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business and pleasure: judy garland and vincente minnelli

In this six-part series, Kiah Meadows takes a look at the relationship between famous directors and their muses throughout Hollywood’s history.

We all remember Judy Garland for her role as Dorothy Gale, little girl lost turned witch-killing teen in MGM’s 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. But how many of us are aware of the trouble that her time on set caused Judy in later life?

It was on the back lot of MGM, amongst other child stars like Lana Turner and Mickey Rooney, that Judy would become hooked on a cocktail of drugs. Studio staff plied her with chemicals in order to keep up with the filming schedule and to look exactly the part (she was 16 playing a 12-year-old). Garland was given pills to keep her thin, to keep her breasts from growing, to keep her awake during the day and then asleep at night.

This drug addiction was not only the cause of Garland’s eventual death, but of the breakup of her personal and professional relationship with director Vincente Minnelli.

Minnelli first directed Garland in 1944 in another merry musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland was rumoured to have had breakdowns of epic diva proportions fuelled by her intense insecurities, which prompted further drug taking on set.

Thankfully, Minnelli wasn’t like most of the men in Hollywood at the time; he knew just how to talk Garland off of each metaphorical ledge and back into filming. His artistic flair (that often was attributed to his allegedly being homosexual) meant that he knew exactly how to light, frame and dress Garland so as to flatter her on screen. This was what she so desperately craved, especially as she got older.

Minelli had a firm but gentle hand in his directorial style, which translated personally when working and socialising with Garland at the time of filming, providing a guidance Garland was comfortable with. Their working relationship blossomed into a deep romance. Of course, they were both married when they met, but began an affair while filming, and only delayed their marriage to each other long enough to be divorced first.

When Garland got pregnant with Minnelli’s child in 1945, she vowed that she would never take drugs again which pleased him endlessly at the time. However, when Garland’s contract at MGM came up for renewal, Minnelli convinced her to sign, as his career was threatened if she didn’t.

Garland began depending on drugs again to get her through filming. During the last film they worked on together, The Pirate (1948), Minnelli confronted her in the midst of her mental breakdown and had her admitted to hospital for drug rehabilitation.

When released only a couple of months later, Garland was put straight to work, undoing any good that was achieved during her stint in rehab. This prompted the star to lock herself in the bathroom in the home she and Minnelli shared and cut her throat. Her husband arrested this attempted suicide.

This was the last straw for Minnelli. Garland couldn’t work without drugs, but couldn’t live without the fame. Although their divorce wasn’t final until 1951, they were estranged for over a year beforehand.

So what does this say about mixing business with pleasure? In the studio era, it was done all the time; matches made by executives to appease the public or quell rumours of homosexuality and torrid affairs. The Garland Minnelli pairing, however, wasn’t concocted but naturally born out of Garland’s desperate need for affection and Minnelli’s desire to get his leading lady to actually work.

Who knows how long the couple might have lasted if their careers weren’t involved? Perhaps Garland would have felt safe enough to stay off the drugs had her husband not pushed for her to continue to work in such a demanding environment.

 

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