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The survival instinct

Liza Minnelli could probably live off the proceeds of her sob stories. But, as she tells John Lyttle, she's a fighter not a victim
Liza Minnelli teeters on the sofa's edge. Black hair, black polo- neck, black pants (Halston? Versace? Gucci?). Showbiz uniform. Her body, still a dancer's instrument despite a recent hip replacement, leans forward to catch questions, and though she's here to promote the new album, Gently, we keep veering off - though not really, because it turns out that death, letting go, and the not unimportant matter of turning 50 inform this collection of romantic standards every bit as much as the outmoded notion of true love. Love, says Minnelli, when it was simple, direct: "Love from when we believed."

We start with how long it took to pick the songs - "I had pages and pages ... it was a process of painstaking elimination" - and how the songs form a cycle that tells the story of one love affair (no happy endings here). We touch on the thrill of duetting with Johnny Mathis ("I mean, I'm standing there and it's Johnny Mathis! Johnny Mathis! And no one had a camera! Why is it no one ever has a camera when you desperately need one?"), but soon find ourselves contemplating the life and death of her first ex-husband, singer-songwriter Peter Allen.

"He wouldn't leave his apartment. He shut himself away, wouldn't see his friends. So I'd find avant-garde, off-Broadway weird productions, things I knew he'd like. I'd call and say, 'Peter, you must take me to see this. I don't have a date, no one ever rings me. So you're going to have to take me, OK?' And he'd say, 'Liza, you're determined to get me out, aren't you? Do you look in the papers every day to find things to do?' and I'd say, 'Peter, no, of course not'. But we went to the theatre nearly every night..."

A line, a lyric, from Cabaret, tugs at memory: "What use is sitting all alone in your room?" Minnelli says, yes, it was what the tabloids said it was. She suspected, of course - she'd been an active, high-profile figure in fund-raising from the very beginning, before Taylor, Streisand and Midler made it the fashion, and so many close friends have... (Famous doe-eyes, innocent of their usual liner and trademark lashes, squeeze shut, flash open again.) Where was she?

Allen got sicker, and though she respected his privacy, it was getting a bit silly. "One day I said, 'Peter, this is more than throat cancer, isn't it?' and he said that it was, and I knew it was Aids." Why didn't he tell her earlier? "I don't know ... It was horrible. It was terrible. But he so dignified about it. Peter had ... class. And we were together at the end."

Room-service arrives with the tea. "Shall I be mother?" The accent is mock-cockney. She proceeds to pour, forgetting to use the strainer. She stares at my cup: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" I say not to worry. I like the mint to settle and gain flavour. Minnelli remains worried: "Are you sure? You're not saying that because I fucked up?" I reply, no, really, honest, which isn't the truth, but she flew in from Italy at some ungodly hour this morning, from a concert with Pavarotti, and she's pale as a phantom and obviously bone tired; chasing the applause, keeping the family name in lights, driven as only the child of famous parents is driven.

So pale and tired, that, no doubt, another spate of rumours hinting at ill-health, or worse, will doubtless do the rounds. Such talk, the perennial stand-by of the lazy gossip columnist, has dogged Minnelli since her time at the Betty Ford Clinic back in 1984, the year everyone who wanted a tragic re-run of the Judy Garland story looked like having their wish granted: drugs, booze, box-office disgrace, and a trip over the rainbow.

Those people should have a field day with Gently, possibly the rawest, most sustained and exposed display of Minnelli's career since New York New York's back-of-the-car quarrel sequence. "Any time there was a hint of performance, I went back to the studio and re-did it. And re-did it. It had to be the truth - had to be, or else it didn't work."

And yes, she's aware of how vulnerable she sounds, and appears, but her vulnerability comes from strength. It's strength that allows her to be that open, and run a production company, and two publishing outlets thank you very much, whereas "my mother played the fragile side superbly, like Piaf". But you are Judy Garland's daughter. Cue the "no shit" look. "I'm used to that. When I was starting out, it went like this: 'I saw Liza Minnelli last night and you know what - she was good.' And other guy says, 'Sure she was.' And then there's 'I saw Liza Minnelli last night and you know what - she stank.' And the other guy says, 'Sure she did.' " Minnelli shrugs. "I always thought I inherited more from my father, Vincente."

Maybe. Certainly his director's sense of the visual rightness of things. On the screen, Minnelli always seems correctly placed inside the frame, aware of herself as part of the composition. Witness the moment in Cabaret when, walking away from the camera, she waves Michael York goodbye, or the way she snaps the brim of her hat in her big dance solo in Stepping Out.

Minimum effort, maximum impression. Not a practice some critics would have you associate with a performer derided as too much, a Tin Pan Alley throwback who had her 15 minutes back in the early Seventies, and who cares if she is the most potent concert draw on the planet? Of course, those critics think the movies are everything, and the movies themselves are few and far between these days. Hollywood is unforgiving to actresses over the age of 40, scripts are poor "I haven't read one in ages that I liked" - and there's a dearth of suitable vehicles. "I'm a singer and they're not doing musicals. Musicals are out of fashion. Though I'm convinced there's a way of doing a musical. My father used to say that there was music in everyone's life, so it shouldn't be hard to get on the screen. Actually, I'm writing a musical at the moment. But I don't want to talk about it, in case I jinx it."

Not that Minnelli is too worried. As she says, when you reach a certain age, you make choices. She could strip herself bare for Gently, put up with the inevitable comparisons with Mama and sit politely still for the questions about Valium addiction, because the album is as much about making do as it is about making out. She's looked loss in the face and figured out what's important, what counts, and it's "getting a piano player and going to the hospitals and hospices, and singing and talking and being there. That's important. The hands on stuff - OK? That's the trenches. I'm not about being a victim. I'm singing about survival. About surviving life. What I'm saying is, we'll get through it, damn it. It might break our hearts and do in our heads, but at the end we'll be standing."

And Liza Minnelli pours more tea, warbles a chorus of "Embraceable You" and suddenly giggles, as if she meant it, "Well, I think that was fun..."

n 'Gently: the Make Out Album' is released on EMI today