MINNELLI, LIZA (1946– ) Actress, Singer, Dancer
Embodying show business glamour and excess, Liza Minnelli seemed born to be a star. Born on March 12, 1946, in Los Angeles, California, she was the daughter of singer JUDY GARLAND and director Vincente Minnelli. Before her third birthday, she had already made her film debut in In the Good Old Summertime (1949), which starred her mother. Growing up in Hollywood, she spent much of her youth on movie sets. She especially enjoyed watching dancers, particularly Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Liza herself took dance lessons from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s choreographer, Nico Charisse.
Liza’s parents divorced in 1951, though she remained close to both. In her relationship with the emotionally unstable Garland, however, she increasingly seemed more than like the mother than the child. With Garland battling addictions to alcohol and pills and weathering a string of failed marriages, Liza began running the household, while trying to guard her mother from mental collapse. In 1962, Minnelli dropped out of school to pursue her own show business career in New York. At 16, she made her off-Broadway debut in Best Foot Forward and then toured with other musicals for several years. Although Minnelli wanted to build a career without her parents’ help, she agreed to appear in concert with Garland at the London Palladium in November 1964. Minnelli was terrified at being compared with her superstar mother. But in the middle of the concert, she began to relax as she realized that Garland was acting “like a lioness that owned the stage and suddenly found somebody invading her territory.” Minnelli saw her mother’s competitive instinct as the ultimate compliment. As she later said, “It was like Mama suddenly realized I was good.”
In 1965, Minnelli returned to the New York stage in Flora, the Red Menace. The show fiopped, but it won the 19-year-old Minnelli a Tony Award for best actress, the youngest performer ever to receive the honor. Through Flora, she also began a working relationship with songwriters Fred Ebb and John Kanter. With their help, she developed a nightclub act that showcased her strong voice and boundless energy.
After a small role in the film Charlie Bubbles (1968), Minnelli starred in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). Playing an emotionally needy college student, she proved herself an able dramatic actress and earned her first Oscar nomination. Minnelli also had success taking her club act to television in the special Liza with a Z (1972), for which she won an Emmy Award.
Minnelli was cast in perhaps her greatest role in Cabaret (1975), the film version of Ebb and Kanter’s musical set in Weimar Germany. Playing an American cabaret singer, Minnelli was able to both sing and show off her acting skills. Her dynamic performance earned her an Oscar for best actress. From this high point, Minnelli’s film career took a downward turn as she repeatedly failed to find the right vehicle for her talent. Lucky Lady (1975), a high-budget action comedy that paired her with Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman, failed at the box office. A Matter of Time (1976), a fantasy directed by Vincente Minnelli, fared even worse. Playing an innocent chambermaid, Liza Minnelli received some of the worst reviews of her career. She seemed finally to have found an ideal role when she was cast opposite Robert De Niro in New York, New York (1977), director Martin Scorsese’s attempt to recreate a 1940s-style movie musical. The film, however, was met with indifference by both critics and the public. While fioundering in film, Minnelli remained a star onstage. In addition to her concert tours, she appeared in several musicals. She won Tony Awards for her work in The Act (1977) and The Rink (1983). When Hollywood had all but given up on her star power, Minnelli had a surprise hit with Arthur (1981), a film comedy in which she played the love interest of Dudley Moore.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Minnelli was frequently the subject of gossip columns. Her tumultuous private life included marriages to singer Peter Allen, film executive Jack Haley, and artist Mark Gero. Each ended in divorce. A frequent visitor to high-profile nightclubs, Minnelli also developed an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. In 1984, she entered Washington, D.C.’s Betty Ford Clinic for treatment.
Minnelli continued to appear in film—most notably in Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) and Stepping Out (1991)—but increasingly she devoted herself to live performances. She became one of the highest-paid concert performers, having particular success on her 1988 tour with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. By the late 1990s, however, health problems repeatedly threatened her ability to sing and dance. In addition to continuing problems with alcohol and drugs, she had several hip and knee operations, after which she had to relearn how to walk. In 1997, Minnelli was again hospitalized to have polyps removed from her vocal chords.
Despite an early prognosis that she would never be able to sing again, Minnelli returned to Broadway in 1999 in Minnelli on Minnelli. The popular show included reminiscences about her parents and songs made famous in their films. A 17-city tour was scheduled for the next spring, but Minnelli had to cancel it after suffering from both hip problems and double pneumonia. In November 2000, she had an even more severe health scare when she was rushed to the hospital with viral encephalitis. Long a survivor of personal and professional setbacks alike, Minnelli recuperated quickly from the near-fatal illness. Not surprisingly, her friend, gossip columnist Liz Smith, told the press after visiting the recovering star, “All she talks about now is working again.”
Mair, George. Under the Rainbow: The Real Liza Minnelli. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.
Spada, James, with Karen Swenson. Judy and Liza. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cabaret (1972). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 1998/2000.
Judy Garland: Live at the London Palladium (1964).
Laserlight Video, VHS, 1997.
Liza with a “Z”: A Concert for Television (1972). Sony/Columbia, CD, 1988.
Minnelli on Minnelli. Angel, CD, 2000.
New York, New York (1977). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.