Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2009

LIZA ~ Queen of the comebacks...

Queen of the comebacks
Matthew Hall June 6, 2009

IT'S A sunny spring day in New York, perhaps too warm to wear a suit, but if Liza Minnelli sends an invitation for lunch, it's appropriate to make an effort. That effort, it turns out, will be reciprocated. Let's be straight. Minnelli comes with some reputation. Never mind she's the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minelli, or one of the finest performers of her generation, or even an Academy Award-winning actress for her role in Cabaret. She has also been described as incoherent, incorrigible and often incredibly late - but not today.If I'm 15 minutes early, Minnelli is more punctual - already standing on the footpath outside the Upper East Side restaurant where we'd agreed to meet. She's dressed in a red blouse and black pants, smoking a cigarette, and waiting. On past form, the next few seconds could go either way. "Honey!" she squeals, adding a hug, when asked if she is, indeed, my on-time lunch date. "Can you take my arm and help me down the stairs?" Minnelli, we can report, against many odds, is well and good.As lives go, hers has been equal part cabaret, horror movie and sit-com. There have been artistic triumphs, personal failures, battles with addiction, bizarre and disastrous marriages. Yet her latest comeback may prompt her greatest standing ovation of all. Incapacitated in 2000 by viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, Minnelli could neither walk nor talk. Her doctor said recovery was unlikely. "If I could have spoken at that moment, I would have said 'bullshit,"' Minnelli recalls, sipping on iced tea."But all I could think of at the time was 'nah … that's wrong'. "When facing a problem, my dad always said to me, 'Do what you think.' I couldn't walk and I couldn't talk and I didn't know how to do anything. I thought, 'Oh, rats, now I really have to think.'
"But a voice said, 'You know how to rehearse.' So I said the alphabet to myself, then I would count, until it came back. Then I went back to dance class, which really helped me. That's why I love dancing so much. It not only makes me happy, it makes me healthy."
Aged 63, Minnelli will visit Australia in October for the first time since 1989. A five-city tour has already led to two shows at the Sydney Opera House selling out, reportedly crashing the venue's online booking system.
"Who sold out the Opera House?" Minnelli asks, appearing shocked when told the news. "I did? I did it twice? There's a third show? That's wonderful!"

Where, then, have you been for 20 years?
"Working," she says. "Really. For 20 years, I never stopped working. Don't ask me why I didn't go to Australia. It looks like the reason is none of these booking agents called and asked me."
Minnelli may not visit often but she has a long relationship with Australia or, at least, Australians. It hasn't always gone so well. In 1967, she married Peter Allen, who had been discovered by Garland's fourth husband, Mark Herron. Minnelli and Allen divorced seven years later with the Australian performer subsequently coming out as gay. The two remained friends until Allen's death in 1992.
Perhaps fittingly, Allen's story was adapted as a musical, The Boy From Oz, which played on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman. Did Jackman make a good Allen?
"I have no idea," Minnelli responds flatly. "I didn't see it."
Surely she did - but no.
"I was married to Peter Allen, so I don't want to see somebody else do it," she explains. "I like Hugh Jackman but Fred Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, called me up one day and said, 'I will throw myself in front of the door before I let you go into that theatre. They got it all wrong!' "
Minnelli claims she had no contact with anyone connected with the production about the project. It is, she says, not just disappointing but personal.
"Imagine doing a show about you, or your dad, and somebody else he loved in his life and they never spoke to you about it," she says. "How would you feel? It is kind of bizarre. But I think, mostly, it is rude."
Minnelli remains popular with gay audiences ("They have good taste," she says) but has had difficulties off stage in relationships with other men. This was rawly exposed by her 2002 marriage to David Gest, a flamboyant concert promoter. They married six months after being introduced by singer Michael Jackson but divorced 18 months later.
Minnelli whispers that she's unable to discuss that relationship after a settlement but court documents reveal a dramatic implosion with Gest claiming $10 million in damages from Minnelli, accusing her of alcoholism and violence.
At the time, Minnelli said the lawsuit was "hurtful" and "without merit", counter-claiming that Gest stole money from her. The case was settled with a "no-fault divorce" ruling.
What, then, has she learned from men?
"Me?" she squeals. "With my record? I am the last person you should be asking that!"
She laughs.

