Judy Garland is probably best known for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and for her song from the movie, "Over the Rainbow." The song became her signature, and in the 1950s it was a fixture of her concert tours. Typically she sang it right after a recreation of "A Couple of Swells," a clowning song and dance duet which she shared with Fred Astaire in the film Easter Parade (1948). Still in the "tramp" costume from this comedic number, she would sit on the edge of the stage and give a heartfelt rendition of "Over the Rainbow," as though breaking the fourth wall of the preceding comedic performance to bare her soul. In this, the only video of the performance, from her appearance on the Ford Star Jubilee television program of 1955, even as she remains in costume and makeup, the pathos of her real life--the addictions, marital instability, career ups-and-downs, and other struggles of which many of her fans were aware--are foregrounded in a theatrically staged revelation of the person behind the performer.
This revelation of the person behind the performer also plays as a revelation of the child behind the adult. Much has been said about the androgyny of the performance and how Garland's inhabiting the drag of a male tramp intensifies the effect of dislocation--of a person not belonging or not confined by conventional gender and social categories--and the feelings of longing expressed by the song in such conditions of marginalization. Resonances with her gay male and other queer fans is obvious here. Perhaps less obvious, but at least as important, I think, is a kind of age drag. Her tramp character, although an adult, is comically childlike. Indeed, it is an infantalizing portrayal of poverty and, implicitly, race, given its roots in clown stock characters and minstrelsy tropes (which were very much part of Garland's early film career). Whereas in "A Couple of Swells," Garland's tramp is a carefree and child-like adult, in "Over the Rainbow," the character is a window onto the adult's childhood, which persists as the "child inside." Garland's performance channels both the image of the child star's loss of childhood and the impossibility of an adulthood without childlike vulnerability. The poignancy of the performance is, first and foremost, I think, in its queering of the line between child and adult, revealing the latter, in particular, to be a fantasy.
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