For those who have seen the new Judy Garland bio-pic featuring the ravishing Rene Zellweger, it comes as a shock to see Judy as a child star being emotionally and physically abused by her studios boss.
But what the actual Judy in real life went through was much worse that what’s shown in the film. Judy was abused from the age of 11 when she signed with the MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer who had spotted Judy (real name Frances) singing with her sisters. Mayer wanted only Judy. He made sure he got her by coercing her father with financial temptations and then proceeded to treat the child as a glorified apprentice.
Allegedly young Judy was put under 24-hour surveillance. A stern Hitlerian chaperone followed her everywhere, even the bathroom, to make sure she didn’t “fall into the wrong company” (meaning, didn’t get into any normal relationships with boys) .
But it was her draconian weight-watch that made Judy the most abused child in the history of American cinema. Judy was put on diet pills from the age of 12. She was not slowed to eat anything that children enjoy. In the bio-pic on Judy we see how she was not allowed to have cake even on her own birthday. Mayer personally kept reminding Judy of how fat she was when in fact Judy was a skinny under-fed near-anorexic child who craved to enjoy a burger or sip on a cola. Pleasures that she was sternly and often abusively denied. If she broke the diet code she was threatened with immediate dismissal from the MGM roster.
The MGM boss himself made sure Judy went through teens as a traumatized overworked MGM staff member with no idea of her earnings and no consciousness of her yearnings.
The behaviour was plainly abusive. And indicative of the way children are treated all over the world in show business. I remember the actress Sarika who did many films as a child actor, telling me that she was often slapped by her own mother to keep her awake on the sets during long hours of shooting.
Filmmaker Amol Gupte who has worked very closely with children’s associations to protect them from abuse at work places says, “It’s the system. Everyone is a victim including the parents. The government needs to enforce laws against children being made to work long hours. When I was the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society I pushed for a law preventing children from being made to shoot for more than 5 ½ hours. That law is now existent. The law says children cannot shoot for more than 5 ½ hours for TV serials or films. But how many people follow this law? More needs to be done to ensure they are comfortable. The work-load for children has to be decided by the people who make them work. No law can dictate the individual conscience.”