Liza with a Z – 1972 – dir. Bob Fosse

It is hard to describe to those who weren’t there just how famous Liza Minnelli was in the 1970s. During that decade, along with Barbra Streisand who bested her, but not by much, she cornered the market on kooky chic, and a singing voice like a locomotive coming straight at you right out of the dark (Liza was a “belter” in the tradition of her mother, Judy Garland).  Get out of her way!  She was out to overthrow the curvaceous Monroes, MacLaines and Lollobrigidas of the 50s and 60s and create a place for the ugly duckling becoming the swan.

Tabloids and the paparazzi logged her every move, on stage and off. Warhol painted her. Studio 54 and Steve Rubell hosted her non-stop whirl of limos, all-night disco dancing, booze and cocaine.  In show business and in the culture, Liza WAS The Seventies, and it is hard to say now whether she invented them or they invented her but few can dispute that she owns those years, on screen and on stage, in valid and lasting ways.

In spite of being the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Liza’s climb to the top was not an easy one. She has, in fact, said, “Being the progeny of superstar parents can work against you or it can get you in the door but if you don’t have the talent to back it up, Hollywood will slam that door right in your face.”

Generations of entertainment audiences adored her mother, Judy Garland, and when she died tragically in her early 40s of a drug overdose, they (esp. Garland’s legion of gay male fans) embraced Liza as a replacement for what they had lost. Beween, say, 1968 (the year of Garland’s death) and 1972, despite popular and critical debuts in films like The Sterile Cuckoo and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Liza remained merely “Judy Garland’s daughter”.

Then came Cabaret, and Liza’s Oscar winning performance as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s international, award winning song-and-dance smash about sexual decadence in pre-Hitler Germany. Seemingly overnight, Liza became a megastar in her very own galaxy.  People stopped comparing her to her mother and she had the sense and the savvy to keep her wagon hitched to the talents of songmeisters, Kander and Ebb, and to the direction and choreography of the one and only Fosse. She was on her way!

Coming off the worldwide success that was CabaretLiza With a Z is an absolute valentine to one of the finest entertainers of all time. Here is Minnelli showcased in all her singing and dancing glory; the androgynous haircut, her signature moves, the Halston designs.  If you want to know what all the fuss was about, you have only to watch this hour long fiesta of “everything Liza”

No singer sings like she sings. Every song for Liza is a Mount Everest to be scaled, and scale each one here she does with no safety net and no equipment other than that powerhouse of a voice, melodramatic acting, the stylized arm and hand gestures (a la Piaf), the Fosse brand of dancing she made so famous in those years. (An interesting bit —  Minnelli says Fosse was “knock-kneed and dink-toed” and so what seemed like a newly invented style of movement was, in fact, the only way he knew how to move).

And the Minnelli look!   Who else looked (or looks) like her!  The Louise Brooks bangs. The wacky Clockwork Orange eyelashes, like something out of the prohibition era. Her trademark look influenced that whole era and was copied throughout the world.  Those soulful banjo eyes. They take you from hilarity to heartbreak before you have a chance to breathe; and when her tiny, little hands reach for that place beyond the stars that is always so close yet always out of reach, well, we all can relate to that…

Sure, her personal life (the alcoholism, the drugs, the crazy marriages) was a circus but those were circus days, the 70s, what with the glam rock, androgyny, decadence and excess, and if they had to have a ringmaster, let’s be glad it was our own Liza With a Z!!

Leo Racicot Written by: