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Judy Garland: A study in resilience, despite addiction to the drugs that killed her

Judy Garland.
Creative Commons
Judy Garland.

Judy Garland would have turned 100 this June — if she had lived. She died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 47.

Even at the age of four, I saw Judy Garland as everything I wanted to be: spirited, brave yet vulnerable, and gifted with a singing voice that could melt the hardest heart.

I’m a singer. To this day, when I’m learning a new song and haven’t achieved the effect I want, I tell myself, “Judy.”

It’s a reminder to emulate a singing style that always seemed heartfelt and honest.

One of Garland’s most memorable performances comes toward the end of the 1950 film, "Summer Stock."

"Get Happy" is a fantastic, peppy number, and Garland looks like a million bucks. She wears a fedora angled over her face, a short black suit that shows off her remarkable legs, and high heels that step all over the male chorus around her.

In the rest of the film, she looks slightly plump and wears dowdy dresses. Suddenly, in one number, she transforms from Plain Jane to Femme Fatale.

And therein lies the rub. "Get Happy" was shot weeks after the rest of "Summer Stock." In the intervening time, Garland followed a lifelong pattern of crash dieting, aided by the pills Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been feeding her for years.

It's hard to enjoy that wonderful performance and not acknowledge that her appearance reflects the emotional fragility and dependence on drugs that eventually killed her.

In fact, it’s hard to appreciate her entire career without being aware of the ways in which the studios chewed up and spat out workers like Garland. Hollywood was called “The Dream Factory.”

A factory that makes dreams is still a factory.

Nonetheless, as we celebrate Judy Garland’s centenary, I choose to follow her daughters in honoring their mother’s resilience, humor and honesty. When I sing “Get Happy,’’ I’ll smile even as my heart breaks a little for a woman who should have lived longer.

Tinky Weisblat is a singer and lives in Hawley, Massachusetts. This weekend, she's starring in a Judy Garland centennial concert titled "Get Happy" in Charlemont.

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