloid reporter” mode, listlessly filling in the plot holes for myself.


“The truth is what you choose to believe,” she whispers coyly, popping another is-it-a breath mint. But like any good reporter, I do not accept that kind of answer, especially from someone whose mind and words I love to pieces.


“Oh don’t give me that crap, Judy,” I hiss with an eye roll. Heavens, I never thought I’d take such a tone with her and surprise myself with such an outburst. I pivot back to the compliment, giving the approach a second try. “You’re smarter than that.”


She turns and looks out her window. “She’s smarter than that,” Judy echoes to the clouds outside. And she was, for it must have been only a day or two out of infancy when she learned the harsh ways of the stage and the harsher personalities that appear on, behind, above, and below it. On-the-job training at its most brutal – at an age when I was cheating on spelling tests, Judy Garland was seeing the business side of the The Business.


She turns her head back towards me, her body still pointed towards the window. “Okay, kid. If I’m so smart . . . ma’am, a scotch and soda, please.”


Finally, a flight attendant appears to give our necks a break. Definitely breath mints.


“If I’m so smart, why didn’t I make it to 50? If I’m so smart, why was always I broke the harder I worked? If I’m so smart, how did . . .” She stops. “Oh, you’re right; I have more answers than you have excuses.”


She is feisty but not restless. Good God, where was her drink?


“You’re not afraid that you’re going to choke on these pills, are you?” she asks. “They’re flea-sized, for Heaven’s sake.”


“No, of course not. But you’re avoiding my question. C’mon, tell me about the Valley.”


“You have a favorite truth already, and what’s wrong with that one?”


“Is that what happened?” I ask. “The way that Patty Duke said? Did the director purposely keep you waiting in your dressing room, hoping that anxiety would pave the way for some addiction to come knocking?”




There it was. The word I dread. Pills equaled addiction equaled loss of control equaled rock bottom equaled asking for help equaled codependence. And other than flying, there is nothing worse than codependence. Am I right?


Gotta get hold, gonna get

Need to get hold of my pride


The scotch and soda arrives as the word “addiction” floats above us, pushed down by those plane air vents that drive everyone mad. Although Judy had ordered only one, the flight attendant puts down a second one in front of me.


“Patty talks a good game. Her acting . . . well . . .” She gives the thought a half-smile. “And is that what you’re searching for now, before popping another one of those flea pills?” she wonders. “A director to take direct responsibility for you?”


“It worked for you. Or, at least for your legacy.”


“Darling, I got fired. Or I quit seconds before the bastard fired me; I can’t remember which.” Pinky in the air, she breaks ground on her cocktail. I’m surprised it took her so long.


“Well sure.” I admit. “In a perfect world, I’d throw an entire bottle down my throat before every flight and knock myself out. Hell I’d do it before every bridge crossing or before leaving the house to face the crack heads of San Francisco. But I choose not to conquer anxiety with science. I do it the old-fashioned Jewish way – ignore the problem and never talk about it, until eventually it doesn’t exist. Compared to pills, don’t tell me that’s unhealthy.”


I hope for a full smile from her, and I get one.


“Perhaps moderation is the key,” Judy admits, raising her cocktail and giving a modest cheers to no one in particular. I still haven’t touched mine, and she’s noticed.


She looks at my drink, the ice slowly watering down its potency, and I see a light bulb flicker above her head. Either she’s just had a revelation, or she’s ringing for the flight attendant in preparation for round two. “You know what your problem is,” she starts, clang, clang, clanging the ice cubes in her glass and pointing it at me. “Your problem is that you don’t think you deserve to relax.”


When did I get, where did I

Why am I lost as a lamb


“That’s not true,” I argue. “I think I deserve to relax. I just don’t feel it. I can’t get my body to catch up with that nagging part of my brain that keeps shrieking, ‘Relax!’ Thinking and feeling – huge difference there, ma’am.” I hope she’s buzzed enough to let me get away with a touch of sass.


“Don’t start with that ‘ma’am’ business, like I’m your aging neighborhood drag queen.” Didn’t think so. No way Judy Garland gets buzzed from one drink (but then again, those breath mints), especially a drink ordered on an airplane. Seriously, first class? I expected more from you.


