‘The Wizard of Oz’ turns 80 this year

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’d known for some time that I was queer. But I didn’t feel comfortable with myself until I saw “The Wizard of Oz” at a cinema in the Castro in San Francisco. Seeing the film in color on the big screen with other gay moviegoers, I felt ready, with Gilda and everyone in Oz to “come out, come out” wherever I was.

“The Wizard of Oz”, released on Aug. 11, 1939, turns 80 this year. I’d wager that nearly everyone has their own “Oz” story. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. The kids in my family, as I did, still quake before the Wicked Witch. My neighbor Grace saw the movie when she was growing up in Guatemala.  My (late) aunt, then in her 30s, watched “Oz” when it first came out in Southern, N.J. “Times were hard then ,” she said, “All the color … the music … Toto — cheered us up.”

I remember little of the theology that I studied at Yale Divinity School. Yet I vividly recall talking about “The Wizard of Oz” as part of a class on “alienation and commitment.” It’s hard to imagine a story that resonates more with what makes us human: the search for courage, wisdom, a heart, for home — and the discovery that these things are in ourselves. Though, many over the decades have seen themselves in this narrative, “Oz” has had a particular resonance in the culture of the queer community.

“Oz” still rocks today. The film grossed a record-setting (for a classic movie) when it was screened in theaters at special 80th anniversary showings on Jan. 27-29, Feb. 3 and Feb. 5, reported the “Hollywood Reporter.”

The movie “The Wizard of Oz” is based on the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, which was published in 1900. (More than 30 Oz books, written by Baum and other writers were published through the early 1960s.) The “OZ” book and movie are “propelled by magic and adventure and anchored in a search for identity.” Willard Carroll writes in the preface to “The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic” by John Fricke.

Who doesn’t love the “magic and adventure” of “Oz?”  If you’re queer and grew up from mid-century through 2000, the flying monkeys and Wicked Witch encountered by Dorothy, Toto and their friends in “OZ” likely metaphorically mirrored the difficulties of your coming out.  

As they journey through Oz, Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion “evolve into a wildly functional extended family,” Carroll writes.

Historically, we in the LGBTQ community, fighting against homophobia and transphobia, have had to form our own family. Though “The Wizard of Oz” is a fantasy beloved by generations of children, it is a model of how people who are quite different from each other in backgrounds, talents, etc. can become a family.

My 20-something friend Seth grew up watching “Oz” with his family on TV and on DVD.  To him, “The Wizard of Oz,” doesn’t have these heavy connotations: It’s a fabulous entertainment. “I love the music, the singing, the dancing — all the color!” he told me.

Your friend is right, Fricke said to me over the phone. Baum started telling Oz stories to entertain kids in his neighborhood in the late 1880s,” he said. “MGM was interested primarily in entertainment. They wanted to make a good movie,” Fricke added.

Much of the lure of “Oz” comes from Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy. “Judy wasn’t acting,” Fricke said, “she was being herself.  She made it real.  Judy made you believe in that little girl .”

LGBTQ people find a particular joy in the color, music, singing, dancing and acceptance in “The Wizard of Oz”, he added.

In these dark, divisive times, the joy and acceptance of “The Wizard of Oz” are needed more than ever.  Happy anniversary, “Oz!”

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

Published at Mon, 25 Feb 2019 16:24:01 +0000