"What have I learned? To never get married again!"
"Oh, boy! You call me up and you smack me over the head with a newspaper if you hear I'm going to again. Come kidnap me! No, that's it. All right, already! Also, it's wonderful these days - nobody gets married. At 63 years old, what am I going to do?"
Well, there must be plenty of eligible men out there?
"Yeah, I know there is," she says, indefatigable. "I didn't say anything about men not being out there. I just said I'm not signing anything."
Give her an afternoon and Minnelli will tell stories all day. When your mother is Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, and your father is a famous director (An American In Paris, Gigi), your life's cast is peppered with family friends who read like a credit list: Ira Gershwin (her godfather), Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire.
"They were the neighbours," she says, waving away raised eyebrows. "Think of a coalmining town where everyone goes to work at the coalmine. That was the studio town. We all grew up together, all the kids."
Minnelli speaks just as casually of those who offered advice when she was growing up or, later, as her own career took off. She talks about Marilyn Monroe and Charles Aznavour as if they could drop in at our restaurant table at any time.
"Marilyn said, 'Let's go for a walk,"' she recalls of an afternoon 50 years earlier. "She took the scarf off her head, thrust her shoulders back, tossed her hair and the world was looking at her. We were surrounded in three minutes."
And another: "[Charles] Aznavour taught me to walk around the streets and see what happens. You can't sing about life unless you have a life. So go out and look and you will find something interesting."
Under a spotlight all her life, Minnelli has empathy with the current generation of celebrities, some famous for just being famous and others threatening to come off their own thin rails.
"I respect the people with talent," Minnelli says. "I really do. Britney Spears is a talented girl. She really is. She's gone through a rough time but she's going to be OK. Same with Lindsay [Lohan]. She's a good actress. I have not seen Paris [Hilton] in anything, so it's hard to say but she seems like a nice enough girl. Thomas Wolfe [the American author of Look Homeward, Angel] said, 'Men say that they will live for art alone when in fact they live for fashion.' "

She adds cryptically: "It comes and goes."
Minnelli has proved herself a comeback queen. Just when she seems written off she will - literally - get out of a wheelchair to add a few pages to her story. Brilliantly, she followed her marriage to Gest with a role in Arrested Development - a quirky TV sit-com about a dysfunctional family - playing a socialite. There's a movie adaptation in the works and Minnelli hints she would jump at reprising her character.
"It was hilarious," she says. "For a change I was a fall-down slapstick comic. People who know me knew that I'm like that but the audience didn't. It was great for people to come up to me and say, 'You're funny.' Gee, thanks!"
Yet after so many years and facing yet another tour, even if it is somewhere unvisited for 20 years, what could now possibly motivate Minnelli? Doesn't she want to just stay home and watch TV? The answer is sometimes, yes, but the stage is also in her blood.
"I find the one person in the audience who has never seen me and I do the whole show for that person," she explains. "People pay good money, their money, to come and see me do what I do. So it has to be the first time I ever did it every time. You cannot get blasé about it.
"There's always someone out there in the audience who has gone through what I sing about so you have made a friend immediately. You can say, 'I know how you feel.' That keeps everything fresh."
She pauses to sip her iced tea.
"I have a good life. I've never known anything different but you can only be about now. There's nothing you can do about before. And, so what? People have gone through worse. So much worse. I am very, very lucky. Oh, my God, I appreciate what I have. You have no idea."
Liza Minelli performs at the Sydney Opera House on October 16-17. Liza With A Z screens Monday as part of the Sydney Film Festival;

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