Liza Fesses Up
BY Michael Joseph Gross
October 11 2010 4:00 AM ET
Even odder evidence of this fact comes when I circle back to the most difficult question of the interview, the one she dodged at the start. “Both you and your mother had repeated romantic involvements with men who had active sex lives with other men—”
“—and with women.”
“Yes, but you both married men who were primarily gay. Do you think there is any connection between your romantic attraction to gay men and your mother’s?”
“I never thought about it.”
“No. Why would I think about it?”
“It’s a very unusual situation.”
“Oh, is it?”
“I’ve never heard of or known another mother and daughter who both were involved with gay men. It’s—I don’t see how you could argue that it’s not a very unusual situation.”
Sitting up very straight, in an almost imperious tone, she says, “We are a very unusual family. We are the only family in which mother, father, and daughter…have all…won…Oscars!” As she says the three words “mother,” “father,” and “daughter,” she consecutively raises her index, middle, and ring fingers.
We both laugh (though I’m not sure why), there’s a short, dramatic silence, and then her attention seems to drift, and she says, without any real transition, “And, you know, the best thing of all—the very best thing!—is when I make my parents proud. That’s—oh, that’s the best thing.”
She speaks in the present tense. Her father died more than 20 years ago; her mother, more than 40.
As we finish our conversation, Minnelli says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t dreary enough for you.”
“Do you really think I wanted you to be dreary?”
“Yes,” she says, “I think you wanted to talk about pain and darkness and suffering and difficulty, and I think I disappointed you, because I see the glass as half full, and I want to talk about what’s happy and positive, because that’s what life is about.”
I say that I don’t want her to leave the conversation with the impression that I wanted her to be dreary. I didn’t mean to upset her or bring her down. I say that, even though she might not have spent much time thinking about it, she has played a powerful symbolic role in a lot of people’s lives, my own included. There were generations of kids in little towns in the middle of nowhere who listened to “New York, New York” or “Cabaret” or “Over the Rainbow,” using these songs as totems for imagining themselves escaping to someplace far away—a feeling that in time they would discover had included a mute sense of wanting to find a place where they would have the freedom to be gay. The fact that so many of us, at such a young age (in many cases long before we ever consciously understood that we had same-sex desires), made the same connection between this longing and her music (and her mother’s music) strikes me as being meaningful. Because she is in the unique position of being her and has, I’m sure, heard countless stories from people who have shared this response to her music, I imagined that she would have some thoughts about it. And because she and her mother shared an affinity for gay men as both friends and lovers, I thought this might be a connection that she’d pondered too.
She listens to all of this and says, “That makes sense. I understand. And I’m glad you said it. And, honey, I wish I had more to say about it, but I don’t.”
The next week in a conversation with composer John Kander, who has known Minnelli since she was 18, I tell him how surprised I was that she had given so little thought to these topics, and he says, “Every performer, if she’s good, will make you in the audience feel as if you know her. And the fact is, all you know is performance…. To a lot of people, Liza is a symbol. What she is to me, besides being somebody I love, is an immense talent. What other people choose to make of her—what the audience sees is what the audience needs to see. And what she really is and what all great performers are is a combination of supreme talent, discipline, hard work, self-criticism, all sorts of prosaic things that the people who watch her don’t like to deal with because it’s too boring.”
So if Liza’s never really thought about you, don’t take it personally. Her job isn’t to think about you. Her job is to make a self for you to think about. In fact, if she spent her time thinking about you, there would be no her for you to know. Instead of wondering what Liza thinks about her gay audience, wonder, How did she make that self—and how, in spite of everything, has she kept it?
How has she sailed through so many storms that would sink most of the rest of us? How does she get out of bed every day, go to work, and make something new when she knows how many people have written her off? How does she ask you to take her seriously again and buy her new album when she must know that the last time you saw her, she looked like a Xanax cautionary tale on HSN?
One could argue that Liza Minnelli, as a supreme mistress of the strange art of celebrity survival, is actually more relevant than ever—in a time when increasing numbers of people are leading ever more inescapably and broadly public lives. As Facebook, YouTube, and other websites soak up our histories and cement our reputations, more people will be forced to ask themselves, How do I keep going when I can never escape the crazy things I’ve done or the bad things people say about me? And given the chance, you’d probably ask Liza, “How do you do it?”
“The only thing to remember in situations like these,” she responds, “is that it’s all lu-dicrous!” And, she might have added, if you can do right by your mom and dad or by whoever has loved you best, that’s probably all that counts.