Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
She died before her 50th year, but 50 years later she is still recognized as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. At age 39, she was our youngest and first female recipient of the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement in the film industry. But what a career she already had!
Born into a showbiz family — both her parents were vaudevillians — she actually appeared on stage when she was two years old. She was seven when along with her two sisters she made her first film appearance in a short subject called The Big Revue. They appeared in other short subjects, none of which brought them much attention. It was only when Louis B. Mayer asked composer Burton Lane to check out the Garland Sisters who were performing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles that MGM signed her to a seven-year contract.
Now 13, at that awkward age, the studio didn’t know what to do with her. They sent her to the studio’s school attended by such aspiring actresses as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Elizabeth Taylor, where according to one of her best directors, Charles Walters, she was “the ugly duckling.” This didn’t do much for her self confidence and even Mayer referred to her as his "little hunchback".
Her big break came when she was enlisted by the studio to sing “You Made Me Love You” to Clark Gable at a studio party thrown for the biggest star on the lot. She made such an impression she was added to the completed Broadway Melody of 1938 in which she sang the song to Gable’s photograph.
Suddenly MGM knew what to do with her. They paired her with Mickey Rooney, a big star at the time, and the two of them became lifelong friends. Besides appearing with him in numerous Andy Hardy movies, they teamed together in the film version of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, easily her best showcase before The Wizard of Oz, which remains her most famous film, even though ironically the studio’s first choice for Dorothy was Shirley Temple, and then Deanna Durbin.
Only when both were unavailable did Mayer agree to give the part to Judy, and of course the rest is history.
As early as that she was always under pressure to watch her weight and invariably given amphetamines to keep up with the frantic pace of making one film after another. Surprisingly The Wizard of Oz at the time of release was not the studio’s biggest moneymaker. Of course over the years it has become a classic and a TV perennial, and it did earn Judy a Junior Academy Award.
Now a bona fide star at the studio, which boasted to have more stars than the firmament, she made one movie after the other starting with Strike Up the Band, again with Rooney. Then Little Nellie Kelly, Babes on Broadway (a sequel to Babes in Arms), Ziegfeld Girl, and Presenting Lily Mars, all box office hits.
Her best movie of this period was For Me and My Gal which introduced an unknown actor from Broadway, Gene Kelly, and which too began a partnership and friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Although none of these films is today considered a classic, in every one Judy is Judy, effervescent, adorable and always authentic.
It was Meet Me in St. Louis that established her as a screen immortal. It was also the film where she met her second husband, famed director Vincente Minnelli. The box office and critical success of the film made her MGM’s number one priority, and she followed it with another success The Harvey Girls, and a prestige item The Pirate with Gene Kelly featuring a brilliant Cole Porter score.
Her biggest commercial success, Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, was intended as a third Kelly-Garland pairing, but when Kelly broke his ankle during rehearsals, Fred Astaire was recruited to replace him, a decision which ended Astaire’s self-imposed retirement and made him as big a star as he was in the 30s. The film today is a perennial Easter movie and one Judy’s best, but the pressure of making one movie after the other had its toll.
Even though she took time off to give birth to future superstar Liza Minnelli, she suffered a nervous breakdown. The studio speeded up her recovery, offering her the role of a lifetime, playing Annie Oakley in Berlin’s Broadway smash Annie Get your Gun. But then, after watching the dailies in which she appeared stressed and drab, she was replaced by Betty Hutton, and thus began a downward spiral from which she never recovered.
She was temporarily her old self in In the Good Old Summertime, a delightful musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner, but in her last MGM film, plagued by emotional issues, despite working again with Kelly, she was painfully overweight. Her one redeeming sequence the “Get Happy” number was added after the film was completed.
So now, with her seven-year contract up, she was at a crossroads. Hollywood might have turned its back on her, but the public was firmly in her corner. Returning to her roots, she made a spectacular comeback appearing at the Palace in New York to overwhelming public and critical acclaim. Four years later she embarked on a momentous comeback at Warner Bros. With the full backing of Jack Warner, A Star is Born was given the big-budget treatment. Although a remake of the 1937 film, it was given a new script by Moss Hart, an original score by Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen, with James Mason signed as her costar and George Cukor as her director. Although plagued by problems, the delivered film was a true masterpiece, providing Judy with her greatest performance for which she earned a Golden Globe, but not the Oscar. Grace Kelly, who was embarking on a new career as Princess Grace of Monica, won for The Country Girl.
That disappointment had a profound impact on her career, and after that, her life fell apart. She had one spectacular run with the TV series The Judy Garland Show, but it lasted only two seasons. After that, she worked in nightclubs and attempted a less-than-spectacular return to the screen playing opposite Dirk Bogarde in I Could Go On Singing. Her co-starring role in A Child Is Waiting with Burt Lancaster was more successful, and she was heartbreaking in another non-singing role in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg for which she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actress.
Arguably the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, she can claim three classic movies: A Star Is Born, The Wizard of Oz, and Meet Me in St. Louis.