Liza Minnelli is getting ready to be photographed for the cover of Variety. She’s wearing an off-the-shoulder black beaded shirtdress and perched on a director’s chair. As she adjusts herself, trying to find the right position to extend her bare legs, she screeches, “I’m getting f—ed by a chair!”
As if on cue, the room goes silent. But before anyone can blink, Minnelli’s distinctive throaty cackle bounces off the walls. It’s the permission everyone in the room needs to howl at what they can’t believe they just heard.
At 73, Minnelli is still the consummate entertainer, taking an awkward moment and turning it into a bawdy joke about getting intimate with a piece of furniture.
Minnelli isn’t a Hollywood icon — she’s a show business legend. Over the course of her career, she’s won four Tonys, two Grammys, an Emmy and an Oscar. But even before she danced her first step, sang a single note or memorized a line of script, she was famous.
“I was born and they took a picture,” Minnelli says.
That’s what happens when your mom is Judy Garland and your dad is Vincente Minnelli.
A few days before the shoot, Liza is settling in for a rare interview. She’s sitting on the couch in the living room of her modest Los Angeles-area apartment. The room is cozy, with a grand piano squeezed into the corner. Her Oscar for “Cabaret” sits on a low table alongside a copy of a 1972 Time magazine with Minnelli on the cover. On a table next to the couch are her Tonys, while a collection of additional awards crowd a sideboard near the entryway.
Hanging on one wall are reproductions of iconic Warhol paintings of Minnelli and her parents. The unending fascination with Garland continued last year with the release of “Judy.” Renée Zellweger is the favorite to win the Oscar for her transformation into Garland during the last months of her life. Minnelli has no interest in seeing the film. All she will say right now is “I hope [Zellweger] had a good time making it.”
Minnelli is wearing her signature black turtleneck and leggings, a look that originated out of comfort rather than fashion. “It’s what I’d wear to dance class because it was easy,” she explains.
She is a dancer at heart. She insists that’s all she ever wanted to be, but she was raised on movie sets and in concert halls. Singing and acting were inevitable. In fact, a one-sentence report in Variety on May 7, 1947, reads, “Liza Minnelli, 14-month-old daughter of Judy Garland, makes her acting bow in Metro’s ‘The Pirate,’ which her father is directing.” The headline: “In Ma’s Footsteps.”
When she was 19, Minnelli became the youngest person to win the leading actress in a musical Tony for her turn in the 1965 Kander and Ebb musical “Flora the Red Menace.” Four years later, she received her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the romantic comedy “The Sterile Cuckoo.”
Then came “Cabaret” in 1972. The Bob Fosse-directed big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name earned eight Oscars, including one for Minnelli’s work as American expat Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin during the rise of Nazism.
Joel Grey, Minnelli’s “Cabaret” co-star, who took home an Oscar for his role as the Master of Ceremonies, first met her through Hal Prince when she made her nightclub debut at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. “She was this fresh, bursting, bright-eyed talent,” Grey remembers. “You could see that connection to her mother and father. You just knew that she was somebody that was going to happen. She was so tender and frail and fragile and strong at the same time.”
Robert Trachtenberg for Variety
Photographed at The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills
Grey and Minnelli ran in the same New York theater circles. “We used to sort of pile into Joe Allen’s, and she was always like the little sister I never had,” he says. “She was just very vulnerable and looked up to me.”
Shooting “Cabaret” wasn’t easy. They filmed in and around Berlin and Munich. Fosse was a perfectionist, always wanting another take. “We would go to set every morning, and she’d sleep on my shoulder, and we’d listen to [Cat Stevens’] ‘Morning Has Broken,’” Grey says. “It was long days shooting, and it was very intense. The material was intense.”
Minnelli would go on to work opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 “New York, New York,” followed by the 1981 hit comedy “Arthur” with Dudley Moore.
She became a fashion icon with her pixie cut (the unintended result of having to chop her locks when playing around with some friends ended with a wad of gum in her hair), red lips and ensembles that made her a living, breathing runway show. She was a regular at Studio 54 and became a muse to Halston after meeting him at a party. “I looked at Halston a certain way and smiled,” Minnelli recalls. “And then he said, ‘I want you to come see me.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because I want to make some things for you.’ What he did for me, he didn’t do for anybody else.”