But she’s on to something, and she’s not sure where her thoughts (or drinks or mints) are leading us. She sets down her cocktail and inches her body in my direction. Gently she puts her tiny elbow on that armrest that’s still obsessing my thoughts, her tiny hand supporting her tiny chin. Her gaze drifts over and then behind me, out the window on the other side of the aisle.


Suddenly I get butterflies. They start in my stomach and fly up into my chest and out of my mouth like a hiccup and land on my left shoulder where all my stress gathers due to a broken arm of my childhood. Stress and butterflies swarm to the same location – the body is such a puzzle.


Chin on elbow means serious business. On this plane ride to who knows where, Judy Garland was about to tell me something that was going to change my life. It’s that magical movie moment when, with 15 minutes remaining, the damaged character delivers a life-altering lecture to the I-have-my-act-together character, ultimately revealing that it’s the latter who needed guidance all along. Formula? What formula?


I prepare myself, and in those few precious seconds, I am ready. I am ready for the letters and words and sentences of Judy Garland that will change how my brain and body communicate and react. Her words will unblock that blockage forever, leading me to the tiptop of Mount Happiness, where a beautiful man in a loin cloth (probably named Bart) was waiting for me with his devoted love and a glass of rosé and the key to my dream house where I would find an indoor pool, a private screening room, and winning lottery ticket that I would donate to a cat shelter (let’s not get too selfish). All of this is about to happen right after she says whatever glorious words are gathering speed on the runway of her multitalented tongue.


“Y’know,” she sighs. “I never got to do a cover of that Dolls theme song.”


Excuse me?


That’s all I get? No mountain. No key. No loin cloth (Bart, by the way, would have known every single word to every single song on the Judy at Carnegie Hall album, including the words that she forgets). But that’s what she gave me. A missed opportunity to cover a song from a dreadful film that she quit working on, or got fired from almost 50 years ago?!?


I am let down by this scrawny Buddha of mine; devastated; far from over the rainbow; crushed and defeated . . . for about five seconds. Fuck it.


I reach into my bag and take a second pill with a sip of the second scotch and soda that she has already made her own. I mirror her pose, my elbow a tad fleshier than hers. Those front teeth of hers announce the rest of her smile, and she knows what I was about to do, probably before I know myself. I start her off, singing the first few lines.


Gotta get off, gonna get

Have to get off from this ride


She stands up and takes it from there. What else could she do?


Gotta get hold, gonna get

Need to get hold of my pride

When did I get, where did I

How was I caught in this game

When will I know, where will I

How will I think of my name


Sure, my voice lives in a slightly seedier neighborhood than hers, but I refuse to pass up an opportunity for a little duet action. I stand up join in.


When did I stop feeling sure, feeling safe

And start wondering why, wondering why

Is this a dream, am I here, where are you

What’s in back of the sky, why do we cry


Looking back, I thought we sounded good together, and it’s not like the flight attendant was rushing over to shush us. Okay, first class, maybe you’re not so bad.


Gotta get off, gonna get

Out of this merry-go-round

Gotta get off, gonna get

Need to get on where I’m bound

When did I get, where did I

Why am I lost as a lamb

When will I know, where will I

How will I learn who I am

Is this a dream, am I here, where are you

Tell me, when will I know, how will I know

When will I know why?


The plane touches down and knocks me awake. I feel sleepy and confused, like I was about to take a final exam the morning after I pulled raging all-nighter dancing at the Cat Club. I hum the theme as I walk up the jetway, a survivor of yet another scenario into which I put myself willingly, unsure if it would end in my fiery demise. But I arrived, and I know that love was waiting outside at the curb to pick me up.


In the end, Judy Garland was right. Judy was right, and I was wrong – even in moderation, Valley of the Dolls is a truly dreadful movie.


What’s in back of the sky

Why do we cry






“I have to travel how far? To climb what? To reach where? The valley of the pills? Oh, Valley of the Dolls.”


My ears were popping already. I hate flying.


“I had Jem dolls and She-ra dolls when I was a kid. Do those count? I bet they relieved anxiety, and I didn’t have to take them with water. Anxiety relief and drought awareness. I was such a responsible kid.”


“And your Judy doll was where?” she asks from the seat next to me.


“I didn’t have one, Miss Garland,” I admit. “But when I watched The Wizard of Oz, sometimes I wore Mom’s black pumps and carried a mini basket with a mini Pound Puppy in it, if that counts.”


