Liza Fesses Up
BY Michael Joseph Gross
October 11 2010 4:00 AM ET
The younger of two doormen, who looks to be about 25, Latino, and straight, recognizes the woman on the sidewalk instantly. “Damn, she looks good,” he says to his colleague before welcoming Liza Minnelli into the marble lobby of the Hotel Plaza Athenee, a few blocks from her home on New York’s Upper East Side.
Wearing a deep red silk Chinese-style shirt, black trousers and flats, a small gold cross on a chain around her neck, and diamond earrings almost half the size of her eyes, Minnelli does look good. Incredibly so, when you tally up the struggles of her 64 years—the well-known litany of marriages, addictions, and constant comebacks—whose collective wear on her seemed clear during her disastrous June appearance on HSN to promote the Liza Collection, a line of sequined clothing and sparkly jewelry. She was repetitive, slurring, and spacy: One fan called in to express her admiration for Minnelli, saying, “You’re truly a mentor for me,” and Minnelli responded, bizarrely, “You’re my mentor too.” Video of the show went viral; some speculated that Minnelli might have fallen off the wagon. Combined with her over-the-top Sex and the City 2 cameo, in which she sang “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” it seemed that Minnelli might be sliding into clownish irrelevance. And yet somehow this same person greets me today in a manner that suggests otherwise. Sharp, calm, and articulate, she’ll later explain the discrepancy by saying of the HSN debacle, “I was tired! They’d had me working too hard, and we shot that segment very late, and I was just tired.”
The most striking thing about Minnelli’s appearance, though, is that she’s come to look almost chillingly like her mother. There’s always been a resemblance, but time has etched Minnelli’s features with a precise quality of Judy Garland’s that also helps to clarify one key difference between the public images of the two. Garland, even when she was a mess, was always indelibly Judy. No matter how needy or awestruck, her facial expressions had a pointed quality that telegraphed the determination and persistence that brought Dorothy home. Liza Minnelli’s face, by contrast, has always radiated an energy of concentrated force but vague direction. The lacquered features and loose mannerisms sit in tension, like a Kabuki mask surrounded by a haze of free-flowing giggles, gulps, and gazes. At the center of it all, always, are the eyes, innocent and hungry, expressing an openness to the world so extreme as to be dangerous. (It’s the quality that made us love Sally Bowles and also made us fear for her.)
The face I meet has hardened, in a good way. In a private room of the hotel’s restaurant, she orders high tea for the table (a friend of Liza’s—who asks not to be identified for this story—and Liza’s publicist are with us). Then she orders a Coke for herself before turning to me, her eyes focused and her mouth set strong, to talk about her new album. Confessions is a collection of standards recorded with one of her longtime collaborators, pianist and arranger Billy Stritch. Reflective, wry, and even wise, this album is one of her best. The voice, deep and rich as an aged single malt, has a generous, even forgiving quality, especially in songs that make gentle fun of the singer’s reputation for excess, like the title track (“I never had a taste for wine / For wine can’t compare with gin”). “This Heart of Mine” deploys her vintage, veering vocal mannerisms to the verge of self-parody, before landing, catlike, on a precise ending.
Best and most affecting of all is “I Got Lost in His Arms,” in which the lyrics dive headlong into romance but the voice is halting, even mournful, as if the singer were trying to warn her own heart that love may not be worth the trouble. If a single song could stand as an autobiography, this might be Liza’s. Does this quality reflect something that Minnelli has learned about romance over the course of a lifetime that has included four marriages? (Her husbands were singer and songwriter Peter Allen, producer Jack Haley Jr., sculptor Mark Gero, and producer David Gest.) She answers, “I think everybody goes through it, and I think it’s absolutely grand when you’re going through it, and then you get your head broken and you get your heart broken and it’s all that up-and-down stuff, and for me, in my life, I’m quite happy that it’s gone. Now I have my work and my puppies and my home. And that’s enough.”