By ELAINE SCIOLINO
PARIS – Liza Minnelli has three Tonys, two Golden Globes, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy legend award. Now the 65-year-old singer and actress also has the rank of “officier” in the Legion of Honor, the award for service to the French state created by Napoleon in 1802. In the grand salon of his ministry on Monday, Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand pinned an enameled vermeil medal affixed to a red grosgrain ribbon onto Ms. Minnelli’s black silk brocade jacket.
“Priestess of the music-hall, you are the contemporary incarnation of talented versatility à l’américaine!” he said in honoring her. He called her “a tiger — with the heart of a lamb.” He praised her charitable work in the struggle against AIDS and her celebration of life and liberty in her songs that has “made her an icon in every community, and notably the gay community.”
In an unscripted and breathless reply Ms. Minnelli exclaimed: “I’m here! I’m honored! I’m totally in love with all of you! To stand in this room in front of all of you, my God! This is my dream come true!”
It was the second time this dream had come true for her, although the last time it happened was 24 years ago. In 1987 Ms. Minnelli was made chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the first of several ranks of the award. Vincente Minnelli, her father and the director who made Paris-themed films like “Gigi” and “An American in Paris,” rose to the third rank of “commandeur” only weeks before his death the previous year.
The French government tends to hand out Legion of Honor medals like bonbons. About 2,200 civilians and 600 military personnel – most of them Frenchmen — are awarded the Legion each year.
Some potential French honorees have rejected the honor, saying that they want to keep a distance from the French state. (Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus considered it ridiculous and said no. So did Marie and Pierre Curie. Brigitte Bardot never came to claim her medal.) Others never wear the tiny lapel insignias that announce their achievement to the world, saying that to do so would seem like self-promotion. A recent documentary on the award charged that the principles of the Legion are often violated, and that the awards are sometimes given as political and personal favors to people in unworthy professions, like journalism.
For foreigners, the award tends to be a big deal, and it has often been given to recognize Americans in the arts. The chef and cookbook author Julia Child won it in 2000 for spreading knowledge of French cuisine around the world. Robert Redford was made chevalier, Steven Spielberg officier and Clint Eastwood commandeur for their cinematic careers. The British actor Michael Caine thanked France for giving him the Legion of Honor – only to find out to his embarrassment that he had been given the less prestigious Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.
(Full disclosure: I was made “chevalier” of the Legion of Honor last month. I have worn the slim red grosgrain barrette twice, even though its “pin” is more like a nail.)
Only French citizens can be received as official members of the Legion of Honor “community” in the service of the French nation. Foreigners have a sort of adjunct status. The advantage is that foreigners do not have to pay for their medals. If Ms. Minnelli were French, her medal would have cost her $270. (Mine would have cost $230.)
The awards ceremony on Monday was witnessed by more photographers than guests. One special guest was Line Renaud, one of France’s most celebrated actresses and performers. Ms. Renaud herself has been decorated with various ranks of the Legion of Honor and other awards that come with medals, in the presence of three presidents, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Half a century ago she played Hollywood and Las Vegas with Ms. Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland.
As Ms. Minnelli said goodbye to Mr. Mitterrand, kissing him tenderly on both cheeks a final time, she whispered, “You’ve got my love to keep you warm.”
“I need it sometime,” he replied.
“You have it always,” she said. He kissed her hand.
On Monday night, Ms. Minnelli was to perform solo at the Olympia in Paris; she first performed at the fabled theater 41 years ago.