“Count, count. Does anything count, you keep asking,” she says.


Keep asking? How long had we been talking? How long was this flight?


Is this a dream; am I here? Where are you?


“My doctor brought up the idea of pills when I told him I was afraid of flying.” I think I was asking her a question.


“Pills, darling. What kind?” How and when did Judy Garland become my pharmacist?


“Lorazepam, I think it’s called. The name reminded me of Gonzo, that blue Muppet with the banana nose. Everyone and their mother told me not to drink on those pills if I try them, or I’ll . . . ”


“End up like me, darling?” Judy smiles. Her imperfect front teeth seem to nudge themselves far out in front of her face, but not at all unattractive. Humanity is so enticing when it appears in a creature of such immaculate talents.


“From what I read, I think most doctors mention Janis or Jimi Hendrix,” I say, as she glances over me, scanning the aisle for the flight attendant. “My ‘Piece of my Heart’ is decent in the shower, but I’m no Janis. And I always thought heroin was her pleasure.”


With no attendant in sight, her gaze drifts back to me, and before she can accuse, I blurt out, “I mean, of course I sing all of yours first.”


What, like I’m going miss an opportunity to suck up to Judy Garland? How often do you end up liking the person sitting next to you on a long flight? Judy Garland was to be my conversation pill, and she always takes effect quickly.


When will I know; where will I

How will I think of my name?


“I get panicky when it comes to pills,” I breathe in and admit. “I’ve seen addiction up close, and I’m terrified of becoming an addict or going through any of the crap that I saw when it happened to others. I don’t want to lose control.”


She eyeballs the aisle again and without looking at me says, “Yes, you do.”


Excuse me? Angry. I get a little angry. I get a little angry with Judy Garland who is sitting next to me on a plane with a destination that is still unknown.


Is this a dream?


“I do? You think I want to lose control? I get on the Oakland Bay Bridge every day to leave San Francisco, and when I get in the car, I put on the song that I want to be listening to if I happen to die that day. If the bridge blows up, I want to be listening to a song that I love, not the morning talk radio with their ‘Hipster versus Geezer’ call-in games.” I’m getting angrier. I’m getting close to shouting, as close as I’ll allow myself in a public place, or anywhere, really. I stop and look up and down the aisle myself.


In a low voice she begins to ask, “Who are you . . . ?”


“Never mind what song I’m listening to!” I interrupt, even though her question calms me slightly. “I’m thinking that if the terrorists chose that morning to come after the liberal, green, free-love loving hippies and hipsters with their billions of dollars and ridiculous trigger warnings (we’re all such victims, pass me a pill), that I want to be listening to one of my favorite songs if I die on the commute to a job that bores me to tears. I do this on the bridge. I do this on BART . . .”


“The who, darling?” Judy asks. “So you have a boyfriend? Not sure I enjoy his name all that much, but if . . .”


“No, no BART is the Bay Area subway that goes under the water. And since it’ll make my ears pop seconds before I’m killed in an underwater tunnel, the music is crucial.”


“Still, dreadful name. Sounds like a placeholder name in a cartoon script.” She takes one last look up and down the aisle before reaching for her purse. I hear the subtle yet familiar rattle before her hand meets her mouth, and she swallows dramatically.


“I’m sorry not to offer, darling. Breath mint?”


“Nice touch,” I tell her, the anger subsiding. “Can I get back to me?”


“Oh, had we left you? I had no idea.” Okay, I loved her again.


“I get on BART (Judy rolls her eyes), and I’m convinced that the day has come when they decide to blow up the tunnel and kill thousands of heathens with one stone. On planes I grip the armrest so tightly turning takeoff or (god forbid) turbulence, that I’m afraid my knuckles will start bleeding. I look around and realize that I’m sitting in a flying murder weapon, and you think this sounds like someone who wants to lose control?”


She looks at me puzzled, an expression not unlike the ones that I used to give an algebra pop quiz in middle school. Why are they quizzing me on things I haven’t learned yet?


Still clutching her purse, she pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette after a breath mint? Eh, who am I to judge? After an exhale to the ceiling (they were polite smokers in her day), she shifts her tiny body weight so she’s facing me with her entire being, which isn’t much. It’s the itty-bitty Judy Garland Show Judy who’s daintily sitting next to me. I think I hear “You Go to My Head” start to play through the earphones that sit in my lap, but I ignore it. Why does that thing start playing randomly when it’s been sitting turned off for hours?


