Friend of Dorothy: Renée Zellweger on paying tribute to the queer legacy of Judy Garland

Garland is the gay icon GOAT, and the new biopic Judy does not ignore that.

Garland is the gay icon GOAT, and the new biopic Judy does not ignore that

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland. (eOne)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

There were three big questions I had walking into a screening of the Judy Garland biopic Judy at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month: 1) Would this be the Renée Zellweger comeback performance we've been rooting for? 2) Would it be better than the paint-by-numbers biopics centred around epic performances we're often fed during Oscar season? And 3) would it sufficiently and suitably acknowledge Garland's status as basically the GOAT of gay icons?

My opinions with regard to the first two questions are fairly straight-forward and of the general consensus: Zellweger is absolutely remarkable as Garland (and seems deservedly in line for another Oscar nomination if not another win), while the film itself is certainly above average when it comes to standard biopics (though Zellweger's performance is by far the best thing about it). As for addressing Garland's legacy as an icon specifically among gay men, I think a little primer is required before getting into not only my own related thoughts, but Judy director Rupert Goold's and Zellweger's herself.

You could easily write a book on how Judy Garland is a gay icon (full disclosure: I strongly considered writing my Master's thesis on the topic), but I've been somewhat surprised to find out how few people both under and over certain rainbows are aware of the specifics. Basically, Garland's mainstream association with gay identity dates back to at least 1967, when Time magazine disparagingly noted in a review of one of her shows that a "disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual."

That review later adds that the "boys in the tight trousers" (Time repeatedly used this term to describe gay men) would "roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats" during Garland's performances, then going so far as to consult psychiatrists to try and explain Garland's appeal to gay folks. "The attraction [to Garland] might be made considerably stronger by the fact that she has survived so many problems; homosexuals identify with that kind of hysteria," it reads. "Judy was beaten up by life, embattled and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her."

The LGBTQ community is obviously a central part of Garland's iconography- Rupert Goold,

Of course, these psychiatrists only got it partly right: Judy Garland was indeed a survivor, but so were those tight trousered homosexuals. And while it wasn't because of her "power" to become "more masculine," Garland was absolutely idolized (and emulated, via drag) by gay folks long before 1967.

According to Gerald Clarke's biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, she was also known to have many gay friends (not to mention her father and at least one of her husbands) and frequented gay bars with folks like George Cukor and Roger Edens (which pissed off her handlers at MGM). The term "friend of Dorothy" became a code phrase gay folks used to identify each other (and still is on cruise ships), which Clarke's book explains is because Garland's Wizard of Oz character "mirrored many gay men's desires to escape the black-and-white limitations of small town life ... for big, colourful cities filled with quirky, gender-bending characters who would welcome them."

There's also the debated influence Garland's death had on the Stonewall riots, which occurred a week following her death and mere hours after her funeral. Popular opinion has said that many of the bar's patrons that night had come from mourning outside of Garland's funeral. In this discussion, historian David Carter suggests it's entirely a myth that there was even a connection, but several people contradict him, including iconic Stonewall participant Sylvia Rivera "You could actually feel it in the air," she says. "You really could. I guess Judy Garland's death just really helped us hit the fan." 

Whatever the truth about Garland's effect on Stonewall, her connection to queer folks is pretty staggering, and expecting Goold's film Judy to entirely encapsulate it is unreasonable. But the film definitely doesn't ignore it, primarily through a significant extended sequence in which Garland meets a gay couple (Andy Nyman and David Cerqueira) who very much stan her outside one of her shows. She decides to ask them to take her out for dinner and they end up back at their Garland memorabilia-filled house to discuss — among other things — the very troubled state of gay rights. Is it a little on the nose? Sure. But it also feels very sincere, and sets things up for the couple's return in the film's intensely emotional finale (which I won't spoil entirely, but let's just say "Over The Rainbow" is involved). 

"The LGBTQ community is obviously a central part of Garland's iconography," Goold said at the Toronto International Film Festival. "And for a while we would be toying around ending with Stonewall and how that tied in to her funeral."

Judy. (eOne)

But Goold ultimately explained that they couldn't really make that connection central to the film, so he looked for another way.

"I think I'd said to Tom [Edge, Judy's screenwriter] that I was interested in this sort of paradigm or idea that Garland in London at the end of her life, was a long way from home, trying to get home. And the parallels [of this] with The Wizard of Oz was an interesting thing for me," he says. "And that maybe as with The Wizard of Oz, she should have strange encounters with the people she meets on this sort of pilgrimage in the end of her life as the beginning. I hadn't said, 'Maybe she meets two gay guys outside the stage door.' But I said, 'Maybe we need to think about a sort of chance encounter,' and then he came up with these two characters."

Goold said this addition was a "big intervention." 

"It was like 10 pages of script that never existed before," he said. "It was just magical, reading that scene. And it did evolve quite a bit actually, again. Just from talking to gay friends who were invested in discussions around persecution and the fact that the legislation around gay rights was happening exactly around this period."

Judy. (eOne)

Renée Zellweger, meanwhile, was clearly invested in discussions about basically everything regarding Garland.

"It's not as simple as 'Oh, drunk' or 'Oh, sad'... it's so much more than that," she says. "And when you come to understand it better — at least from my experience — there's the darkness, certainly, that comes as a consequence of having to grapple with those circumstances. But in my mind, she rose through it as heroic.  What she was able to achieve in spite of all — that really sets her apart and highlights how truly extraordinary she was." 

When asked if she related to Garland's plight?

"Sure, minutely," Zellweger says. "It's very different obviously. In this age, a woman has autonomy and an ability to participate in the course of her professional career. Not so much then. But pressure? Sure. Not by Louis B. Mayer but self-imposed sometimes, implemented places, I'm sure. But also an appreciation that we are lucky to get to do what we do. And so there's a sense of responsibility to hold up your end and that you want to do what's necessary to show reciprocity. And forgetting to take care of yourself in the mix of that somewhere — that's relatable. You can't even see it until you're removed from it. The difference: the vast gulf between a public persona and the truth of a person's life, existence and how they perceive themselves... I understand that."

Zellweger also understood how imperative it was to consider the responsibility Judy had to showing what Garland meant to the LGBTQ community. 

"The experience was a learning process for everybody, with respect to that especially," she says. "I didn't know the relationship between Stonewall and her passing — that it was the same period of time and that a lot of the congregating that happened in New York City was to discuss her and to celebrate her. I mean isn't that something?"

Zellweger says she related to the affection so many gay folks have for Garland.

"I recognize it," she says. "I mean, we dream with her. We discover ourselves with her. We find that 'Oh wait I'm different, but I'm enough' with her. Those are big themes as a child to absorb. So I felt a sense of responsibility from that perspective as well. I recognize that she resonates. It's with me too. And on a personal level, I felt so much love for her. And I felt empathy and I felt outrage because it felt like, yes the book on her life had closed, but I felt, 'But wait! Wait, wait, wait.' You can't say that and not add this. You can't criticize in this way without putting into context those circumstances. And it's unfair that you would project that onto her and dismiss it as something as simple as drinking or drugs or not being able to deliver on the same levels as you had before without being irresponsible. You have to include this sort of thing and I know I'm not alone. I know that what she did and what she meant to other people ran that deep, if not more. So in terms of what she enabled people to feel about themselves ... enough, understood, worthy." 

And now thanks to Judy, you can walk out of a theatre likely feeling just that very soon — in addition to simply being in awe of Zellweger's dedicated talents to bring Garland so ferociously to the screen.

Judy is being released in theatres this Friday, September 27th.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.