Written by Peter Hackney
Wednesday, 20 May 2009 14:30
No one has endured the gauntlet of scrutiny and controversy more than Liza Minelli. But still, she has always managed to come out on top. Ahead of her Australian tour, the living legend speaks about her life, career and what keeps her going.A byword for Broadway, a synonym for ‘star’, Liza Minnelli is Hollywood royalty. An Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy – all hers. Throw in three Tonys and two Golden Globes.
Her personal life is no less compelling. From disastrous marriages to successful affairs, from booze to pills to health problems – she’s always been her mother’s daughter. Judy Garland’s daughter. Dorothy’s daughter.
How surreal to be speaking to the woman herself. I tell her as much when she calls SX from New York.
“But don’t be silly!” she replies in her distinctive voice. “I’m just a person like everyone else. I’ve had two hip replacements, honey!”
The response is pure Liza. Like her mother, she’s always seemed very human and vulnerable. Another example: the nerves she exhibits. The morning of our chat coincides with the ticket release for her tour – and Liza is nothing if not nervous.
“Well, of course I’m nervous!” she says, when I express my surprise. “I get very nervous before tickets go on sale because I want people to come and see the show! Every time is like putting myself on the line.”
She has nothing to worry about, of course. Tales subsequently emerge of ticketing sites going into meltdown. In Sydney, demand was so great that her two Opera House shows are supplemented with an extra date at the much larger Sydney Entertainment Centre.
The show itself is based on her recent New York engagement, Liza’s At The Palace – the Broadway run of which provoked ecstatic reviews from The New York Times (“Liza is a pure entertainer”) and The New York Post (“A triumph of which show business mythology is made”).
“I’ve got the best show I’ve ever done in store for you!” she promises. “I’m gonna work my butt off and give you everything I’ve got!”
And I, for one, believe her.
This is a woman who was told she’d never walk again after contracting viral encephalitis in the year 2000. She had to learn to talk again, let alone sing.
At several points, she was reported close to death and media outlets the world over readied obituaries.
And today? Forget walking and talking, she’s singing and dancing like a mad woman, getting some of the best reviews of her career.
So what got her through?
“Faith,” she replies. “I had faith. Faith in myself, faith in God, faith in the people taking care of me, faith in my fans. There was no great plan, I just had faith.”
And so Australia gets to see Liza’s Lazarus-like ‘second wind’ when Liza Minnelli in Concert begins in Sydney on October 16 and visits Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne, before winding up in Brisbane.
It marks Minnelli’s first visit to these shores since 1989, when she toured Australia with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr in The Ultimate Event.
“It’s been looong time,” Liza concedes. “And you know what? I don’t know why! I love Australia and Australians!”
Of course she does. She spent seven years married to one of us – one of our own famous stars, the late Peter Allen.
“He was just the best,” Liza recalls. “Absolutely the best. He wrote the best songs, he was so sensational. He was the kindest man you’d ever want to meet. And I was so lucky to get to know him.”
There was just one problem. Peter Allen was gay.
It’s been variously reported over the years that Liza knew this when she married him, but the Cabaret star categorically denies it when asked by SX.
“Why would you ask that, honey?” she says, just a trifle testily. “I didn’t know. No, of course I didn’t know! And I don’t think he knew either. He hadn’t come to terms with it yet. And when he did, of course he told me and of course I said, ‘I understand’. But it was hard.”
Liza is less understanding, however, of The Boy From Oz, the jukebox musical based on Allen’s life, which played to 1.2 million Australians in the late ’90s before moving to Broadway starring Hugh Jackman as Allen.
Liza was one of the main characters portrayed in the musical, as was her mother.
“I didn’t see it,” Liza replies airily, when I ask her opinion of it.
“I didn’t feel the need to,” she says, when pressed for a reason.
And then there’s a pause, followed by: “I had no need to see it, I lived it. I was there the first time. And nobody asked me anything about it; nobody could ask Peter anything. It was absolutely done without input from the people who were there.”
It should be noted that she says none of this with rancour. The words are delivered casually, almost sweetly.
Nor is she rancorous when asked about the image portrayed of her in some sections of the media; that of an out-of-control, drug-fuelled virago with a loose grasp on reality, to put it bluntly.
“I’m not a mess,” she maintains. “If I was a mess, there’s no way I could perform night after night, like I do. I’m one of the most disciplined people I know! But you know what? I don’t care what people say. They’re gonna say what they’re gonna say.”
Strong words, but again delivered sweetly, even pleasantly.
And again it strikes me that there’s nothing rancorous about Liza, nothing bitter.
Despite the well-documented heartaches, the very public relationship breakdowns, the near-death experiences, the drug addictions (Andy Warhol once recalled her demanding “every drug you’ve got”), and the mantle of tragedy surrounding her upbringing, Minnelli consciously chooses to focus on the good times.
The woman who once said “reality is something you rise above” seems to live by the words.
“Life is here to enjoy,” she tells me. “It’s a gift we’ve been given. There’s just no point dwelling on the bad times.”
Life is a cabaret, old chum?
“Yeah, that’s it,” she laughs.
And she sings in that unmistakable voice, loud and clear, quavering only so slightly with its 63 years.
“Life is a cabaret, old chum / Only a cabaret old chum / And I love a cab-aar-reeeeet!”Liza: Australian Tour 2009, October 16-17, Sydney Opera House (both sold out); November 2, Sydney Entertainment Centre. Tickets from $99 from ticketmaster.com.au. Go to http://www.lizaminnelli.com.au/