In Suzanne Bocanegra’s eight-channel video “Valley” at the Blanton Museum, eight actors reenact Judy Garland’s 1966 wardrobe test for the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling novel, “Valley of the Dolls,” about drug use in the entertainment industry.
Bocanegra’s large-scale installation turns this twisted anecdote into a reflection on the performance of identity and a conversation around the exploitation of exploitation. And it’s about more than the tragic arc of Garland’s career.
For nearly five minutes, the octet surrounds the room in four different costumes. At first, their voices race around the room and boom down above the 17-foot high projections. Bocanegra, acting and playing director, can be heard in the middle of the gallery. For the last three minutes, we watch each woman move in silence.
With “Valley,” Bocanegra blurs the distinction between performer and persona. And through the lens of each actor, Bocanegra filters at least two characters: Ethel Francis Gumm as Judy Garland, as Helen Lawson in a drunken fog, acting sober and pretending she’s not pretending. But, from the actors’ performances, there emerges exponentially expansive and empathetic interpretations of one woman’s experience.
In Garland’s original wardrobe test, her usual wit and charm — what one biographer described as her trademark “studied informality” — is sloppy. She’s drunk and maybe high, as she models four costumes for Helen Lawson, one of the film’s supporting characters. Bocanegra described the event as the “real ‘Valley of the Dolls.’” It’s brutal.
At the start, Garland appears in the bright red executive outfit that Lawson wears when negotiating her contract in the movie. Garland is in good spirits; she tries to engage with the crew posing the question, “If you talk to me…,” and gets cut off. Waiting for direction, she smiles, poses for the camera, and laughs with someone off-screen. The director, Mark Robson, then asks, “Should we see the back? Yeah, will you turn around, Judy?”
Not “Miss Garland,” but “Judy.” So “Judy” plays along — “Without a cigarette and a blindfold?” she responds. The mood shifts when someone off-screen asks her if she would like some coffee. She soberly declines and continues to mug for the camera.
For the rest of the wardrobe test, Garland’s erratic behavior is on full display as she presents three other costumes designed by William Travilla — the glamorous shimmering orange caftan Lawson wears at home, a colorful hand-beaded paisley pantsuit she wears to a cocktail party, and an elegant white gown with a drop waist for the character’s performance on stage at “The Helen Lawson Show.”
Garland was ultimately fired from the production and replaced with Susan Hayward.
I’d like to discuss at least two things here — first, Garland and Robson were at odds. Garland was in the throes of depression, and Robson was, allegedly, an asshole. In one version of the story, Garland was in a stand-off for days with the director because he disrespected her. In another, she was frustrated with the material; she tried a sympathetic approach to the “harridan” that Robson wanted out of her. According to Patty Duke, on the day of the test, Robson scheduled Garland for the morning but didn’t call her to set until the very end of the day. By then, she was bombed.
Secondly, this incident, and others like it, have practically become a defining feature of the Hollywood icon. Pills and liquor dominate her legacy in the same way they took control of her life. In fact, 20th Century Fox hired Garland because of her public battle with addiction. She was the perfect bait for a publicity stunt surrounding the film production of “Valley of the Dolls” — a movie Roger Ebert described as a “dirty soap opera” about “fallen women.” Garland was to play the aging, belligerent Broadway legend opposite the younger rising star, Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), a character whose story novelist Jacqueline Susann based on Garland’s 1947 breakdown while filming “The Pirate.”
The marketing strategy capitalized on Garland’s story while legitimizing a cautionary tale of three single women who lose their way in show business and fall victim to pill abuse (not necessarily in that order): Jennifer (Sharon Tate) overdoses after she is diagnosed with breast cancer and Anne (Barbara Perkins) gets stoned when she finds out Neely is sleeping with her husband. And Neely, the addict, gets hooked after her choreographer casually offers her a pick-me-up during rehearsal.
You won’t be shocked to hear that Garland’s history with “Dolls” was more complicated than those represented on screen. To the extent that Susann pulled the Neely character from the gossip columns, she also fictionalized the origins of Garland’s addiction. Unlike Neely’s dance coach, Garland’s mother gave her amphetamines and sleeping pills as early as nine years old, and M-G-M prescribed her diet pills at 16. By 1947, the 25-year-old’s addiction had gone beyond backstage whispers and was publicly advertised. Garland struggled into the 1950s but pulled out a show-stopping number for “Summer Stock” (1950), breathed new life into “A Star is Born” (1954), won two Grammys for her two-record live recording “Judy at Carnegie Hall” (1961), and was nominated for an Oscar for “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).
Although Garland had a reputation for being a liability, by the mid-1960s, the studio considered her disposable. And, why was Garland so desperate to take a demeaning role? Because she was broke. Partly because of her self-destructive habits and mishandled finances, and partly because, like many artists, the studio short-changed her, making millions off the child star when she received a third or half of what her male counterparts earned.
There’s no doubt that Garland’s behavior on the day of the wardrobe test was unprofessional. But there is a context for her addiction that “Valley of the Dolls” threw out in favor of worn-out archetypes: the old bitch (Helen Lawson), the whore with limited talent (Jennifer North), the virginal and long-suffering wife (Anne Welles), and the junkie/diva/tramp (Neely O’Hara). By contrast, Bocanegra’s interpretation of Garland’s entanglement with the movie brings profound depth to an otherwise reductive story.
•. •. •
The Blanton’s is the third installation of Bocanegra’s project. At The Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2018, “Valley” played in four projections on two facing walls. At Art Cake in 2019, the video played in two’s on three walls around a central floating wall with a projection on either side.
Walking into the gallery at the Blanton, you’ll find the video projected in pairs with artist Carrie Mae Weems straight ahead and ballerina Wendy Whelan to her right, and poet Anne Carson on her left. Bocanegra paired Carson with actor Kate Valk, choreographer and dancer Deborah Hay with actress Alicia Hall Moran, and producer Tanya Selvaratnam with artist Joan Jonas.
As the Blanton Museum notes, “Valley” brings together a strong group of accomplished, talented, and groundbreaking artists Bocanegra admires and whose “creative practices encompass various facets of performances.”
Each performer tells a different story in their facial expressions, body movements, vocal intonations. Like eight parallel universes, some actors bring a sense of dignity and consciousness to the script. Others lean into the comedy of the drunken scene, and at least two interpret Garland’s gestures through the poetry of dance.
The actors’ hair and makeup also has a cumulative effect. Unlike the 1966 version, Bocanegra left hair and makeup up to the actors which further magnifies the differences between each performance. This anachronism is underscored by the dark shadow that falls at the actors’ shoulders. When the camera pushes in closer, the contrast between light and darkness further emphasizes the tension between actor and character squarely between personal style and costume.
Ironically, as a tribute, Bocanegra’s reenactment spotlights a humiliating and alarming moment in Garland’s career on a massive scale. But there is a sense of mercy and understanding here. While the physical comedy may verge on cringeworthy, “Valley” mostly feels like a healing departure from the painful source material.
I first started thinking about Bocanegra’s “Valley” as echoes of Judy Garland but nothing really fades away in “Valley.” Rather, Bocanegra’s casting has a prismatic effect. In one sense, a sonorous truth reverberates about the icons we crucify. In another, “Valley” explores what it feels like when a man tells a woman what to do.
If Bocanegra’s “Valley” brings together figures in a Greek chorus, then it is their individual interpretations that refracts a nuanced commentary about women’s personal experiences into seemingly infinite perspectives.
“Suzanne Bocanegra: Valley” continues through Sept. 19 at the Blanton Museum of Art, blantonmuseum.org