“Your bridge. Your car. Your train. Your DART (I don’t correct her) Your bay. Your death. Why, may I ask, are all the terrorists after you in particular, darling? If you sounded this way and were on pills, I’d have little to no concern for you at t’all. But if this is how you are without pills, maybe you should try one.”


I can’t contain my smile. I always smile when someone exposes a trait or behavior that I thought I kept hidden from the world. And I both love and hate that she knows it.


Judy leans in a bit more, and I focus not on her teeth but on those eyes. “You’re trying to stay in control in situations when your own only guarantee is that you have absolutely none. You try so hard that you even set the score to the disaster scene. I bet you have a playlist ready for morning.”


How will I think of my name?


“Oh no, you do, don’t you, darling?” She leans back, perhaps debating whether to poke me with her cigarette. “Which ones are . . .”


“Many,” I promise quickly, “but ‘The Man That Got Away’ has always been at the top of the list.”


“Fine.” Phew, she’s satisfied and can get it together enough to continue. “Of course you want to lose control. What else is there to do at a time when you have zero chance of gaining it? It’s the trying that makes your knuckles bleed, darling. That, and you need a good moisturizer.”


She places her hand on mine. Judy Garland – singer, dancer, actress, therapist, beautician.


“You watched Valley of the Dolls recently, didn’t you?” she asks, changing and not changing the subject.


“Yeah, one of my publishers is about to release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which I’ve still never read. I watched it the night my doctor brought up the idea of pills.”


“It’s a dreadful movie, isn’t it?” She is starting to fish; I can tell. We all know tales of her preproduction history with the film.


“I guess it made its point pretty quickly. k.d. lang’s cover of the theme song was in the first and last episodes of Nurse Jackie, so with that and the book, it’s been on my mind.”


Judy’s face lights up. “Edie Falco, I like that gal.”


Obviously I agree, but I’m a tad startled by her praising another actor. It was like the bad girl in detention admitting that she loves the homecoming queen’s performance in the school play. And talk about control – show me a scene when Edie Falco is not in complete control. Judy locked horns with director in the business, and probably maimed a few, but I can’t imagine a director ever taking issue with Edie Falco, onset or off.


So Judy Garland knows who Edie Falco is, but she doesn’t know that BART is a subway train, not my boyfriend? Although I’m still unsure of this plane’s destination, I am sure that I need my hallucinations to be consistent in their knowledge of modern day life. I reach for the rattling bag underneath the seat in front of me, wondering if there’s a pill for such a thing.



Click here to read Part II.


My jolly good fun friend Jessica and I were working our way through a delicious round two at our favorite wine bar when a thought dropped out of the sky and crushed me, right there in my fabulous shoes. I was debating my options for the following day over a glass of Pinot noir (one that turned out to be too easy to drink); either I was going to get all the work done that I had taken home that evening, or I was going to take advantage of the sunny day and see the latest film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. Due to lack of leadership from the men and women behind the curtain, work has been cycloning out of control lately, so the choice was pretty clear to Jessica, me, and our empty wine glasses. Despite low expectations, the next afternoon somehow I found myself standing in line at the box office. Eating away at me more than the criminal ticket price—a price that would give Mom nightmares for a month—was that single thought from the previous evening, just as haunting sober as it was sloshy: the Wicked Witch of the West is not supposed to have cleavage.

Launching the Land of Oz and its inhabitants into the future hopefully keeps alive our precious 1939 classic, and viewing the returns to Oz with any sense of competition borders slightly on the absurd. How does one compare Fairuza Balk to Judy Garland or Kristin Chenoweth to Billie Burke . . . and doing so even necessary? From page to screen or page to stage, magic comes in many forms, and no two actors will interpret a character in precisely the same way. That said, this recent reincarnation of the West’s best was anything but. Remember when the science majors had to fulfill an arts requirement before graduation and ended up looking bored and stiff in their drama class productions? Scenes went on too long while plots and backstories were revealed too quickly, and above all, it felt disrespectful to the late and great Margaret Hamilton. At least her costume designers had the decency to cover up her lady parts. Rounding out the group and giving Oz its latest makeover was a politically correct and diverse ensemble of extras from around the globe . . . an issue with which I always have, if you’ll pardon the expression, mixed feelings. When I can see the effort, its intended effect is ruined.


