By Alan Hurst
Her film career consisted of maybe just four major hits, a couple smaller gems, and unfortunately a few too many critical and box office misfires. But despite that, for a period beginning in the late sixties and lasting until the early eighties, Minnelli was a major movie star and one of the most interesting personalities on the screen.
The fact that her movie stardom was tied so closely to her breakthrough performance in Cabaret (1972) was both a blessing and a curse. She delivered a phenomenal performance in Bob Fosse’s classic film, but the indelible impact of that performance – both visual and emotional – made it very tough for audiences to move on. It seemed that everything she did afterward was judged against her success as Sally Bowles. Her impact was so big and her performance so good that the character and actress became one – at least in the eyes of moviegoers. I’m not sure if her natural ebullience and individuality meant that she was ultimately difficult to cast or she just didn’t get the right scripts. Whatever the reason, Minnelli’s time as a major movie star was essentially over at the just the point it should have been escalating.
Minnelli’s film career began in 1949 with a brief appearance at the end of In the Good Old Summertime where she played the daughter of Judy Garland (her mom in real life) and Van Johnson. It was 19 years before we saw Minnelli on screen again, time spent working and performing to learn her craft onstage in a variety of musical productions that ultimately led to the Broadway musical Flora the Red Menace. The musical had a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who also wrote the music for Cabaret) and Minnelli won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical in 1965, becoming the youngest performer to receive that award. The musical did not run long, but Minnelli was firmly established as performer and actress with huge potential. More importantly, she began a life-long association with Kander and Ebb who would play a key role in many of her film, stage, nightclub, and television appearances.
Minnelli’s first major film role was in Charlie Bubbles (1968). Albert Finney starred in and directed this story about a wandering writer with Minnelli garnering positive attention as his young secretary. Next up was Alan J. Pakula’s The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), a major hit that year with strong reviews for Minnelli as the odd but touching lead character. She followed this success with the unsuccessful Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), an Otto Preminger film about three disabled people trying to get ahead. Minnelli was good, but the film was not box office success.
Where Minnelli was really starting to see some traction was in nightclubs and on television. She was an excellent dancer and a strong, emotive singer. Those talents were finally put to use on the big screen in 1972 with the release of Cabaret. The seismic impact of this pushed Minnelli’s career into high gear. She made the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, and there were long lines at the box office. She and Fosse followed this with Liza with a Z, a concert for television that further burnished her reputation as one of the most riveting live performers since her mother.
She was back on Broadway with Liza at the Winter Garden (1974), winning a special Tony, before getting back into films. First there was a small sequence in That’s Entertainment! (1974) narrating a segment about her mother’s films, and then Lucky Lady (1975) and A Matter of Time (1976). The latter two were critical misses, and Lucky Lady did only so-so business. A Matter of Time co-starring Ingrid Bergman was a major box-office failure and unfortunately the only time that Liza was directed by her father, Vincent.
Being a creature of Hollywood, Minnelli knew the success of her next film – New York, New York – was critical. Three strikes and you’re out. Everything looked promising on paper – Martin Scorsese fashioning a revisionist look at the musicals of the forties and fifties, a white-hot co-star in Robert De Niro, an excellent Kander and Ebb score, and over the top production values. But things went wrong. Scorsese, sidetracked by cocaine, lost control of the final cut and De Niro seemed to be channeling a combination of James Cagney and Joe Pesci – and only their most annoying traits. It’s a frustratingly bad performance. But Minnelli was excellent. She delivers a mature, fascinating look at the growth of a performer through every possible cliché. And she is in spectacular voice. But the reviews for the film were harsh, and the box office was disappointing. The fact that Scorsese was able to release a revised cut a few years later and the film has developed a solid reputation didn’t help Minnelli at the time.
She headed back to Broadway and a third Tony for The Act, but it was another troubled production directed by Scorsese. After that it was the concert stage. For the next 30 or so years Minnelli was a consistent and popular presence in concert venues around the world. She was the pre-eminent performer of her time and, although her abilities may have dwindled in the late nineties and beyond, when she was in her prime no one could touch her. I remember seeing her in concert the first time in 1974 and then multiple times after that. Her energy, her vocal prowess, her dancing, her emotional commitment were something to behold. And at each performance just when you thought she had given all she could, there was always an encore that she knocked through the roof. Liza in concert was both exhilarating and exhausting – in the best way. After a bit of break I saw her again in 2005 and it wasn’t a good time for her. Her lifelong challenges with drugs, alcohol and illness showed and I remember wishing I hadn’t seen her like this. But then a few years later, after winning her fourth Tony for Liza’s at the Palace, I was talked into seeing her again. Yes, she was less agile and the voice didn’t always do what she wanted it to, but by God she was still able to pull it together for a smashing and moving performance.
Four years after New York, New York Minnelli was back in a good film – the charming and very funny Arthur with Dudley Moore and John Gielgud. It was a huge hit, Minnelli got some nice reviews and the film won Oscars for Gielgud and the hit theme song. This was followed with another Tony nomination for the Kander and Ebb musical The Rink (1983-84), but she left that run early due to ill health.
