MeetingLiza Minnelli, I was reminded of the scene in Play It Again, Sam, when Woody Allen, in a desperate attempt to seduce Diane Keaton, splutters, "You have the most eyes I've ever seen." Indeed, Liza Minnelli looks like a character from a Manga comic, her beautiful, bulbous, winsome peepers overshadowing every one of her other features. She has the eyes of an icon, for that is what she is; half-close your own and she could still be Sally Bowles, the Oscar-winning role she played, a quarter of a century ago, in Bob Fosse's Cabaret, the movie which made her a star.
And although she knows it - lives it, breathes it - the great star pretends otherwise. "I'm a singer, not much else," she said. "Other people have been icons. I just get up there and sing and dance. I tread the boards for a living and sing my guts out. Sometimes my heart, too." Humility has become a major part of her make-up, yet another face to hide behind when the going gets rough. And recently for Liza the going has been quite rough indeed.
My interview with Minnelli seemed somehow symptomatic of her life. After two aborted trips to New York (one cancelled because she urgently had to see her dentist), and one meeting in London - when she was recording The Clive James Show, on which she would appear remarkably articulate, if a mite insincere; obviously ignorant of the fact that James had once claimed she couldn't walk up a flight of stairs sincerely - I was granted an audience at the Savoy, her hotel of choice during a recent bout of promotion for her distinguished new album of torch songs, Gently.
It's not a word you could use to describe Minnelli's own life, and her arrival in London was preceded by an unusual number of pejorative press reports. In April, a piece appeared in the Daily Mail suggesting that she was giving cause for concern to family and friends by her erratic behaviour and washed-out appearance, and by a supposed rift with her half- sister, the singer Lorna Luft (whose brother Joey was recently arrested for attempted cocaine possession). This followed Minnelli's bizarre appearance on Ruby Wax Meets ... , stories in the National Enquirer concerning her re-occurring drug problem and a piece in the Guardian in which she appeared to have resigned herself to living her life in perpetual denial.
When I asked her about her somewhat negative press, she gave a good impression of having heard it all before. "I've always hung my ass out on the line, just waved it in the breeze waiting for someone to take me apart," she said. "Regret is a huge exercise in futility. There's no point in dwelling on the past, and the only thing is to take today and do it different, which is what I think most people try to do. I've made mistakes and I've done some dumb things, but I don't think there's any point in regretting anything. I'm far too old for that."
Minnelli is now 50, and while she totters because of her 1994 hip replacement, the day we met she was as lucid as anyone can be with two-day-old jet lag. Although her smile seemed to kick-start itself every 10 or 15 seconds regardless of what she was saying, and she used the well-worn celebrity technique of plugging the product at every available moment ("I really don't think I've ever sung better," she said, as I was halfway through a question about ambition and regret), she was definitely on-kilter (chain- smoking Marlboros throughout). Tiny, and immensely quick, it's easy to imagine her scampering around the lounge of a 1960s suburban dream home in a pair of thigh-hugging slacks, her Alice band covered in swirls of cigarette smoke, arranging bowls of avocado dip as she watches The Dick Van Dyke Show. She looks like the kind of American woman they don't make anymore. Having said that, she was wearing what all celebrities wear in hotel rooms: black T-shirt, black Levi's and white Reebok runners. Somewhat fond of shoes, she proudly displayed a pair of stacked baseball boots she had bought that afternoon in Covent Garden: "These are real high-heeled sneakers, don't you think?"
There are dozens of stories concerning Liza Minnelli's so-called addictions: to read between the lines of her profiles you are encouraged to believe that she is addicted to everything from vodka and valium to cocaine and Prozac. Some of these stories have a basis in truth: when her mother, Judy Garland, died in London in 1969 from an overdose of sleeping pills after a lengthy bout of alcoholism, Liza was prescribed tranquillisers in order to cope with the tragedy, and in 1984 she was checked into the Betty Ford clinic by her friend Elizabeth Taylor to deal with her addiction to drugs. In reality, though, regardless of what else she is partial to, what Minnelli is really addicted to is attention.
Celebrity can be a dangerous condition, as it increasingly destroys those whom it creates. This is something which Minnelli knows only too well. Though her name is hardly mentioned without reference to her mother, Minnelli was actually closer to her father, the director Vincente, who made Meet Me In St Louis and Gigi (he died in 1986, 17 years after her mother, 35 years after they separated). It was he who pushed Liza into the movies, though apart from Cabaret, the comedy Arthur, and her great lost masterpiece, Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, it has been on stage where she has truly shone. "Reality is something you rise above," she once said, and her stage routines have been testament to this: more extravagant, more melodramatic than anything conjured up by Streisand, Sinatra or Diana Ross, for the past 20 years Minnelli has been one of the few entertainers to bring a real sense of 1940s glamour to Broadway.
She still does 125 shows a year, though there are unlikely to be many more movies. "I find it difficult to get parts now, but then everybody does. You look at the best actresses in America and they're all playing someone's wife. But in music women are taking over the world. Look at Joan Osborne and Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and Tori Amos; these dames talk like people do on the street, they're making the folk music of today."
With media attention so finely focused on the down escalator, it's easy to forget that Minnelli is capable of the kind of nervous, fizzy energy which the likes of Madonna have tried to emulate without much success. When Liza is "on" (see her 1973 television special Liza With a Z for the personification of "on"), she makes all-comers seem like late-comers. When the King of Saudi Arabia went backstage to meet her after one of her many performances in Las Vegas she said, "Oh, King, honey, thanks so much for coming".
Gently itself is a triumph though it surely shouldn't be anything else, and there is no reason why she can't go on making records like this for the next 20 years. She calls this album a "make-out" record. "It's a little bit like being naked in Macy's window, you know? These were songs I'd grown up with, songs my parents used to play around the house. I thought it was time to reveal a little more of myself rather than finding something new to hide behind."
Did she still need an audience? Was she as obsessed with being loved as she had once appeared to be?
"I don't think I crave an audience, but the main thing I like doing is performing live. I'm a road rat, and I just love getting out there. Singing is what I do, it's what I'm made of. You can't kill a good song, it goes on forever."
Bing Crosby once said of Judy Garland "There wasn't a thing that gal couldn't do. Except look after herself." And while this has become a trite way of summing up Liza's own life, one wonders if it might be just true. Of course, she does go to great lengths to look after herself, but projecting a vision of yourself onto the world is always the very worst way of protecting what's underneath. However, if Minnelli has earned anything, it's certainly the right to do exactly as she pleases. She manages to cope, she said, because she has big cajones. "Very big cajones."
Just before she stood up to give me the kind of parting hug a mother gives her son, she told me her mantra - her way of dealing with her demons - in the form of a finely honed anecdote. "There's this guy who walks along the street one day and falls straight into a hole," she said, as another Marlboro took an almighty hammering. "And the next day he walks down the same street and tries to jump over it, but falls in again. Then on the third day he approaches the hole really slowly, and tries to walk around the edge but still falls in. The day after that, he takes a different street. You know what I mean? Sometimes it takes a while to learn how to deal with the world."
! 'Gently' (Angel) is out now on CD and tape.
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