Tears don’t come to me nearly as easily as they did when I was a child. That quirky little boy cried at anything and everything, so maybe the water supply evaporated all too quickly in my early years. These days when I feel a tear roll down my cheek, I tend to look up at the ceiling to see if the roof is leaking. There must be a “heartstrings safety net” that Oz filmmakers bank on when they slam us with prequels, sequels, and remakes . . . subtle reminders of my attachment to MGM’s 1939 masterpiece can’t help but stir up my dusty tear ducts. Miraculously my eyes may have experienced a heavy mist at times, but no tears actually flowed during this latest revision. An unusual reference to Snow White and original makeup tests for early visions of 1939’s witch were oddly placed and practically ruined a scene for which I had been waiting an hour. With a hunched posture and flimsy foot placement, this newest Witch of the West looked incredibly uncomfortable on her broom. Not once did I feel drawn to any of the female villains, and believe you me, that’s the acid test ‘round these parts. As I should have said to every girl I ever kissed, this isn’t working for me! A good witch performance is judged by how much my brutally honest child within longs to emulate both the character and the actress:

Margaret Hamilton, check!

Idina Menzel, check!

Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, check!

Angelica Huston (hey, I guess witches can have cleavage), check !

This latest group of gals in Oz the Great and Powerful . . . we appreciate your efforts. I applaud anyone who has the courage not only to get in front of an audience but also reinterpret any roles as iconic as these. But ladies, these things must be done delicately, or you hurt the spell.


I’ve never considered myself a “Bachelorette Party” kind of guy. Remember when we had to do group projects back in school? And remember those teachers who were really bad about hiding the fact that the academic subject in question wasn’t actually the point—it was all about learning how to work in a group? Well yes indeed, that’s how I always felt about gatherings along the lines of a bachelorette party. The few that I had attended brought out in me all the things I couldn’t stand about group projects. But when one of the nearest and dearest tells you to save the date before plowing you with wine, appetizers, wine, pasta, wine, and dessert, it’s time to “man up” and start preparing the necessary outfits and playlists.

Horror stories easily write themselves when it comes to these wedding rituals, but this Hollywood story was blissfully unpredictable. From dancing on the tabletops to watching movies on the couch, we had practically every kind of fun there is to have, but it always helps to cook with the right ingredients. Oh my dear sweet boys, if only you could have seen the eight gorgeous women I was surrounded by that weekend . . . to passersby on Hollywood Boulevard, I may have looked a touch out of place, and admittedly the only thing I was checking out was their shoes (aces, all of them!). Once we hit the street, my blissfully predictable inner tourist come bursting from within—all due respect to my travel companions, I walked about seven blocks with my eyes planted firmly on every star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Since I set out this little movie project of mine, I have come to know not only the great legends of the Golden Age but also those behind the scenes who penned the words, pulled the strings, built the staircases, fluffed the bustles, or rubied the shoes. Since she doesn’t have one herself, I was determined to find the Walk of Fame star for every idol Madonna names in “Vogue,” and had we spent the weekend more sober than we did, I would have had my picture taken with them all. Out of almost 2,500 stars, fortunately the one at the top of my list was right outside our hotel. The other one—okay, she’s also at the top of my list (why can’t I have two?)—was right outside the restaurant where we had our first dinner. I’ll find Miss Davis next time . . . but ladies, excellent planning!

Like visiting Graceland or seeing Coppola’s Oscars at his winery, there was an exciting, almost hunter-gatherer feeling about finding the stars I was looking for on the Walk of Fame. For just a moment, these great (and some terrible) figures from what have become my history textbooks felt closer, as if I were standing there with them (but I promise, not in a Joanne-Woodward or I’m-hearing-voices kind of way). Something new was happening for me, hopefully as a writer and otherwise, but this time I wasn’t afraid of not knowing what it was. Like that Hollywood sign that, despite our amazing daytime view of it, did not light up at night, it was comforting to know something was there, waiting in the darkness.

In the hills behind that well-lit Capitol Records Tower, something was downing its martini and telling me tantalizingly to fasten my seat belt.

