Hardcore Judy Garland fans will probably recoil at the notion that Frances Ethel Gumm was less than incomparable, but a case can be made that Cher is the the closest living performer we have to “Miss Show Business.” Is she today’s Judy Garland?
The careers of these two divas have unmistakable parallels (as well as some significant differences). Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to speculate on both. If Garland fans (or Cher fans, for that matter) take umbrage at the comparison, let us hear about it loudly and clearly.
Both began their careers in adolescence, Cher at 16 and Garland at 13 (at MGM after performing in a family vaudeville act from age two). Both were densely involved with controlling men, first husband Sonny Bono in Cher’s case, agent-manager Sid Luft (husband No. 3) in Garland’s.
Both logged sensational private lives commanding scandalsheet headlines for decades. Garland’s five marriages and personal trials with barbituates and alcohol were regularly cataloged. Cher’s marriages to Bono and rocker Greg Allman mesmerized tabloid fans, not to mention the fallout from the transformation of daughter Chastity to Chaz Bono.
Both successfully turned to TV and live performances in concerts and cabaret formats after their movie careers faltered. Garland is perhaps best remembered as Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and decades later, for her nakedly emotional Carnegie Hall concert performances. Perhaps Cher is most fondly recalled for the bare midriff-feathered headdress Bob Mackie outfit she sported at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.
The dramatic abilities of both divas are often considered something of an afterthought. But Garland was nominated for three Oscars: for having given “an outstanding performance as a screen juvenile” for Wizard; a best actress nomination for the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born (our pick as her best movie); and a best supporting actress bid for her dramatic turn in 1961’s Judgement At Nuremberg.
For her part, Cher has done Garland one better. She actually won a best-actress Oscar, for 1987’s Moonstruck. She also was nominated in the best supporting actress category, giving Meryl Streep a run for her money in 1983’s Silkwood. Her last film, 2010’s Burlesque costarring Christina Aguilera, with Cher portraying a show-biz-wise retired dancer who runs a “burlesque lounge,” performed just so-so at the box office.
What cements both Cher and Garland in show biz history is their extraordinarily enthusiastic following among gay audiences. Especially in her last years — she died at 47 of an accidental overdose of barbiturates (Cher is a feisty 67) — Garland’s vocal interpretations of “Over The Rainbow” reflected the personal struggles of much of her audience. She had become a gay icon.
In these far more open, anything-goes times, Cher engages her gay audiences in more playful fashion. The New York Times recently a report of her visit to the city to attend a Gay Pride celebration, and to push her new single, “Woman’s World.”
At a local tv appearance, Cher’s audience included thin gay men and fat gay men, gay men with Cher dolls, and gay men wearing super-fitted Cher T-shirts that showed off bulging biceps, according to the Times. Cher made it clear how grateful she was for all their support…”I’ve had ups and downs, but you never left me,” she said…”You have always been there.”
Garland would have had no trouble seconding that sentiment.
Joe and Frank have to add that in NO WAY are we equating Cher’s talent to Judy’s. Garland is a genuine legend, not merely one in her own mind. She has been recognized as one of the leading performers of all time. Judy could sing, dance AND act. She performed before the era of technical wizardry to aid both recorded and live performances. While Cher may have garnered Garland’s audience, even she would not presume to claim her mantle.