Reel Pride: The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
The concept of gay icons has always fascinated me. What makes a celebrity a gay icon? Do they have to identify as queer? Outwardly support LGBTQ causes? Or is just living fabulously enough? While nowadays it seems like any celebrity a gay person likes can be called a “gay icon,” there are a few canonical gay icons like Cher, Lady Gaga, and of course, Judy Garland. The old Hollywood movie star and singer is the quintessential gay icon for several reasons, including her tragic life, her theatrical persona, and her performance in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. The Victor Fleming musical is celebrated by a queer audience and became a gay cult classic in the 1970’s and 1980’s (the term “friend of Dorothy” becoming code for gay man). Rewatching The Wizard of Oz on it 80th anniversary and in companion with the 2019 biopic Judy starring Renee Zellweger in the titular role, the film’s place in queer history is something to be explored and appreciated.
Let’s start with Judy Garland. Admittedly, I’m not a Judy Garland gay. That isn’t to take away from her legacy with gay men or anything like that. Undeniably, she was a magnificent talent, and an impressive woman who handled everything that life threw at her with vulnerability and determination. For all her perfection on stage and screen, she wasn’t afraid to be human and for that she should be admired. Time magazine, when writing about Garland’s performances in London shortly before her death, wrote that gay men identified with Garland because they saw themselves in her. Specifically, how she was persecuted by the media, manipulated by Hollywood, and withstood many tragedies and failures. Judy Garland is always a survivor, which gay men idolized. The element of survivorship is interesting to me, as most gay icons have a persevering persona. The queer community, especially in the 20th century, was at risk from many angles and always had to band together to stay alive.
However, reducing Judy Garland to her tragic life is a disservice to her as a star. She had a very specific performance style, with her expressive face and demonstrative gestures. She commanded the screen and owned the stages where she performed. Her whole aesthetic has inspired drag acts for decades, and she is, without a doubt, a camp icon. Perhaps because she was dolled up so heavily by MGM in her early career, Garland’s persona as “girl next door” becamealmost over-the-top and garish. And I don’t mean that as a slight; it’s a credit to her talent that she was able to rise above the forced attempt at performative girlishness, balancing between innocence and sex appeal. This resonated with closeted queer people trying to play into heteronormativity and conformity.
The Wizard of Oz is now part of the queer canon, and not just because “friend of Dorothy” became code for homosexual as I mentioned above. That comes from interpreting the three central male characters Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) as gay men revolving around a campy heroine (Judy Garland’s Dorothy). Dorothy running away from home and creating her own family mirrors the “found family” in queer communities. Also, her journey from the black-and-white Midwest to the colorful and vibrant Oz is like young queer kids leaving home and traveling to the big city. And with the rainbow flag being an iconic symbol of queer pride, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays like an anthem for queer longing and hope. Dorothy and her friends conquering the Wicked Witch of the West, despite all rejecting traditionally heroic (masculine and heteronormative) qualities is inspiring for outcasts who don’t fit in.
That’s not to downplay how this movie can be a lot of fun as a camp classic. The movie can be wild with over-the-top characters, jubilant songs, lavish costumes and production design, and fantastical performances. The Wizard of Oz is so striking and arresting, and just bounces off the screen. The film was recently rereleased on 4K Ultra High Def, and it looks like a whole new movie. The colors just pop, the sound is sharp, and the movie is better than ever. The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece of old Hollywood filmmaking, and it has a legendary journey to the screen.
Judy Garland is an iconic figure both within the queer community and without. By most accounts, she was proud of her gay fans and welcomed them especially in her later years. This is captured beautifully in Judy, which features a sequence that honors her legacy for queer people. Renee Zellweger’s broken but triumphant rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” brings new life to the classic song. The Wizard of Oz means a lot of things to a lot of people, much like Garland herself. It’s comforting, it’s ludicrous, it’s fabulous. And it’s often a necessary reminder that when times are tough, there’s no place like home—however one chooses to define what that means.