Last Sunday Judy Garland would have turned 90 years old. I’ve long taken care of fawning over our beloved Judy, so this year I’ll let another voice chime in, one that’s slightly better than mine.

I have been fortunate to have spent some fantastic evenings at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Highly enjoyable were the special screenings of Psycho, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz, during which the symphony provides the musical score. These were indeed impossible acts to follow, but eventually Liza Minnelli and her sequins popped in for a visit, and we all know how that went over for me. A few nights ago, I dyed my eyes to match my gown and floated down Van Ness Avenue to see Idina Menzel perform barefoot at the symphony . . . since then, I’ve been bragging about the experience to anyone who throws me even the most insincere form of “how are you?” This conversation starter of mine has a “hey look at my vacation slides” feel to it, yes, and it turned out that quite a number of folks had never heard of Miss Menzel. Tempting it was to burn for all of them a copy of a certain musical, but I was fresh out of the green CDs I buy at Walgreens . . . and, oh yes, apparently no one plays CDs anymore. It was in Wicked that the great Idina Menzel originated the role of Elphaba, the (un)fairly skinned young lady who is both forced into and chooses to become the Wicked Witch of the West. My abiding love for and attachment to this character matches the Witch’s own stubbornness in strength and is not to be mocked, particularly when discussing Margaret Hamilton’s should-have-won-an-Oscar performance in 1939.

Chills and goose bumps . . . so good you want to melt in your seat, but you stop yourself because you don’t want to miss the rest of her show. With and without a microphone, on stage and dashing through the aisles, Idina Menzel’s is a truly remarkable voice to hear and to feel. When the lights went down, I still could see her come out in the dark and stand behind her orchestra, the luminescence of her white dress refusing to remain in the dark. When the lights came up, Idina remained at the back of the stage and slowly the lyrics of her first song floated up to the first tier and found my well-guarded tear ducts: “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high . . .” That witch!

I’m always impressed by anyone brave enough to sing this untouchable song outside the privacy of a car or shower. As expected, not only is Miss Menzel capable of nailing it, but she also brought tears to my usually dry eyes with the unique attachment that she now has to Oz and to Judy Garland. She went on to wallop us with numbers from Wicked, Rent, Cole Porter, and a bit of Barbra here and there, but with a single verse and chorus from “Over the Rainbow,” I surrendered to the Witch. Idina Menzel is more than just an unbelievable bundle of talent . . . you’ll believe in more than that before she’s finished with you.

Here’s to Judy on her 90th birthday, and here’s to one of her many courageous songs that continues to melt our hearts and minds . . . oh my!

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In the depths of Hollywood’s everlasting award season, both the veterans and rookies of the silver screen continue to perfect the “if I lose” facial expression, a moment often filled with greater entertainment value than the winner’s acceptance speech. It’s an honor just to be nominated? We’re all winners just to have made it this far? Perhaps yes, but come now . . . the diva lobe of my brain would be throwing an imaginary glass across the room, cursing the wench who won what should have been mine. Fortunately shattering that one glass can cut through a wall that was keeping out a much-needed sense of relief. As the cursing subsided, slowly I’d gather up the broken pieces and then begin combing through new scripts.

The agonizing race in job market can lead to similarly impetuous flinging of imaginary glassware. In these, the years of ghastly Economigeddon, it turns out that we are genuinely tickled just to be “nominated,” or called in for an interview. Recently members of the film industry familiarized themselves with my range, background, and training before I charmed them with a memorable performance, highlighted with (trust me) an exquisite costume design. Predictable nail-biting seized the following day’s schedule, but sadly it turned out that the name enclosed in the dreaded golden envelope was not to be mine.

There was only one thing to do — slip into my fancy green sweatpants that are polka-dotted with the Grinch’s face, crack open a bottle of red (conveniently a line of Coppola’s called “Director’s Cut”), and watch the should-have-won-the-Oscar performance given by Miss Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954). The night was bitter; the stars had lost their glitter, but three hours later I was asleep . . . today it’s a new world, and yes, it was an honor just to be considered, let alone nominated. Despite any broken glass on the floor, I am confident that somewhere there’s a “some job” that’s a “some job” for me.

