Emily Dix and I love Judy Garland. During our second shift together, after learning that she enjoyed classic cinema, I eventually ventured “How do you feel about Meet Me in St. Louis?” We’ve indulged in our obsession ever since. Our coworkers became quickly frustrated with our multiple conversations on the backstage drama of The Wizard of Oz and joked that the first interview question put to potential-hires should be “Do you like Judy Garland?” We took to talking about her furtively, but on closing shifts when it was just the two of us we’d stack the CD player and then drown it out singing along. This also turned out to be the fastest way to empty the store at the end of the night.
So when she found out that the Cinematheque at the AGO was showing A Star is Born, Judy’s melancholy masterpiece, we had to go.
No matter what.
The last time I saw the film was right before I left for Ireland. I spotted a photocopied poster on Queen West with an illustration of Judy doing the famous ‘framing face’ gesture, next to a design for Battleship Potemkin. Reg Hart, who was described to me, by a member of Team Macho no less, as “prophet without a flock”, was showing the two movies as part of a “GAY FILM MAKERS TRIBUTE FOR PRIDE”. (A Star is Born was made by George Cukor, a great director from the golden age who specialized in ‘women’s pictures’ and was surprisingly open about his homosexuality).
I invited my friend Jeremy and only as we had dinner at Mars diner on College before hand did I tell him that the film wasn’t being shown at a real movie theatre. Rather, Reg Hart shows them on a big screen in his converted living room, with movie posters and bookcases with Edward Gorey memorabilia crowding on each side. He let us bring wine, though: “Pretend you are in Europe” read the poster.
Jeremy is not a huge musical person, and I feel very protective of A Star is Born, so I was nervous. But he liked it, and wrote the whole experience off as a crazy, Toronto night, and we remained friends.
But I was really excited to see it on an actual big screen and with a real audience. Emily and I had planned to go for at least a month, plenty of time for me to come up with an outfit. I ended up wearing a bright red shirt (bold, 1950’s lipstick-red is a thematic colour throughout the entire film) and a twee bow-tie, my version of Judy’s boyish look.
Then, just as they did on the set of that production, things started to go wrong. They switched the schedule at work and Emily discovered that she was supposed to close the store that evening. We both wrote frantic letters to a co-worker (mine went along the lines of “Emily and I are sick, we know, and we’re trying to get help, but our psychologist thinks it would be detrimental to our well-being if…”) and she kindly agreed to switch shifts with Emily.
Then, as I was working on a piece about retro eyeglasses for WORN, basking in my personal air-conditioning, the power went off. This was an hour and a half before I was supposed to meet Emily downtown.
“Is the power off down there?” I asked frantically on the cell.
“No, I think it’s fine,” Emily said.
“Well, I’m coming. The show must go on!” And I slipped my recently-purchased DVD (“Nearly 4 hours of special features!”) into my bag as a back-up plan.
My neighbourhood was all out, but the buses and subway were still running, thank God. My bus driver muttered insults about the other drivers to himself (“Really nice driving there, fella!”) and I wondered if it was too much to ask for the TTC not to employ public servants who act like crazy people. Probably.
Oh, and I walked straight into an old Chinese woman at Spadina station. It was her fault. I was getting off the subway and she was getting on, and left practically no room for me to walk past her, and that to me is breaking the covenant of the TTC, so I just boldly walked forward and ended up pushing her. She let out a loud ‘guffaw!’ and I thought, ‘Well, maybe next time you’ll let the other passengers off first!’
Then I got karmic retribution when I was getting on the streetcar and the doors closed on me.
Also, just before I got off in Chinatown, the streetcar rear-ended the one in front of it. Power was out along Spadina and cops were directly traffic and yelling at old Chinese men and Kensington Market hipsters who crossed whenever they wanted.
Luckily, the power was fine further east and the AC inside the art gallery was nirvanic.
Emily was nine minutes late (“Five on my watch!”) but I forgave her because she was wearing a home-made t-shirt with a young Judy on it, emblazoned with rhinestones.
“So many things could have prevented us from being here,” I said. “So many things… But we made it!”
And the movie did not disappoint, despite having seen it ten times. It was shot in cinemascope, so it really benefited from the big screen, and having never watched it with an audience before (the viewers were mostly young gay guys, older gay guys and middle-aged AGO members) I learned from their laughter that some scenes are actually quite darkly funny, and during dramatic moments there was perceptible tension in the room.
The movie, which shows the two sides of fame through the rise to stardom of Esther Blodgett (Judy) contrasted with the end of her husband Norman Maine’s (James Mason) career, is meta double tragedy. Despite the sadness of the plot, at least Judy is the winner in it, although biographical ironies abound. It has been suggested that the film is really a portrait of Garland split in two: Esther is the talented one everyone loves, and Norman is the alcoholic bent on self-destruction. “Sometimes I hate him,” cries Judy in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes captured on film. “And I hate me too, because I failed him!” And she points at herself through mascara-smudging tears, a possible clue to the audience about who the scene is really about.
But I called it a double tragedy because, interestingly as a movie about a sudden rise to fame, the film was meant as a grand comeback for Garland, the definitive Hollywood survivor. But it didn’t work. No matter how many suggestive lines they threw into the script (“All they want is more of your pictures,” a producer informs Judy) and how many well-wishing celebrities came to the dazzling opening, the movie had cost too much and the Warner brothers destroyed it through editing. The final straw came when Judy lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly, a pretty but useless actress not dissimilar to the phoney dumb starlets in the movie Norman Main dated before meeting Esther.
Despite making three more movies, A Star is Born signalled the end of Judy’s film career and, in many ways, the end of the big-budget musicals of Old Hollywood.
Perhaps it is all that pathos that led Emily and me to feel that we had to go, braving heat-spells and black-outs, to pay devotional tribute at our musical Mecca.