Actor Tanya Everett was playing Chava in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Minnelli visited the cast backstage in 1964. “She looked at me and said, ‘Can we be roommates?’” Everett says. “We became roommates that night.” Everett recalls one night when there was a knock on the door: Tony Bennett had stopped by unannounced. He sat down at the piano that Minnelli’s dad had given her. “He said, ‘Can I play?’” Everett says.
And then he asked Minnelli to sing with him. “My eyes were crossing, but I sang,” she says.
Bennett became one of Minnelli’s early mentors, as did the late French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. “Almost all of my movements are from Charles,” Minnelli says. She stretches her arm out, spreads her fingers and kicks up a leg. “That’s all Charles,” Minnelli says. “I was absolutely concentrated on not doing what my mom did.”
“I remember mama saying, ‘now don’t get upset because of the way they may compare you to me.’”
Not long before Aznavour died in 2018 at age 94, Minnelli and Everett went to see him in concert at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. “It’s like he sang to Liza the whole time,” Everett says. “He was up on the stage, but it was as if only Liza was in the audience.”
As Minnelli’s career soared, her personal life unraveled. Like her mother, she became a target of the tabloids. Over the years, Minnelli has married and divorced four times. She’s gone to rehab — most recently in 2015 — and is now four years sober. Her worst vice these days: smoking, which she indulges in during her two-hour sit-down with Variety.
In 2000, doctors predicted she’d spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair after suffering a case of viral encephalitis, but she recovered and went on to perform her solo show “Liza’s Back” in New York and London. “She’s a survivor,” says Marisa Berenson, who played Natalia Landauer in “Cabaret” and has been one of Minnelli’s closest friends for almost 50 years. “She’s like a phoenix, always spreading her wings and being reborn. I think she’s one of the strongest people I know. It’s really glorious to watch. She does have this incredible strength and courage.”
Minnelli’s last steady gig was a recurring role in “Arrested Development” from 2003 to 2005 and then again in the Netflix series reboot in 2013. She boasts that she performed her own stunts on the show. “I did all the pratfalls and falling on my fanny,” she says. “I knew all the stuntmen in Hollywood from when I was little and played on the MGM lot, so I figured out how to make it work.”
As for the future, she’ll be heard singing her dad’s favorite song, “Embraceable You,” with Michael Feinstein on his upcoming album “Gershwin Country,” which Minnelli also executive produced.
Following are excerpts from our exclusive interview.
I watched “Cabaret” again this weekend.
Isn’t it brilliant? Bob Fosse was one of the great thinkers and directors.
What was it like working with Fosse?
Sensational. I have scoliosis, and he noticed that because when I’m standing, sometimes it looks like a little knock knee. He noticed that one leg went higher than the other. He took all my mistakes or things that I did that I thought were awful or he thought were unusual and he used them.
It wasn’t your only time working with him.
Gwen Verdon got sick in “Chicago” on Broadway, and he called me and said, “Can you fill in?” I said, “Absolutely.” I learned it in two days, which he liked a lot. They said, “Tonight Gwen Verdon is unable to perform. The part of Roxie Hart will be played by Liza Minnelli.” I was so nervous.
Did you always get nervous before going onstage?
Oh, yeah, because you want to do your best. And to do your best you have to really concentrate and pretend the audience isn’t there. Well, they’re there, but you have to think there’s a wall.
When did you know that your parents were celebrities, that they were famous?
I don’t know. My parents were my parents. I didn’t know that I had to dodge questions about Mama until people started asking me questions. I asked my father what to do, and he said, “Be as good as you can and as good as you are.” He said something like, “So what? They ask me the same questions.” Mama got angry. She was one who got angry at people for asking me questions about her.
When did you first perform onstage?
I was 3. My mom took me onstage. But when I was older, like 11, she’d sing “Swanee” [from “A Star Is Born”] and she made me dance to it and I’d say, “I don’t have a choreographer,” which made her laugh. She got such a kick out of it. It was like, “Look what I made.” And I was so happy whenever she was happy.
Robert Trachtenberg for Variety
Photographed at The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills
What kind of happy was she?
She was funny, very funny, clear, incredibly intelligent, but more than you could even imagine, and in the moment.
But what happened when she was in a bad mood?
I’d tickle her when she was really angry or upset about something. I’d take her by the hips and put her on the bed or on the couch. This is when I’m like 5.
What was the hardest part about being in show business?