I’m completely fascinated by fascinated people. When it comes to museum exhibits, I tend to sprint through and overlook the art, choosing instead to observe my fellow patrons. Not long ago my sister and I went to SFMOMA to see what was dubbed “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” Making our way through the overcrowded exhibit, it was easy for me to appreciate these reputable paintings and their histories, but I found myself captivated more by the photographs of the Steins themselves. Displayed at various points throughout the exhibit, these wall-sized photos showed the Steins (and others) in various settings with the paintings on the walls behind them. Bless that different drummer of mine . . . people walked right by these amazing black-and-white stills with half a glance as I stood and stared, glassy-eyed. Photographs of the paintings were of greater interest to me than the paintings themselves.

When I’m fortunate enough to be the one on the “lost” side of art, my instinct is to keep to myself and treasure this unexpected, personal experience (that is, if I can avoid the fierce old ladies who must have been football players in their previous lives — they’ll floor you with one elbow if you get in their way). And when I stumble upon something outside of the museum setting, I’ll toss it in my mental pocket and keep it tucked away for as long as I can. But this time . . . this time I had to share my inability to put into words how one photograph knotted up my stomach, sent chills up and down my arms, and put a heartbroken smile on my face. If art is going to strike me with its lightning, it needs to strike my stomach, toes, and fingers before attempting to make a pass at my brain. I want to feel my reaction, not think it, and I have to confess that this one quakes me; it shakes me; it makes me feel goose-pimply all over:

I can’t say for certain, but I believe this photograph of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe was taken at a Golden Globes ceremony in what must have been the early 1960s. An authentic moment that reveals a sliver of truth, or just another show for just another camera . . . once again my special tickle spot and I prefer not to know.

Reviews for this legendary woman’s final film opened with something in the neighborhood of “Either you’re a Judy Garland fan, or you’re not.” If I could hear with my eyes, this type of non-comment would be like nails on a chalkboard to read. Clearly I’m rather protective of certain artists who, despite their off-camera messiness, can do no wrong. The first CD of Judy’s I purchased in my adult life was The Essential Judy Garland, a wonderful compilation that’s perfect for getting one’s feet wet. The album has provided me with material for some of my singing career’s best performances . . . the ones in my car. But it wasn’t until I watched I Could Go On Singing (originally titled The Lonely Stage) that I realized some of my Essential favorites were from the film’s soundtrack. Any helping of Miss Garland’s movies frequently comes with a side of “Oh that’s where that’s from!” I’ve traveled far beyond the rainbow and Carnegie Hall since that cherished (and yes, essential) collection, and I’ve found that, more than her films, it’s her music that remains familiar and comforting to me.

“I’m full, full to the brim with the whole goddamned world!” Almost ten years after A Star Is Born, 41-year-old Judy took to the lonely stage and played Jenny Bowman, a champion singer whose voice reigned supreme over any other, past, present, or Liza . . . well okay, we can sit and debate about Liza. After arriving in London to perform at the Palladium, Jenny looks up the man with whom she had a son years ago, and as she gets to know the boy, the loneliness of her success begins to ooze out. For me Miss Garland always brings to the screen that combination of a tough outside and a squishy inside, sometimes confessing everything through a song; other times hiding behind one. “I can’t be spread so thin, I’m just one person,” Jenny (and Judy) concedes. “I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”

You’ll see in the first ten minutes that few surprises are in store as far as the plot, and I can’t say this is Miss Garland at her most attractive. Beware of the wonderful song By Myself when it’s suddenly threatened by a rather unfortunate red dress in front of a red curtain. As the story goes, this costume was never approved by Edith Head. But beyond any “style-section” reviews of the film, I think it’s one of the most revealing roles I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately Judy Garland would live only another six years after this film’s release . . . people come and go so quickly here. This tragic new level of dramatic irony fuels her performance with an obviously unscripted authenticity that may be upsetting to some and fascinating to others; I’ll remain there between the two extremes until the cows come home. Okay, enough of the analytical fiddle-faddle . . .

