George Hodgman
April 07, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The immortality of our pop-cultural idols can be very wearing. Decades of viewings and reissues can transform even the most beloved into caricatures and less-than-welcome guests. There may be no better example of this than Judy Garland, whose saga of self-destruction and resurrection seemed exhausted even before the latest installments of her slightly speeded-up sequel (her daughter Liza Minnelli). Who can survive another round of rainbows and rehab? Surprisingly, Gerald Clarke makes it work in Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. He shows us why the girl who taught us what a good time we could have in Kansas — if we got unconscious and turned the house upside down — remains the most enduring of Hollywood legends: She’s great copy, the vulnerable all-American sweetheart turned subversive, who came to us in gingham, made us cry with her saucer-shaped eyes, and then went to hell in a handbasket with her addictions, divorces, and never-ending personal dramas.

Luckily, the unsentimental Clarke, who expertly delineated a similar sort of creative character in his 1988 bio of Truman Capote, is the kind of journalist who doesn’t just rehash what other biographers and writers have already supplied; he rejects the old notions that tended to classify Garland as a too-vulnerable-for-the-world victim of Hollywood. Though her fans and critics have waged debates for decades about her best and worst records, movies, and concerts, Clarke, for the most part, avoids artistic assessments. His is a big, barrel-chested portrait of a woman whose life was dominated by her relentless drive to tell the whole truth as an artist.

Clarke supplies a fairly standard account of Garland’s childhood and relationship with her mother, Ethel Gumm. More impressive is his subtle inspection of Garland’s ups and downs with her father figure/object of rebellion Louis B. Mayer, who made her a star at MGM at an age when most kids are still balking over piano practice. Clarke doesn’t lay the blame for Garland’s pill popping on Mayer, who he says tried to wean the star off drugs. Garland, he says, chose the highs herself because she wanted to go all the way on screen and on stage. She was addicted to full-throttle performing, and the myth she created ran away from her. Far from being a downtrodden little sparrow, she was headstrong and unromantic — more than a match for Mayer.

By far the most interesting section of the book covers her courtship and marriage to director Vincente Minnelli, the man who gave her what she considered the best moments of her screen career. We learn that Minnelli, who had come to MGM from Broadway, had been involved in what most observers considered a homosexual relationship during his days on the East Coast. In California, before meeting Garland, he had been thought of as a gay man, an impression based on his artistic flair, the testimonies of a few actors who claimed to have shared his bed, and his use of heavy makeup. (Clarke reports that at MGM the director wore more makeup than most of the starlets.) Because of his own insecurity about his looks, Minnelli was able to understand the desire of Garland — who felt like a frump next to some of the studio’s glamour girls — to be beautiful on screen. In Meet Me in St. Louis, he made her wish come true, transforming girlish Judy into a lovely woman. Particularly good is Clarke’s presentation of the flameout of the marriage on the set of The Pirate, where Judy’s ragged nerves were not soothed by the sight of her husband’s attentions toward costar Gene Kelly, “a developing collaboration…that pointedly excluded her.”

Get Happy peters out a bit after Judy and the readers see the last of Vincente — it’s by far the meatiest, best-reported section of the book, as much a comprehensive look at the sexual and marital mores of 1940s Hollywood as a look at the Garland-Minnelli marriage. But even if the last years of Judy’s life aren’t fleshed out with the same insight and detail, it’s still a compelling read. After finishing it, you’ll never mistake Judy Garland for Dorothy of Kansas again. She was pure Hollywood. Make that HAHH-LEEE-WOOOD. A-

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