Through thick and thin, career-wise and weight-wise, she’s nothing if not a trouper, though. Liza has been on a first name basis with movie audiences since the age of three, when she appeared in mother Judy Garland’s musical In the Good Old Summertime in 1949. She was all of 19 when she won her first Tony Award for Flora the Red Menace, the youngest person ever to win at that time. The statue wasn’t all she got out of it; Flora was her first, career-defining collaboration with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb.
It was London calling for her first film, Albert Finney’s directorial debut and swan song, Charlie Bubbles (1967). That failed to fizz. But Alan J. Pakula’s first film as director, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), had more life in it. She brings tremendous vivacity to her role as collegiate and eccentric Pookie Adams in the film, entrapping the forgotten Wendell Burton. Telephone scenes are, or were, sure-fire for actresses—you can’t pack the same anguish into a Nokia or iPhone—and Minnelli has a great one here, one that sealed her first Oscar nomination.
1970’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, for maverick director Otto Preminger, was a reality check—“a failure on every level” is Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch’s kiss-off line in his book The Man Who Would Be King. Not quite; Liza and a debuting Ken Howard have some touching moments as physically and emotionally scarred lovers. And no matter—the timely intervention of Bob Fosse and Kander and Ebb more than eclipsed the unfortunate Junie Moon.
Liza became Liza in 1972. It was her defining year, a one-two punch courtesy of Fosse’s harnessing of all of her unique gifts and the greatness of Kander and Ebb. September brought their Emmy-winning collaboration Liza with a Z: A Concert for Television, a truly special special whose choreography and razzle-dazzle hadn’t aged a day when it bowed on DVD in 2006 (allowances must be made for some of Halston’s costumes). This is the cornerstone of her intermittent appearances in specials and TV movies.
But it was Cabaret, released that February, which truly proved timeless. It’s a cliché to call a performer a force of nature in something, yet Liza is a force of nature in Cabaret. And nurture—the 25-year-old drew on everything she inherited from Garland and her director father Vincente Minnelli to bring her Sally Bowles to incandescent life. Adrift in the Weimar Republic as Nazism creeps in, Sally is the main event at the Kit Kat Klub, stormy, unpredictable, resilient, vulnerable, sexy—it’s an irresistible turn, and Liza is one of the great Best Actress winners. (She and her parents are the only family to win Academy Awards.)
Liza was on top. Hollywood, however, was bottoming out. When we think of the 70s we think of the great movies that emerged from the chaos and change of the decade; we forget that for the studios it was still largely business as usual, and they were in overdrive cranking out successors to the “nostalgia” hits What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, and The Sting—one star-dusted dud after another, including The Fortune, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon, and other catastrophes. After a long hiatus from features Liza was one unlucky lady on Christmas Day 1975, when the rum-running comedy Lucky Lady opened. If you liked the Kander and Ebb tune in the clip, you’ve seen the best part of the movie—the rest of its $25 million budget went toward Burt Reynolds (the king of nostalgia flops) and Gene Hackman, who have a cutesy ménage with Liza, some unexpectedly bloody violence, and a boats-and-biplane battle toward the end more appropriate for a Bond picture than what was meant to be a breezy farce. At one point Liza says, “Gee, it’s so quiet in here you can hear a fish fart”—as if she were talking to theater owners stuck showing the movie.
Lucky Lady, though, was product. 1976’s musical A Matter of Time, the last film directed by Vincente Minnelli, was personal—and its failure following extensive pre-release tampering had to have been a bitter blow. With only one print said to exist and, like Lucky Lady, unavailable on DVD, A Matter of Time flickers on YouTube, a ghost movie.
1977 should have turned it around for Liza. On the plus side, her constant companion at that time, Martin Scorsese directed her toward another Tony in an uneven Kander and Ebb show, The Act, his only Broadway credit to date. Far less successful was his quizzical New York, New York. Yes, you know the classic Kander and Ebb theme (she and Frank Sinatra shared joint custody of it) and, wow, what a clip. Dynamite movie, right, misunderstood and underappreciated? Not really—it’s gorgeously produced, in the style of Vincente Minnelli’s MGM musicals, and Liza holds her own in the elaborate setpieces. The problem is that she and a surly Robert De Niro, playing 40s-era musicians and lovers who never quite get together, seem barely to have met, and interest switches from them to the art direction pretty quickly over its patience-draining running time. Another failure.
After these disappointments, no wonder Liza retreated to Studio 54 to trip the night fantastic. There she drowned her sorrows with some Muppets.
By 1981 Liza’s career was such that her name isn’t even mentioned in the preview for Arthur, and Anne De Salvo, who played a hooker, gets more trailer time. Did she mind? Her relief at not having to carry a movie is palpable, and her Queens shoplifter and Dudley Moore’s sloshed billionaire make sweet music together. Liza’s retro appeal is an asset to a movie that revives screwball comedy traditions, and its success had to have been gratifying. It’s the last she’s really enjoyed on the big screen—and that includes its miserable 1988 sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks, which would drive anyone to drink.
That year Liza added another trophy to her mantle, or maybe her bathroom or garage: the less-than-coveted Razzie, for her appearances in Arthur 2 and Rent-A-Cop. Liza called the so-called thriller, cursed from the outset by her tempting fate with Burt Reynolds again, the low point of her career. Between his plastic toupee and her 80s hooker outfits it’s excruciating, and I’m embarrassed (and yet somewhat proud and unashamed) to admit that I paid to see it. Kander and Ebb couldn’t have saved it. How will we know when hell will have frozen over? When DVD and Blu-ray special editions of this and Lucky Lady appear with Burt and Liza commentary.
Liza’s career as a movie headliner ended in 1991 with the dramedy Stepping Out. It’s not a great movie but it was a good one for her to more or less go out on, as her role as a tap dance instructor advising a class of life losers (including fellow showbiz survivor Shelley Winters) offered her a chance to strut her stuff. I wonder what she and co-star Andrea Martin, a stellar Liza imitator on SCTV, had to say to each other?
By the mid-aughts those unfamiliar with her early 70s heyday may well have been wondering what Liza was famous for, other than assorted troubles and her humiliating marriagepalooza to David Gest. In 2005 Arrested Development bailed her out of tabloid jail with a 10-show stint as the klutzy love interest for terminally bashful Tony Hale. Redemption was at hand: she fit right into the madhouse and is attached to the long-rumored film version.
Writing about Liza obliged me to seek out her (groan) “Single Ladies” bit in Sex and the City 2. I have to admit she sells it. Then again this clip is small and hard to see, reducing its camp value—which can only be a good thing. With this and a hit Broadway show dedicated to her dad and a new album that would seem to play to her strengths Liza is as back as she could ever be.
Or is she? I prefer to remember her like this, when she was at her zenith. She’s not quite a senior citizen yet, so perhaps she can find a new avenue to the top. Maybe next time, Liza?