One afternoon I think the girl in the car next to mine assumed I was flirting when I smiled at her — sorry darling, Judy just hit a note that made me super giddy (in a duet with Barbra, thank you very much!), and you happened into my line of sight. Of all the flattering things one could say about Judy Garland’s voice, one that especially tickles me is when a song’s slowly building tempo is ripped to shreds when that lion comes roaring out of her throat. Judy ends Hello Bluebird with a growling cannonball of a “Hello!” and I imagine that part of my CD is just about to snap from repetition. Judy’s finale performance of the song I Could Go On Singing is frighteningly hypnotic; at one point she catapults the word “singing” at us (without its second “g,” mind you) as if she’s throwing her drink across the room. But before she decides to get on the stage and slay her audience, she reminds us, “you can get me there, sure, but can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to, just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want — do you understand that?”

Indeed we do.

“For so many years I’ve been misquoted and rather brutally treated by the press, but I’ll be damned if I like to have my audience mistreated.” — Judy Garland

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“The next one is sort of a strip-tease tempo . . . we don’t do it, we just talk about it!”

Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco is a theatre-in-the-round, allowing patrons to sit behind the stage as well as in front or on the sides. Those who sat behind the stage in December 2010 caught a few good views of the performer’s face, but mostly they were looking at her sequined back and red scarf. Every time she turned around to face them and I got a glimpse of her profile, I was absolutely certain I was staring at her mother. After slaying us with what we thought was her grand finale, Liza Minnelli poked her head out from behind the curtain and whispered, “I just saw the cutest thing.” She walked down to the front row and brought on stage a little girl dressed in a flapper outfit similar to one Liza wore in Cabaret (1972). Putting the little girl on her lap, Liza told the story of how her parents met on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and ended her December concert with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

On April 23, 1961, Judy Garland performed live at Carnegie Hall. Exactly 50 years ago today, the woman whose voice remains my favorite of all time charmed that fortunate audience with 26 of her greatest songs. Along with “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “You Go To My Head” (to which she forgets the words, bless her heart!), Judy paused now and then for a bit of humorous story time. Although she was approaching 40, that laugh of hers still had the softness of a little girl’s.

Having worked a year at Beach Blanket Babylon, I’ll always have a little giggle of my own attached to the song “San Francisco.” When I sat down and calculated, I believe I saw the BBB cast perform that song close to 500 times. Aside from the theatre, many of these wonderful songs bring to life the many wonderful films of hers. Judy didn’t perform “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” but the medley of “You Made Me Love You”/”For Me and My Gal”/”The Trolley Song” brings me an all-too-familiar smile that beams with an “I love that movie!” Having covered Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and For Me and My Gal (1942), she moved on to “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” at the end of which she sighed one of our favorite Judy-isms: “I know, I’ll, I’ll sing ’em all, and we’ll stay all night!”  That line, which I’ve rewound more times than I’ll ever admit, was a ruby-red tornado that carried Judy and her audience smoothly into “Over the Rainbow.”

Of the 26 gems, still nothing pulls at my heart and tear ducts like “The Man That Got Away.” Along with “Swanee,” Judy pulled this extraordinary song from the soundtrack for A Star Is Born, a film for which Harpo Marx and I agree she should have won an Oscar. I can do the great Judy Garland little justice, if any . . . pour yourself a glass of ruby-red, fire up the record player, and celebrate with me the 50th anniversary of the untouchable Judy Garland’s performance at Carnegie Hall.

Thanks Miss Garland . . . I think I miss you most of all!

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A few nights ago, I settled in for yet another journey with dear Vicki Lester and her rise to stardom. While there are many scenes in which her talents are (thankfully!) on full display, there’s one that really crawls under my skin . . . and I know I’m not alone! Every time I watch this scene (and you better believe I rewind endlessly), I’m again flabbergasted that Miss Judy Garland did not win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. All due respect to 1955’s winner, Miss Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, there is absolutely no comparison in my book! The protective wall that surrounds my heart makes it difficult for me to cry, but then suddenly here comes Judy Garland, ready to punch right through that wall! This last time, I didn’t even realize I was crying until the end of the scene . . .

Have a look:

Exactly 88 years ago today, Frances Ethel Gumm was born into a family of performers and found her way to the stage before she turned three. The little girl with the huge voice signed a contract with MGM when she was 13, and at 16, her immortality was insured when a cyclone swept down and blew her house over the rainbow.

Never has a voice crawled into my heart like Miss Judy Garland’s. I’ve paid my respects previously with entries on The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born, but I see no reason not to toast, once again, the voice that was just too good for this world. Happy birthday, Baby Gumm!