Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Friday, April 4, 2008

‘Living legend? That’s somebody else. I’m just a showbiz gipsy’

Richard BarberWhen Liza Minnelli heads out on her British tour in the next few weeks - her first for almost 20 years - she'll be in better shape than she's been in for a long time. "I've never danced so much in my life," she says. "I have two false hips, a wired-up right knee, two crushed discs and scoliosis a curved spine. If I don't dance, I seize up."
Minnelli, who is 61, has been dancing for 90 minutes every day at a class in New York in the build-up to the tour. The other dancers in the class, she says, notice the star in their midst for the first 15 seconds, then just get on with it. "This whole living-legend thing always makes me feel like I'm hearing about somebody else anyway," she says. "To me, I'm just a showbiz gipsy, somebody who travels from job to job."
Today, Minnelli - dressed from top to toe in her trademark black - is in London to prepare for the tour, which climaxes in Glasgow at the Clyde Auditorium. "I've been to Scotland many times and I have good friends in Glasgow - they're not in the business - who I'm looking forward to seeing again," she says. "But this will be the first time I've performed there."
Minnelli might be raring to go physically but she does have one little vice: Marlboro Lights. "I'm having such trouble even wanting to give them up," she says. "When I'm singing, I allow myself three a day. Anyway, every singer I've ever known smokes. Look at Frank and Sammy and Dean."

Anyone else dropping three such thudding names into the conversation might appear pretentious, but Minnelli gets away with it. After all, Fred Astaire once said that, if Hollywood breeding could be compared to the British royal family, Liza would be the crown princess. Noel Coward was the first visitor to her mother's bedside after Minnelli was born; Ira Gershwin was her godfather.
She was always going to follow her parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, into showbusiness. "I can trace back my ancestors on both sides to the sixteenth century and they were all performers - on stage, in the circus, you name it. It's in the gene pool." Even so, she bristles at the suggestion that she would inevitably become a star. She arches an eyebrow. "Oh no, I don't think it was inevitable. What I have is something I've worked hard for - and especially if you consider the reputation I had to live up to. If it were inevitable, every star's kid would be a star. And most of them aren't. Michael Douglas and I are the exceptions."
Not that she's ever let any of that bother her, apparently. "I've always just done what I do. Truly, I did not feel the weight of expectation on my back because of my mother. I suppose it would be dramatic to talk like that. But that's not how I've ever felt. My parents happened to be in the movie business and so were all their friends. If I'd lived in a coal-mining town, all the men would have been miners. My life was much more regulated than everybody thinks."
Ask her what she feels is her personal legacy from her parents and she doesn't hesitate. "My mother gave me my drive," she says. "My father gave me my dreams." She pauses, then confesses. "I would love to take credit for that line. But it was Fred Ebb's." The legendary lyricist of Cabaret, Chicago and much more had an unsurprising facility with words. "Fred always knew what I was trying to say. So I'd be explaining something and then he'd sum it up so beautifully."
What that neat little summary missed, though, says Minnelli, was the sense of humour she inherited from both parents. "Mamma was hilarious and my father had such a quick, dry wit. I'm more like him in that I can be cheerful but intense. But he was more cerebral than any of us." Garland was savvy, though. A television producer once asked Liza to sing one of the songs made famous by her mother. "So I asked her advice. Don't be ridiculous, Liza,' she said. Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of somebody else.' My parents gave me such self-esteem."
I choose to remember the wonderful parts of growing up. Remembering the bad parts is boring and common
Their marriage didn't last, though. Minnelli was only five when they divorced. She certainly grew up quickly. "I knew how to dial room service by the time I was six. Well, I had to if I wanted to eat." But, while she acknowledges that her relationship with Garland was in many ways a reversal of the usual one between mother and daughter, she refuses to look back on her childhood as in any way deprived. "I was her daughter and her friend. I choose to remember the wonderful parts of growing up. Remembering the bad stuff is boring and common, and I've heard it all a hundred times before."
She thinks now that she didn't regress into the childhood that was in many ways denied her until she reached 30. "But that's not so unusual," she says. "Anyone I know who's grown up around divorce eventually reaches a point when they suddenly feel like letting go, like being a child again." Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was also the point when Minnelli discovered alcohol, first pleasurably and then painfully.
By 1984, she'd checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. She is still a regular attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous and refers to herself as a recovering alcoholic. "Addiction is an illness. They've found the gene. And it's on both sides of my family. My mother's father was an alcoholic, as well as mamma, of course, and one of her sisters. It's a disease. I've seen open brains that contain the gene and it was there in front of me."
Even when she was in the grip of alcohol, she never touched a drop while she was working. "When I finished, though, I reached for a drink. There was the feeling of wanting to celebrate. Well, it was only one glass of champagne, wasn't it? No harm in that. But there is harm because it never is just one glass.' She can't ever imagine retiring. "It's not a word in my lexicon. Who knows? I might end up, like my father, on the other side of the camera." (Vincente Minnelli won an Oscar for his direction of Gigi.) Even today, a fair slice of her working life is away from the public gaze. She takes masterclasses at the Actors Studio in New York and also works with brain-injured children. "I've never been the sort of I'm nothing without showbiz' kind of person," she says.
It is a self-imposed house rule that she never goes out on the road for more than three weeks at a time. She is in the middle of refurnishing her New York apartment (after the departure of her fourth husband, David Gest) with the help of interior designer Tim Macdonald. It is almost certainly no accident that she chooses to include an old Sophie Tucker song, I'm Living Alone and I Like It, in her stage act.
Minnelli has been married four times, each union ending in divorce. Her first two husbands, singer Peter Allen and producer Jack Haley Jr, are now dead. Her third, sculptor Mark Gero, remains a great friend. And the less said about Gest, she says, exhaling a plume of smoke, the better.
Even so, it can't have been easy for any of them being married to so famous a wife. Again, Minnelli is clearly exasperated at what she sees as fragile male egos. "The first four times Peter or Jack or Mark were called Mr Minnelli, they laughed. The fifth time became the beginning of a fruitless apology of who I am. I've since made a vow. I'm not going to apologise ever again for myself in that regard.' So, no need to ask if she'd ever consider another trip up the aisle. Not, as she's quick to point out, that she's immune to the idea of more love affairs. "I may be busy, but that doesn't mean I can't be busy at something else." Is there someone new on the horizon, then? "No." Pause. Two. Three. Although I probably wouldn't tell you if there were."
Liza Minnelli is at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on Friday June 6.

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