Thursday, June 16, 2011
Liz Taylor taught me how to live my life: Liza Minnelli pays a moving tribute to her friend
By Richard Barber
Liza Minnelli takes a drag on her umpteenth Marlboro Lite of the day ('Absolutely my only vice'), casts a practised eye around the perfectly serviceable, if a little impersonal, hotel reception room and makes a decision.
'Let's go to my suite, darling,' she says.
The vocal delivery has changed since last we met. The 's' comes out more like 'sh' these days — 'Let'sh go to my shuite' — and it's also a bit huskier.
There's something different about her face, too. For a start, the upper lip looks plumper than when I last saw her.
But as we emerge from the lift, it's clear she's in skittish form. A scarlet jacket with billowing sleeves and Nehru collar adds a shot of drama to the black body, slacks and ankle-boots she's wearing.
It's clear that, despite all her troubles — physical and matrimonial — Liza's got her mojo back; and apparently in more or less full working order.
'People say to me, "So you're 65," and I want to blow a raspberry and say: "Yeah, and I'm still here".'
She duly thumbs her nose, blows that raspberry and dissolves into raucous laughter.
A decade ago, today's picture of sunny good health would never have seemed possible.
Viral encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) caused by an infected mosquito bite left Liza unable to walk and talk.
Two years later, in 2002, she embarked upon her fourth ('and my last') marriage to music producer David Gest, the mention of whose name, I know, would see me ejected from the suite.
The wedding, with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Martine McCutcheon as witnesses, and the stomach-turning post-vows kiss in which Gest all but swallowed Liza whole, set the seal on the marriage that followed.
It ended in 2007 amid lurid and unsubstantiated allegations of abuse on both sides.
He claimed she beat him up, and she accused him of plotting to have her dog put down.
That apart, she's notched up two hip replacements and, more recently, a new knee.
'I like to say that on the top half I'm the daughter of Dorothy; on the bottom, I'm the daughter of the Tin Man.'
And yet here she is, those fathomless black eyes round with astonishment at the suggestion that she's reached the sort of age when most people start thinking about retirement.
'I like what I do. Why would I want to retire from fun?' she asks. 'Anyway, I haven't lost my curiosity.
'People ask what I could possibly do next that I haven't done already, and I always answer the same way: I'd like to do it all again, please, only this time better.'
Her new album, Confessions, just released on Decca, is something of a departure from her familiar sock-it-to-'em, big band style.
An intimate collection of mostly lesser-known standards, it's at once languid and surprisingly sexy.
'I always go to bed at ten,' purrs Liza on one track, 'and then go home at four.'
Recovering from the knee operation, she made the record with her long-time pianist collaborator, Billy Stritch — in her bedroom.
'So maybe that's why it sounds intimate,' she suggests.
British audiences will be able to judge for themselves when Liza tours at the end of the month, with concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, in the open-air in North London at Kenwood, in Manchester, and finally in Glasgow on July 6.
She enjoys touring, but has made it a personal rule that she's never away from her spacious New York apartment for more than three weeks at a time. Quite apart from anything else, she'd miss her puppies.
She walks the three schnauzers — Emelina, Oscar and Blaise — every day she's in town.
'Why wouldn't I?' she says.
'I live in a nice neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone else. People shout, "Hi, Liza!" and I shout right back.
'I tell you something: if anyone wants to understand the real me, they should meet my dogs. They're calm and loving, and they don't bark. Now where do you think they get all that from?'
She is, she says, 'bored, bored, bored' with talking about her mother, the fabulously flawed Judy Garland, who died, aged 47, from a cocktail of pills and drink, 42 years ago next Wednesday.
Liza has achieved so much in her life: three Tony awards, an Emmy, two Golden Globes, a Grammy Legend award and an Oscar (for Cabaret).
A journalist visiting her in New York last month made the mistake of refusing
'So I took him into my den and showed him my awards; my awards.'
So, does Liza have any regrets?
'Of course. There are hundreds of things I've said and done that I wish I hadn't. But that must be true of everyone.
'What I try to do now is live today in a way that won't give me regrets tomorrow.'
Part of this philosophy has been inherited from her lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor.
'Daddy [Vincente Minnelli] directed her in Father Of The Bride in 1950, when I was four, and she was great to me.
'Elizabeth was just a regular girl. The reality was that she was part of an era when movie stars were working actors.
'They didn't parade around town all day with two wolfhounds on the end of a leash. She went to the studio. She went to work. She did her job.'
Liza's unstinting in her admiration of both Taylor's work ethic and her approach to life.
Big heart: Rock Hudson with Elizabeth Taylor - he inspired her Aids charity
'Elizabeth had so much energy, and she was always doing something for somebody.
'I'll give you an example. Rock Hudson came with me to a dinner in her honour.
'She drew me aside at one point and said: "Oh my God! What's wrong with Rock? He looks awful."
'I explained that there was this new disease. Nobody knew what it was exactly, but I had friends in New York who were suffering from it and there was no cure.
'The next day, she called me. "What did you say this disease was?" And so her Aids charity, amfAR, was born. That was Elizabeth for you.
'She was a doer, with such a vibrant personality, and such a love for life.
'She had a face she presented to the public but another in private for her friends.
'When she stopped working, she had a life. It's an example I've always followed.'
She saw Elizabeth a few months before she died in March.
'Elizabeth was one of those people who you were sure would survive anything, for the very good reason that she always had. It never crossed my mind that this would be her final illness.
'She'd got close to this new guy and I was convinced she'd have married him.
'So I thought: "Oh, she's going to be fine." Except that she wasn't.'
But Liza can't be sad.
'What a life! I smile now as I think of her. She was the last of an era, the end of a tradition that died with her.
'And look what she did for people. She was always helping somebody. You won't ever get depressed if you're helping somebody else. Elizabeth taught me that. And that's the side of her I hope people will come to know better.'
Tour details: ticketmaster.co.uk