Friday, 07 August 2015

Liza with a zee

Back on stage and touring the UK later this year, the unstoppable, insatiable Liza Minnelli has never been happier.

Written by Richard Barber
Liza Minnelli is showbiz royalty. She was born into fame. Fred Astaire once said that if Hollywood had a royal family, ‘Liza would be our crown princess.’ Frank Sinatra and Noël Coward were among the first visitors to her mother, Judy Garland’s, bedside after she was born; Ira Gershwin was her godfather.

And yet Liza has managed to step out from this long shadow and make her own mark on the world, most notably with her Oscar-winning turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

There’s no denying, of course, that there have been some rough spots along the way. Four marriages, two hip replacements, one new knee, a near-fatal bout of viral encephalitis… But she’s survived them all. ‘I’ve been down,’ she says, ‘but I’ve never been out.’ Unlike her mother who, sadly, died of a drug overdose in London in 1969, aged 47.

We have met for lunch in Beverly Hills as she prepares to visit Britain (‘my second home’) once again. She’s in top form, smiling and relaxed after a health scare at the end of last year, when she damaged her back in a dance rehearsal and then needed an operation to put things right.

At the end of September, she will head to these shores for three shows entitled An Intimate Evening With Liza Minnelli. The first, at the London Palladium, will be hosted by Sir Bruce Forsyth, who will interview her for 90 minutes, inviting questions from the audience. Liza will conclude the evening by singing a few of her favourite songs, accompanied by her long-time pianist Billy Stritch.

The event will be repeated in Sheffield under the watchful eye of veteran DJ Mike Read and then in Glasgow with local broadcaster Billy Sloan at the helm. ‘I’m so looking forward to it,’ she says, ‘and no, I couldn’t care less what questions are hurled at me. I’ve always responded best to a live audience.’

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She’ll be 70 next year and, given the family history and her track record, it wouldn’t be wide of the mark to describe her as a survivor. She shrugs. ‘I don’t think like that. Surviving is an instinct, which means it just comes naturally. I don’t examine it. I just get right on and do it.’

Elizabeth Taylor, her great friend and someone with her own bumpy history, was also a survivor. ‘Oh, Elizabeth was just a regular girl. The glitter and the glamour and the gutter were all in the photographs and the way stars like her were presented.

‘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 did her job.’

Taylor’s no-nonsense approach to life – despite her superstardom – is nowhere better illustrated than in this nugget of wisdom she passed on to Liza. ‘I remember calling her one day. I was crying about something awful someone had said about me in the press. There was a pause. “You read that stuff?” she said.

‘She told me she never read a single thing about herself, so I stopped, too, right there and then, which meant there was never anything lousy going round and round in my brain. I thought that was good advice. Now, I’ll only read something if someone tells me it’s constructive criticism. I’m not above learning new ways to improve what I do.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, life has taught Liza to live in the moment.

‘I try and appreciate everything as it happens. It’s hard to be sad or melancholic when you’re curious about what’s going on around you. Anyway, what’s the alternative? Stagnation? One day at a time: that’s my philosophy.’

She’s certainly curious about the industry that continues to be her lifeblood. So who of the current crop of female performers does she rate? ‘I love Lady Gaga,’ she says. ‘Not all that long ago, I went to see her show. Someone came up to me at the end and asked if I’d come backstage. Lady Gaga wanted to meet me. So I went back and there she was, her hair normal, no weird costume. Just a simple dressing gown. She looked like a nice kid. She said, “You’re my favourite. You’re my hero.” The girl has a big talent.’

As for Madonna… ‘I can’t remember how or where we first met. I think she’s terrific. When I’m chatting to her, she’s just normal, the opposite of grand. We’ll meet in a restaurant with friends. Or hang out at someone’s party. She’s always both interesting and interested. And she’s smart as hell and she keeps her eyes peeled. She misses nothing.’

Of the long-established stars, she cannot speak too highly of Tony Bennett, now 88 – who recently performed alongside Lady Gaga at the Royal Albert Hall as part of a joint tour. But when it comes to naming her greatest professional influence, she doesn’t hesitate.

‘The first time I saw Charles Aznavour perform, I don’t remember breathing for two hours. Every song was a story. The acting within each song was phenomenal, something I’ve tried to emulate to this day. I never thought I sang that well. I still don’t. My sister, Lorna [Luft], has a better voice than me. Momma used to say that she had the best voice of all three of us. But I can act out what I’m singing and maybe that’s what people respond to.’

After spending her adult life in New York, Liza has now sold her penthouse on the Upper East Side and moved back to California.

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‘It is where I was born and raised,’ she says, ‘so it feels like coming home.’

She’s attracted to the West Coast for more than just the scenery. ‘Oh, I love the landscape and the colours and the flowers, but I really appreciate the pace of life. There’s more time to perfect things. Nothing seems as rushed or as nervous-making. There’s less stress. Everything is absolutely as professional as in New York, just not as fast. And that suits me now.’

It also suits her three schnauzers, apparently. Emelina and her two sons, Oscar and Blaise, are, says their doting owner, ‘having a ball in California’.

Ask Liza today when she has been at her happiest and her face breaks into that slightly crooked, trademark smile. ‘Right here, right now,’ she says. She’s currently working on a new stage show, Great Day, the title referring to a song performed by her adored godmother, singer and actress Kay Thompson. She’ll tour it around the world next year along with two singer/dancers and a band.

This, along with everything else, doesn’t seem to leave much time for romance. There’s no one special at the moment, she says. ‘But who knows? As a matter of fact, I’m too busy – and anyway, I’m in love with life right now.’

That doesn’t mean, though, that men are off-limits. ‘I’ve decided I want three lovers,’ she says, breezily, repeating a favourite joke. ‘The first would be enormously rich, with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin. The second would be someone who’s passionate about something – science, painting, anything, I don’t care. Passion is so sexy.’

And the third? ‘I want someone who comes to see me twice a week. I don’t even have to know his name.’

For tickets to An Intimate Evening With Liza Minnelli: www.roccobuonvinoproductions.com


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