Across a red carpet that matches her eye-popping outfit dances a woman with a recently installed “iron” knee, a double hip-replacement, tinnitus given to her on Oscars night 1973 by her father, and the foggy memory of the viral encephalitis that she suffered in 2000.
Liza Minnelli is 65. She walks with a wobble, cracks jokes like a bawdy great aunt, and laughs with a cackle that bespeaks her hearty cigarette habit. She has a veteran’s library of anecdotes: about “Uncle Frank” (Frank Sinatra) and Michael Jackson (“Then I went into his dressing room and he had the chimpanzee!”), and is still reeling from the death of lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor (“I was the one who first told her about Aids”). But, as shown by her cameo in last year’s Sex and the City 2 the hoofer/actor/singer can still cut a rug.
This summer Minnelli is touring the UK in support of her new album. Confessions comprises mellow selections from the Great American Songbook, recorded sedately, post-knee op, from the comfort of her sick-bed. Will she be repeating this little dance routine with her five-piece band?
“Are you kidding?” she hollers in a voice that speaks of years of theatrical projection, and of years living in New York. “I wouldn’t be able to stand on the stage afterwards!”
It’s a great day to meet Liza Minnelli. It’s hot and sunny, and she’s just returned to her London hotel with a spring in her step – her pre-recorded appearance on BBC1’s Graham Norton Show seems to have gone swimmingly. The host flattered the showbiz icon, dubbing her an EGOT by dint of Minnelli having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
It’s a shame, but perhaps understandable, that Norton forgot her Bafta for Cabaret. Minnelli may have a ribald sense of humour, and is quick to cackle at her own storied life – the awards, marriages and addictions, the platonic love affair with Dudley Moore during the filming of 1981’s Arthur. But even she might draw the line at being called a BEGOT on national television.
It’s a relaxed context in which to charge the daughter of Judy Garland and Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli with intimidating one of our own, much younger legends. A few days previously I interviewed Daniel Radcliffe – starring in New York musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying – and he spoke of his awe and terror that this Broadway veteran had come to his show... twice.
“Liza was sitting quite close to the stage so we could hear her laughing,” he told me. “She’s got a very distinctive laugh! So basically the entire show was directed toward her that night.” But when she came back stage after- wards, “she was just kinda awesome. She’s a force. But I have to say, she’s also very deprecating. And kind of sweetly vulnerable.” He’s not wrong: for all her firecracker wit, the shadows of a life hard-lived dance behind Minnelli’s eyes.
It is also, by a squeak, an unlucky moment to meet Minnelli. This very day, Coldplay release their new single. A few hours after Minnelli and I go our separate ways, the song’s unlikely roots are revealed. It’s partly based on I Go to Rio, a 1976 hit for Australian entertainer Peter Allen – the first Mr Minnelli. He died of an Aids-related illness in 1992, and had reportedly had a relationship with her mother’s fourth husband.
Given her withering disregard for Rufus Wainwright’s Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, the flamboyant singer’s album/concert tribute to Minnelli’s mother (“What’s he doing? I don’t get it!”), and for the recent Arthur remake starring Russell Brand (“If you’ve seen the best, why settle for second?”), it would have been an opportune moment to ask for her thoughts on Coldplay, her first husband – and on her last and fourth, strangely bearded gadabout David Gest.
On the painful latter, more a circus than a marriage (they wed in 2002 in a tabloid fanfare and separated a year later in a soap-opera meltdown), Minnelli remains tight-lipped. She is interested in dating, but adds, “I’m so relieved I’m not in love.” Is she equally relieved that she’s not married? “Oh, I’m really relieved about that!” she booms. “I get down on my knees thanking God!”
Hence the need for a metal knee? “Yeah! That’s why I have a false knee! Ha-HAH!” she shrieks, slapping her thigh. “God, that was funny.”
Courtesy of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé we are, once more, in the age of the diva. Does this multi-faceted entertainer rate these whippersnappers with their meat-dresses and flame-shooting bras? “Lady Gaga’s smart,” she shrugs. “But I had that theatricality, too – but it was given to me, by Fosse, and that was [the character of ] Sally Bowles.”
Fosse, choreographer-turned-director, helped Minnelli to her Oscar success with Cabaret – a triumph that caused her dad to scream so loudly that she says she still suffers from a ringing in her ear. “Suddenly eyelashes were in, and the pointed hairdo, and the bowler hat – I had my moment just like that.”
Liza Minnelli, performing since the age of three, isn’t about to retire. Judy Garland died in a mountain of debt. Minnelli, too, has bills to pay, albeit, she insists, largely pertaining to her concerts. “I won’t go second-rate on the show – I can’t be frugal... But I’m the worst,” she concedes. “I have two business managers and they’re both in jail! I mean, Martin Scorsese and I had the same business manager – and he’s in the clink! Luckily, now I insist on always signing my own cheques. You learn a little bit as you go along.”
More pertinently, this ageing but still vibrant star has performing in her genes. What else can she do? “I guess like everyone else,” says Minnelli, “you keep going.” The showbiz must go on.
Photograph by Rick Day