Monday, February 18, 2013

Dorothy vs Scarlett and Ninotchka

Here's a fact for Black History Month:  Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest nominee for Best Actress in the history of the Academy Awards.  In the Oscar race at age 9 for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Last week, I watched The Wizard of Oz on DVD.  If little Ms. Wallis is a Best Actress nominee for that film, then Judy Garland should have received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for the The Wizard of Oz.  She deserved to be in the race opposite Vivien Leigh for Gone With The Wind and Greta Garbo for Ninotchka.  Her soulful, memorable and moving performance as Dorothy Gale is the heart of this great musical adventure.  It endures as touching, truthful work.
So much is known about the movie's back story.  We know that MGM studio execs attempted to borrow little big star, Shirley Temple, from 20th Century Fox for the project.  Temple was the right age but wrong for the role.  We know that "Over the Rainbow" was almost dropped from the movie.  It went on to win the Oscar for Best Song, became a hit with the public and was Garland's signature tune for the rest of her life.  Some obvious elements seem to have been overlooked.  In that 1939 release, Judy Garland was a kid working with seasoned show biz veterans twice her age and older.
Ray Bolger, "Scarecrow," was in his mid-30s.  Bert Lahr and Jack Haley, "Lion" and "Tin Man," were in their 40s.
Frank Morgan, "Professor Marvel" and "The Wizard," was nearly 50.  Judy Garland was 16 and not yet a star when cast as Dorothy.  She was a screen newcomer at MGM, a cute girl with an amazingly mature voice.  She was Betsy Booth, the Broadway hopeful gal pal and never the girlfriend in Mickey Rooney's popular Andy Hardy franchise.  The emotional depth and womanliness of her voice was evident when the sang a special arrangement of "You Made Me Love You" as a girl writing a "Dear Mr. Gable" fan letter to Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938.  Unlike 20th Century Fox's Shirley Temple, she wasn't a leading lady.  The contract player was still being groomed and doing good work.  Young Judy had a major responsibility on her shoulders as a teen actress hoping for stardom.  As Dorothy Gale, not only did she have to act and be believable in a role that she was a few years too old for (her developing bustline had to be obscured), she had to introduce an original movie score by celebrated songwriters Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg.

One great lesson I learned years ago in acting classes taught by Tony-winning actress Joanna Gleason (Sondheim's original Broadway cast of Into the Woods, Dirk Diggler's mother in the movie Boogie Nights), is that a good song as like a monologue set to music.  It gives information about a character.  It moves the story.  "Over the Rainbow" sets the tone for Dorothy's emotional and physical journey.  It reveals all her inner longing.  The song is a monologue that she beautifully delivers in the first 20 minutes of the movie.  That simplicity, that depth, that wistful innocence bring us into Dorothy's soul.
She's not a child of privilege and entitlement.  She hasn't always known happiness.  She lives on a Kansas farm obviously hit hard by the Great Depression.  She helps take care of that farm.  And what happened to her parents?  We never know.  She lives with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry.  And Toto too.  She's a good girl and a loyal friend.
We're often so delighted by the movie that we don't realize how difficult an assignment teen Garland had and brilliantly accomplished.  We have to believe that Dorothy believes in all these fantastic characters and all these fantastic events.  Shirley Temple's movie characters were usually precious and precocious youngsters that folks wanted to take care of, adopt, pamper and spotlight musically on their radio shows.  She was spunky.  Judy played a poor, sweet kid that a wicked witch wants to torture and put to death.
We have to believe in all her affections, all her fears in the Land of Oz.
We have to believe that the frightened girl's love for a friend in need would be strong enough to summon up the bravery to save his life and overcome her fear of being killed by the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy thinks of others. Not only of herself.
If young Judy Garland's performance doesn't work in The Wizard of Oz, the whole film suffers.  She's 16.  A high schooler.  And she has to carry a big budget Hollywood movie from the top studio in town.  That would be a major, daunting task dramatically.  She had to carry it with new songs.  Musicals are hard work.  She had new music and special effects to deal with in this complicated production.  It's an action/fantasy musical.  When I was 16, I had a tough time just dealing with gym class.  The word "iconic" is tossed about frequently today by entertainment journalists, but it really does apply to Garland's performance as Dorothy.  For 1939, it's proven to be as famous and memorable as Vivien Leigh's Oscar winning dramatic turn as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.  Both films were directed by Victor Fleming.  Both Scarlett and Dorothy were strong females determined to get back home.  Being in my 50s, I'm of that generation that waited eagerly for the annual presentation of this classic on network television.  It was usually around Easter time.  And it was the only time it aired during the year.  This was before VHS, DVDs, DVR and cable television.  That annual presentation was indeed a very special broadcast for us youngsters.  We were enraptured every single year and we were awed by it, even though most of us watched Dorothy's adventures in black and white.  Not every home had a color TV at that time.  The Oriental is a revival movie theater on the East Side of Milwaukee.  The Wizard of Oz played there when I lived in Milwaukee.  That was in the early 1980s.  The place was packed -- mostly with babyboomers who'd grown up watching it on TV and now brought their youngsters to see it.  I sat next to a former co-worker who brought his little girl.  He and I had never seen The Wizard of Oz on a big screen.  The Oriental had a gorgeous print.  The colors popped.  Being that we were now grown, my buddy and I had known heartbreaks and disappointments.  We knew what it was like to try to find your way back home in some fashion.  We'd battled negative forces like the Wicked Witch in our adult lives.  Right before Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, he and I both said, "Wow."  What hit us?  How long the Yellow Brick Road stretched  up and down hills was before she found Scarecrow.  He whispered to me, "Look how far she's come."  To this day, when Dorothy says to Scarecrow, "I think I'll miss you most of all" before she leaves Oz altogether, I feel this -- it's not because she loves Tin Man and Lion any less.  It's because Scarecrow travelled the road with her the farthest.
When Dorothy awakens in her room in Kansas, we have to feel that we survived that difficult and often dangerous journey with her.  We have to feel the lessons she's learned.  We must believe her poignant declaration, "...there's no place like home."
Judy Garland was given a special Juvenile Academy Award for The Wizard of Oz.
Her first Oscar nomination came for a spectacular 1954 musical/dramatic performance.  She sang about another road.  "The road gets rougher, it's lonelier and tougher..." were lyrics in "The Man That Got Away," the torch song she introduced in A Star Is Born.
The Best Actress Oscar went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.  It should've gone to Judy for George Cukor's masterful musical remake of a 1937 classic drama.
Harold Arlen co-wrote new hit songs for her to sing in that film too.  For an "Only in Hollywood" item, here's one for you:  Judy Garland's Oscar-winning actress/singer daughter, Liza Minnelli, was once married to Jack Haley Jr., son of the Tin Man actor.  The Wizard of Oz made Garland famous.  In the 1940s, she was one of MGM's brightest, most beloved and most talented stars.  As for Garland's Dorothy, if you've seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, go watch The Wizard of Oz again.  If Ms. Wallis is in the running for the Best Actress Academy Award of 2012, Judy Garland should've been a nominee for the adult-sized Oscar as Best Actress of 1939.  It's quite a performance.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bobby I would like to request permission to reprint image of the main characters from the Wizard of Oz on your website for my new book on psychotherapy. If you agree please reply to Regards Dr Art O'Malley


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