The Wizard of Oz is undoubtedly a beloved classic film that will be remembered for generations - it’s hard to think of the film as associated with anything other than happy childhood memories. Unfortunately for Judy Garland, however, life during filming was anything but happy. You’d never suspect by looking at her, but Garland’s life was certainly not picturesque. Keep reading to learn about her tragic story.
Garland signed a movie contract with MGM when she was just 13 years old. Not long after, her father Frank passed away from meningitis which left Garland completely devastated. She won the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in 1939 at age 16, but little did many people know, things for her would begin to continuously spiral downward.
Although Garland was clearly finding success with her acting talents, MGM was working its young stars nearly to death. The studio pressured her to take amphetamines to keep her weight down and increase her energy on screen. She eventually ended up becoming addicted to the amphetamines and the consequential sleeping pills that were necessary on the off chance that she actually had time to sleep.
Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, had actually preferred Shirley Temple to play the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. However, Temple was under a contract for rivaling studio 20th Century Fox, so she wasn’t allowed to work for MGM. Thus, Garland was given the part of Dorothy instead.
It really isn’t hard to see why Garland ended up being hooked on drugs later in life. She said about the insanity of working for MGM, “They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills … Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us.”
Mayer was always very critical of Garland’s appearance and forced her to go on severely restrictive diets. He had her wear a tight corset and a prosthetic nose and teeth while being filmed. As a result, Garland developed severe body confidence issues.
Mayer (pictured) went on to do even more questionable things to Garland. “In our house the word of Louis B. Mayer became the law,” said Garland. At one point he sent people to spy on her to make sure she was sticking to her strict diet of chicken soup, black coffee and 80 cigarettes per day. He would even grope her in his office.
As if life wasn’t hard enough already for Garland, she was shunned by her castmates who felt that she was getting too much attention. Interestingly, her only real friend in the cast was Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West. That’s some irony, isn’t it?
The actors playing the munchkins in the film reportedly sexually harassed Garland repeatedly during filming. Garland’s ex-husband, Sid Luft, wrote in his biography entitled, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland, that “They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress. The men were 40 or more years old. They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small.”
Garland won a juvenile Oscar at the 1940 Academy Awards for her performance in The Wizard of Oz. She was getting some much deserved recognition for her talents. However, the awards made her one of the most profitable stars in Hollywood, and she was exploited endlessly by the MGM executives.
Mayer also made sure that Garland was not seeing all of the money that was due to her for her work. Mayer had made a deal with Garland’s agent, a pimp and former bootlegger named Frank Orsatti, that she would only be paid $500 per week. Meanwhile, her friend and fellow MGM actor Mickey Rooney was making about $5,000 per week.
Garland couldn’t stop laughing during the scene where Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, so Director Victor Fleming did something that would never be acceptable today: he took her aside, slapped her across the face and ordered her to get back in there. It’s crazy how times have changed since then.
It was in the early 1950s that Garland’s career started to tank due to her drug usage and emotional breakdowns from the years of abuse and trauma. She gained a reputation for being flaky and was eventually dropped by MGM. She married and remarried several times - each of which was a tumultuous relationship.
Garland began to rebuild her career later on and focused more on singing and television. Near the end of her life, she was in financial trouble and moved to London. She died on June 22, 1969 of an accidental overdose.
Although Garland clearly struggled with many demons in her life, her impact on pop culture has been unquestionable.