Happier and healthier, she was back on the concert stage in 1985 and in a well received TV film – A Time to Live. After a legendary run at Carnegie Hall in 1987, Minnelli was in movie theatres in two unfortunate projects – a poorly received sequel to Arthur entitled Arthur on the Rocks and a lame reunion with Burt Reynolds called Rent-a-Cop, both in 1988. There was a return to form in the little seen Stepping Out (1991), but that was essentially it except for a couple of TV films and an appearance in the horrible Sex and the City sequel. But the concerts continued, as did the TV specials and recordings.
When you think about possible opportunities for Minnelli in the seventies and eighties, some key roles pop to mind: the psychic played by Barbara Harris in Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976); Goldie Hawn’s role in Foul Play (1978), Jill Clayburgh’s single school teacher in Starting Over (1979); Anjelica Huston’s sexy Mae Rose in Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and possibly Cher’s role in Moonstruck (1987). When there was talk of filming Evita in the eighties, Minnelli’s was the name tossed around most frequently to star. One seemingly perfect project that should have happened was a teaming with Goldie Hawn (and a rumoured Frank Sinatra) in an adaptation of the Kander and Ebb hit Chicago. That would have a been a dream cast in a dream vehicle, but it took another 20+ years before that went before the cameras.
These are Liza Minnelli’s essential performances, in my order of preference:
- Cabaret (1972) – Very few film performances reach iconic status almost of the gate. It usually takes a bit a time for the legend to take hold, but not with Minnelli’s work as Sally Bowles. It was the perfect amalgam of star, material and director (Bob Fosse) and one of the great film musicals of all time. Minnelli won a deserved Best Actress Oscar.
- The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) – A comical yet ultimately bittersweet look at a quirky young woman whose personality overwhelms the quiet freshman she meets at a bus stop on their way to college. Minnelli’s own oddball personae melded perfectly with the character of Pookie. She showed no fear in bringing out the character’s awkward, well meaning but ultimately very needy and quite sad personality. Her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
- Liza with a Z (1972) – While technically not a film, this Bob Fosse helmed television special was a filmed performance of Minnelli’s concert performance at the Lyceum Theatre in New York in May 1972. It aired on NBC later that year and was shown theatrically about 15 years ago as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. It is a creatively dazzling time capsule of Minnelli showing the world what she was capable of as a singer, dancer and performer. Both Minnelli and Fosse won Emmys for their work. This is a high water mark for TV variety specials.
- New York, New York (1977) – After a couple of failures, this was supposed to put Minnelli back on top in Hollywood. She’s quite spectacular as the band singer who achieves major stardom during the post World War II years. She has some great Kander and Ebb songs – including the title tune – and she delivers a full-bodied performance in the film’s dramatic scenes. The film ultimately failed for lots of reasons, but Minnelli is definitely not one of them.
- Arthur (1981) – This was a surprise hit in 1981 and it remains a favorite of many. Minnelli pairs well with Dudley Moore and shows a relaxed comedic flair that we didn’t get to see too often. This is one of the most “normal” characters Liza got to play and she’s an amusing yet grounding force for Moore.
- Stepping Out (1991) – Kander and Ebb to the rescue again with a smashing title tune that Minnelli performs at the end of this film. Stepping Out is about a group of misfits who want to learn to tap dance, with Minnelli as their ever-patient instructor. The story is predictable: each misfit has a backstory, as does Minnelli, but together they help each other through it all. Minnelli looks fit, healthy and works well with the varied cast that includes Shelley Winters, Andrea Martin, Julie Walters and Bill Irwin.
- A Time to Live (1985) – After Arthur and a few months on Broadway in The Rink, Minnelli took time off to kick her addiction to alcohol and drugs. This TV movie was her first opportunity to show that she still had it as an actress. It’s the true story of a couple whose son has muscular dystrophy, with a focus on the mom (played by Minnelli) and her efforts at helping her son and her activism in support of a cure for the disease. Minnelli’s performance was sincere, down to earth, focused and believable. She won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Film that year.
- Lucky Lady (1975) – This one took a major critical drubbing when it came out and Minnelli was the target for many of the barbs. The film also starred Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman – two of the biggest stars of the decade – so great things were expected. It’s the story of rum runners during prohibition, with Minnelli, Reynolds and Hackman running afoul of organized crime. There was a lot of pressure on Minnelli since her only film appearance since Cabaret was in That’s Entertainment! (1974), a documentary of MGM musicals and Minnelli was one of the narrators in the surprise hit. The problem with Lucky Lady was that it didn’t know whether to be a gritty crime drama or screwball farce, but Minnelli created an abrasive yet ultimately fascinating centre of a ménage à trois who ultimately called the shots.
- Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) – Another oddball character for Minnelli in a not entirely successful movie from director Otto Preminger. She’s one of three disabled people who meet while convalescing at a hospital and decide to live together to help each other out. Minnelli’s character has been disfigured by a boyfriend who poured battery acid on her face. To Minnelli’s credit she acts with dour rawness that’s perfect for the character, even if it’s not always easy to watch.
- Arrested Development (2003-19) – Minnelli’s only foray into series television was as one of the ensemble of this smart and off-centre comedy focusing on the Bluth family. Minnelli played Lucille Austero, a rival of the family matriarch (also named Lucille and played by Jessica Walter) and sometime love interest of one of the sons. Minnelli proved adept at the absurdist comedy and showed a terrific flair for physical comedy – as the character suffered from vertigo and was prone to falling at any given moment.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.