Liza Minnelli interview: 'You have to find your happiness'

Liza Minnelli Liza Minnelli - © Rick Day
Posted: Tue Jun 14 2011

You name it, she's won it. You name it, she's sung it. But even if she's laid up in bed after a knee op, you can't keep Liza Minnelli quiet - as London audiences are about to find out

Liza Minnelli is showbusiness royalty: the Oscar-winning child of Oscar-winning parents, Hollywood A-lister and Broadway headliner, multi-million-selling recording artist, recipient of Golden Globe, Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Bafta awards. A mainstay of baby-boomer pop culture almost since its advent, she has survived her friends Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor to become one of the few ocean-going superstars in an era of flimsy microfame. Minnelli is a living legend.

Yet her persona has always trembled with uncertainty or fragility. There's the private life, of course: growing up as Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli's daughter, launched into the industry as a child, and then the marriages, the addictions, the hospitalisations, the comebacks. But a certain precariousness is also integral to her appeal as a performer. The unabashed plea for acclaim and the visibly hard work of earning it are hardwired into her act: each show is a campaign, each ovation ground gained. Ever brave-faced, she projects both the hope of victory and its uncertainty. At her most vulnerable-seeming, she makes the love of her audience seem like a lifeline - a sapling on a crumbling clifftop, a lifesaver in choppy water. For half a century, Minnelli has been falling through showbiz, offering the spectacle of a thoroughbred star struggling to keep it together and ensure the show goes on. No wonder she's the gay icon's gay icon to boot.

Minnelli was born in Los Angeles in March 1946 but was famous before that. The business was in both parents' blood; one night, the story goes, Judy woke Vincente to tell him, 'Liza Minnelli would look great on a marquee!' Their daughter made her movie debut aged three; as a child, she was on TV in talk shows, as Gene Kelly's dance partner and, as a gamine teen, on 'The Judy Garland Show' (Garland: 'You're my favourite guest star.' Minnelli: 'You're my favourite mother…').

In 1963, Minnelli struck out alone, moving to New York to pursue theatre work. She was acclaimed for off-Broadway appearances and won a Tony at 19. A couple of years later she married Peter Allen, a protégé of Garland's, and began making movies. She netted her first Oscar nomination in 1969 for 'The Sterile Cuckoo'. A kind of post-'Graduate' troubled romance, it set the template for Minnelli's screen persona: charismatic and kooky, needy and nutty, high-jinks and low moments. When we first glimpse her - all eyes, cheeks and lips under that iconic shaggy pageboy do - she pokes her face in front of a stranger's camera. 'Hi! Need a model?'

By 1972, she was engaged in the most artistically fruitful collaboration of her career, with director-choreographer Bob Fosse and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. It yielded both 'Cabaret' and the spectacular live show filmed for television, 'Liza with a Z'. The film gave her the Oscar-winning signature role of Sally Bowles, bravura performer and little girl lost, woman of the world and hopeless romantic. The show was a platform for her great technical accomplishment as singer, dancer and comic; each number was a role in itself, from the testy self-assertion of the title song to the childlike anxiety of 'It Was a Good Time' and balls-out romp 'Ring Them Bells'.

They were hard acts to follow. Minnelli had a record-breaking solo Broadway run and appeared in Kander and Ebb's 'Chicago'. Scorsese's 'New York, New York' (1977) was a brave, complex take on the MGM musicals of her parents' era (she used Garland's dressing room during the shoot); a flop, it yielded an affair with the filmmaker and a song for the ages. In 1974, she married Jack Haley Jr, son of her mother's 'Wizard of Oz' co-star, whom she divorced in 1979; later that year, she married sculptor Mark Gero, whom she divorced in 1992.

Minnelli played straight man - for once, and well - in 'Arthur' (1981) and its sequel, and a Broadway has-been in 'Stepping Out' (1991). She was always touring and laid down a dozen studio and live albums. In 1989, she teamed up with the Pet Shop Boys for 'Results', which lived up to the name. In 1997, she was back on Broadway in 'Victor/Victoria'.

Following a case of viral encephalitis in 2000, Minnelli was told she might not dance, sing or even walk again. Two years later, 'Liza's Back' was a hit in New York and London. Soon after its success, her one-year marriage to David Gest spectacularly imploded. Since then, she's made memorable cameos in TV's 'Law & Order', as the boozy mother of a murdered child performer, and in the movies 'The Oh in Ohio' as a sex therapist ('Value your vulva! Claim your clitoris!') and 'Sex & the City 2' as herself (doing that version of 'Single Ladies'). She also had a hilarious recurring role in acclaimed sitcom 'Arrested Development' as a woman prone to bad relationships and acute vertigo. One moment mooning after a romantic prospect, the next grasping for dear life at the nearest thing fixed to the ground, it came off as a brilliantly reductive bit of absurdist self-pastiche.

Now Minnelli has a new album out, 'Confessions'. Inspired by casual evenings around the piano with chums like Tony Bennett and Janet Jackson, it's a collection of favourite torch songs and obscure songbook numbers, previously cut by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Peggy Lee and, yes, Judy Garland. Mostly arranged for voice and piano (played by Billy Stritch), it has a warm, relaxed, feel: Minnelli's pipes are still strong at 65, lower and more raspy but in ways that suit the vibrato and catch her voice always had.