The hardest part was getting to be known as myself as opposed to somebody’s daughter. I remember Mama saying, “Now don’t get upset because of the way they may compare you to me because you’re an entertainer too.” I said, “Oh, I won’t.” And then she reads something where they compared me to her. She said, “How dare they? You’re your own woman. Dammit! Can’t they see?” And she’d throw it down in the trash. She was wonderful and so overprotective. She tried saving us from any of the stuff that other people said, except the great stuff.
When did you think, “I want to do what my mom’s doing. I want to be onstage”?
I always wanted to be a dancer. I remember going to dancing school because I asked my dad. I went all my life. And then, I was always hoping that I’d get to be in the yearly show. Twice I didn’t make it. But the third time, I got it.
I used to dance for my father. He loved it when I danced. He’d be sitting on the bed, and Mama loved to say, “Come dance.”
You made your stage acting debut in high school when you were the lead in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I got wonderful reviews. I didn’t know they were going to review that.
Did you sit your mom or your dad down and say, “I want to go into the business”?
No. It was just always there. When they came to see “Anne Frank,” my mother came backstage after the show with tears streaming down her face. I said, “Was I good?” And she said, “Wonderful.” And my father just said, “Yes.”
You were 16 then and actually living on your own in New York City.
I was at the Barbizon Hotel for women. I went to dance school every day, two classes a day. I went to see shows. My dad was nice enough to tell the producers to let me in. I watched a lot of them from the back, so I could see every detail.
Weren’t your parents nervous about you moving to New York on your own?
A little bit, but they trusted me because I was sophisticated and I had a purpose, and that was Broadway.
You were 19 when you became the youngest person to win a Tony for your Broadway debut, “Flora the Red Menace.” How did your life change after that?
The best part about winning an award is the night you win it. And then you have to go back to work. I believe that.
How did movies come along?
I read the book “The Sterile Cuckoo,” and I said to my father, “Daddy, if they ever make anything out of this, I want to play the girl Pookie Adams.” Then the director Alan Pakula announced he was making it. My dad knew him really well. He would come over to the house all the time. What I remember is Daddy saying to him, “Liza wants to play Pookie Adams.” I said I’ll audition. And I did.
“She was so tender and frail and fragile and strong at the same time.”
Joel Grey on Minnelli
Take me back to Oscar night. You’re in a yellow Halston dress.
It was like a T-shirt collar to the ground, straight down, and a sweater made of crepe, same as the dress. My father’s favorite color was yellow. I wore that and jewelry that Halston had picked for me for that night. I said to my dad, “Do I look all right?” He said, “You look perfect because you’re not overdressed and you’re not underdressed.”
Did you think you were going to win? The other nominees were Cicely Tyson [“Sounder”], Diana Ross [“Lady Sings the Blues”], Maggie Smith [“Travels With My Aunt”] and Liv Ullmann [“The Emigrants”].
I didn’t think I was going to win. I hadn’t planned [an acceptance speech]. If you plan something and then it doesn’t happen, then you’re disappointed. I asked my dad, “What should I say if I win?” And he said, “You’ll know what to say.” I said, “OK,” and off we went. When [Gene Hackman, who was presenting with Raquel Welch] said my name, my father screamed and he gave me tinnitus. I had tinnitus because of the way my father screamed at the Oscars, honestly.
You’ve been open about your struggles. In the ’80s, you talked publicly about going to Betty Ford. Did you know you had a problem?
I knew, and I told my father. He said, “Well, let’s see what can we do about it.” I said, “Well, all these people talk about the Betty Ford Center,” and he said, “Then you’ll go there.” Just like that. So he took me there.
Was there ever a time when you thought you weren’t going to survive?
Oh, sure. Everybody has that time.
What’s your fondest memory of you and your mom?
Everything. We had such fun because she was so funny. She was funny, and she loved her kids so much. She was protective and very strict. She wanted you to do the right thing, like any mother. It’s that simple.
Did she talk about her days when she was a child star?
Occasionally. She would teach me all the routines she’d learned as a child. We would do them together.
I believe in this, but not sure you do: Do you ever feel your mom’s presence today?
Definitely. When I call on her, she’s there, and I call on her a lot. She’ll say, “Ignore it” a lot. She’ll say, “It’s one opinion. Who cares? Just keep going.”
After she passed, were you able to listen to her music right away or was it hard?
It took a minute.
Did you know about her struggles?
No. She wouldn’t tell us that. She was our mother.
Do you want to act again?
What do you want to do?
Whatever comes up. I’ve always been like that.