Wednesday, May 28, 2008

7. Liza Minnelli, the glutton for adoration

LIZA MINNELLI, 1946- . Triple crown achieved in May 1973 at age 27 with an Emmy for Liza with a Z. Preceded by a leading actress in a musical Tony for "Flora the Red Menace" in 1965 and a leading actress Oscar for Cabaret in March 1973. Followed by a leading actress in a musical Tony for "The Act" in 1977.

There is an entertainer gene. We know this because Liza Minnelli inherited it. She's purebred from Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli, whose families go back five generations in the theatre or the circus. Liza came out strange-looking: eyes too big and too far apart, body gangly, nose out of proportion, speaking voice queer, singing voice unconventional. But her essence was undeniable. She was a performer. The entertainer gene exists. She proved it. She proves it. It's not about looks. It's about a specific energy that vibrates from the core of one's being.

The first time she set foot on a Broadway stage, the Tony was hers. It would be the first of five major awards procured by interpreting material by composer-lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb. It was 1965. Minnelli was 19. Though her voice "is not yet distinctive," wrote Howard Taubman in The New York Times review of "Flora the Red Menace," "she is going to be a popular singer, all right." Not yet distinctive? Perhaps her vocal thickness was a little too close to her mother's at such a young age.

That would change by 1973. Garland was four years dead and Minnelli finished the Triple Crown in a two-month span. Cabaret was first. "Liza Minnelli plays Sally Bowles so well and fully that it doesn't matter how well she sings and dances, if you see what I mean," wrote Roger Ebert, implying her voice and movement aren't as impressive as her general verve."In several musical numbers ... Liza [first name only, of course] demonstrates unmistakably that she's one of the great musical performers of our time. But the heartlessness and nihilism of the character is still there, all the time, even while we're being supremely entertained."

This is the finale scene of Cabaret, and the essence of her Oscar-winning performance is minute 2:42 to around 3:08, and then on to the finish. "What good is sitting all alone in your room..." she sings, losing her smile for perhaps the only time in the movie, staring wide-eyed at the future, or down into the abyss. And then, "...come! Hear the muuusic play..." where she seems to snap a smile out of the air, and allow her head to almost float away (Fosse's camera abets this free-wheeling emotion), her searching eyes paving the way for the clarinet's trill. "Life is a -- cabaret, old chum," she says, as if this conclusion just occurs to her, and then a genius gesture follows for "Come to the cabaret," under which she thrusts her left arm out at the darkness and beckons frantically with her green fingernails. Watch her mouth. It is defiant, joyous. Watch her eyes. They are crying.

It's a perfect marriage of actor and part. The Oscar came in March '73, almost a full year after the film's release. Watch her acceptance here, in which she offers her trademark cackle-gag-sneeze-giggle before speaking graciously: "Thank you for giving me this award; you've made me very happy." It was her second nomination in four years, and the last one she'd ever get.

Two months later, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Single Program (Variety or Music) as the "star" to Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb's "producer" credit in Liza with a Z. It was not its own "individual performance" award (such a category didn't exist), but Minnelli was cited within the category for her performance. And holy shit, what a performance.

Liza with a Z -- recorded live in May '72 at the Lyceum Theatre -- is Minnelli's triumph. It's her without a character standing in the way. It's the gold standard of one-woman shows (though she is aided by a hard-working ensemble). The song "Yes" is an amazing opening. So hopeful, so grateful, so affirming. Yes, yes, yes. (It's why Stritch opens her current show with "Yes I Can".) Minnelli looks out adoringly at her audience. Her "yeses" are so gossamer, the giggles when she gets applause at the end are so coarse and lovely. "You're really terrific!" she squeals at the audience more often than once. She loves the audience. The feeling is mutual. The two feed off each other.

But this is not just reckless abandonment. Her technique and Fosse's execution are flawless. The song "Say Liza (Liza with a Z)" is a lyrical feat of diction and pacing. "Son of a Preacher Man" is sublime and a great way to mix up the showtunes.

Minnelli is a pro at interpreting songs, evidenced by the way she guides us through a fictional marriage in "You've Let Yourself Go." She combines technique, energy, precise interpretation and stunning costuming in the show-stopping "Ring Them Bells," below.

A second Tony came came in 1977 for The Act, a loosely knit star revue that didn't splash like Cabaret or Liza with a Z, but by then she had endeared herself to fans who would stick with her through every kind of public embarrassment and personal ailment. And things got pretty bad for Minnelli -- Judy Garland bad -- and her talent eroded. But what we have in Cabaret and Liza with a Z is a time capsule of raw talent mediated by a masterful director. The helix of her DNA are no doubt beaded with confetti. Almost-nuclear power bursts from her, for better or worse. She may not be the world's best singer, dancer or actor, but she lacquers each with her own brand of italics. And we, almost inexplicably, are captivated.

Ben Brantley summed it up in The New York Times when Liza took over Victor/Victoria from Julie Andrews in 1997: "She asks for love so nakedly and earnestly, it seems downright vicious not to respond."

This is the seventh part of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the performers who have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Coming down the stretch is No. 8, a character actor who honed his onscreen reputation as a lovable curmudgeon. Catch up on previous installments of the series here. As always, comments are most welcome: did they deserves these honors? Do the awards validate them or distract from their real talents? What does it all mean?

5 comments:

cattleworks said...

I'm not a, what? "Active or practicing" fan of Liza Minnelli-- like I don't buy her CDs or anything like that-- but I remember seeing LIZA WITH A Z when it first was on TV and I thought she was great-- talented, charismatic, endearing, a real energetic force, and I think I always liked her ever since.
That quote at the end of your post by Ben Brantley is terrific.

J.J. said...

Before deciding on "glutton for adoration" as the title of this post, I had "Liza Minnelli, force of nature." Totally appropriate as well. Perhaps more so.

The Fat Lady Sings said...

You know who reminds me of Liza? Olivia Newton-John's daughter Chloe Lattanzi. The same unconventionality in both looks and singing voice. Arresting - that's what I'd call them - the ability to hold center stage - but you don't know quite why.

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