Minnelli calls Time Out from her home in New York ahead of two London shows to promote the album. She's effusive - everyone is 'wonderful', 'terrific', 'brilliant' - and has a disarming habit of changing tack by giving thanks for compliments that haven't always actually been made. She's excited to be coming to London - partly because 'I love fish and chips', partly because of fond memories from time spent here as a child and early in her film career. 'I guess it's because I have such good friends over there,' she says, 'but every time I come back, it's like coming home.'

'Confessions' is a very personal album. Do you sing these songs just for pleasure?
'Yes. I made it when I was in bed, right before I had my knee replaced. They're songs that I've loved and that Billy has loved and it's just things that we know. It wasn't for anybody else, actually, but it turned out so nicely.'

Were you worried that it might be different from what your fans expect?
'No! It was something I did because I loved doing it. It's a real jazz album. My friend Rock Brynner says on the album sleeve notes that it invokes “an era in jazz when the singer was a part of the music, not apart from it”.'

Do you ever feel 'apart' from the song?
'No, but I think he's talking about the intimacy - performing a song for the public and then just singing the damn song. That's what we do at my house.'

Are you always singing at your house?
'No, but I have evenings where a lot of my friends who are musicians gather. Everybody's relaxed because it's not for an audience, they can be inside the music and do what they want and there's no pressure.'

Is that when you feel most at one with the music? When you're not thinking about the audience as well?
'I don't think so. I think it takes both because it's two different styles. One is a craft and the other is for pleasure. It's also a craft but it's… You know what I'm saying!'

It has more of an intimacy and a closeness?
'Yes.'

Well, it was recorded in your bedroom…
'With my knee up in the air! They handed the microphone to me. I sat up and sang.'

Were you in any pain or discomfort while recording?
'Yes, of course. I'd go “Ow!” and we'd have to do it again. But not really, no. It was all right because we planned it properly.'

Your welfare seems particularly important to your fans. When I told people I was interviewing you, more than one wanted me to ask if you're okay. Why do you think that bond is so strong?
'I guess they like me! I think it's because I care about what I do and I try to do my best for everyone, and I guess because I've been doing it for so long.'

Is it important that people see that you're working your hardest and doing your best?
'I've never not. I don't know how to walk through a show - I always think: What would I want to see if I was in the audience? If I'd have paid the money, you know, I'd want to see somebody really doing their best.'

Do you need the support of the audience to get through the show?

'It sounds vaguely needy when you put it that way! What I think is that I'm so glad that they're enjoying it that that gets me through it.'

Would you say you're happiest when you're performing in front of an audience?
'I don't think it can be one's happiest because you have to find your own happiness and bring it on to the stage.'

Where else do you find the happiness that you can bring on stage?
'With friends, family and experiences and everyday life. There's so many extraordinary things going on. They're wonderful. Just like a spring day in London - that you take on the stage with you. That's great.'

Do you have challenges in your work that you're still looking to fulfil or overcome?

'I think every time you go to do something it's a challenge. Somebody said to me, “You've done it all. If you could do anything right now, what would you do?” I said, “I'd do everything I did better.”'

A few days later, Minnelli was in London, preparing for her forthcoming shows and promoting 'Confessions' on, among other things, 'The Graham Norton Show'. 'It was so nice because they didn't jump around with the camera,' she told me when we caught up for a second brief chat. 'They just pointed it at me and let me sing.'

You've described yourself as 'an actress who sings'. Do you have plans for any more film work?
'There are plans for that, though I'm not going to tell you what! It would be a very good character - it's like in a [live] show, you play different characters over the evening. I approach every song as a part: what kind of hair does she have? What does she see when she looks out the window? What was she thinking the moment before she sings the song? You're telling another person's story. What's the meaning of the song to them? Is it something they want to shout to the world, is it something to be hidden?'

You're closely associated with cabaret. What do you make of its new resurgence?
'I always knew that it was there. All the dancing and singing competition programmes that are on now have a lot to do with bringing [this kind of] entertainment back. People's appetites have been whetted. They see the possibilities in an all-round performer, an entertainer.'

Do you watch those shows?
'I watch them all! But I also go out and I watch everybody else. I love finding talent. Just to encourage people is a good thing. Every night the audience encourages me. I'm just passing it on.'

These days, fame isn't always to do with talent - it can be a career option in itself.
'Do you remember when Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes? Well, now it's 15 seconds!'

And do you think some people get their 15 seconds without the talent to back it up?
'I do.'

You have been well known since you were born. Was there a time when you realised how famous you were?
'When I moved to New York and went out on my own. I wanted to be on Broadway, I didn't want to be in Hollywood. That's when I realised it for the first time. It was a surprise. Nobody in Hollywood ever treated anyone like that - everybody's parents were famous! But it was different in New York.'

Do you think it was a hurdle to overcome?
'I have no idea. I'm so grateful for everything that's happened. I love my work. People have such hurdles - I just wanted to perform and I wanted my parents to be proud and they were proud.'

Is it all looking good for the London shows?
'Of course it's looking good! The point is that you do the work. You don't just sail through it. You do the work ahead of time.'

And do you get nervous before shows?
'No, I get excited. I guess I'm like a racehorse. A thoroughbred.'

Liza Minnelli is at the Royal Albert Hall on June 29 and Kenwood House on July 1. 'Confessions' is out now.