Liza Minnelli: Child of Show Business

One of the more notable finds I stumbled across in my plundering of the library’s worth of old TV Guides I found in my wife’s house were these spreads plugging Liza Minnelli’s now historic first two TV specials in 1970 and 1972. Liza is of course show business royalty, a literal child of the MGM Freed Unit, daughter of my childhood crush Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli. And her second husband (of four) was Jack Haley Jr (son of the guy who played the Tin Man, and producer/director of the influential 1974 compilation film That’s Entertainment).

I was thrilled to meet her at a Vince Giordano’s show a few years back, and handed her a copy of my book No Applause, in which she was mentioned as a true vaudeville heir apparent.

The 1970 special Liza! had the special guests Anthony Newley, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, and — ha ha, wait for it — Michael J. Pollard. It featured a salute to show business, including vaudeville.

Liza with a Z (1972) was choreographed by none other than Bob Fosse and written by Fred Ebb. Ann Reinking was one of the dancers and there were cameos by her dad, her sister Lorna Luft, Gwen Verdon, Kay Thompson and Tony Bennett. 

I have to confess, way down here at the bottom, that Liza in concert, on record, or in TV specials is manifestly not my thing. I’m a comedy guy, not a song and dance guy. Movies like Journey Back to Oz (made 1962, released a decade later), Cabaret (1972) or Lucky Lady (1975) are much more to my taste.

In addition to the pizzazz and magic of these movies, in these and some her earlier work in dramas like The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1969) Liza shares with her mother a vulnerable, needy quality that is compelling to watch. But much like Ann-Margret, Minnelli seems to have had a tough time striking the right chord in films. When not specifically cast as a ball of fire (as she was in her hit films) she tends to tamp down her personality TOO much and her personality disappears. I find that to be the case in movies like New York, New York (1977) and Arthur (1981) where she allows her male co-stars to chew up the scenery at her expense. I REALLY enjoy her recurring appearances on Arrested Development (2002-13).

Did you know that her first appearance on film was as a baby, in The Good Old Summertime (1949)? Someone should devise a vehicle for her that connects her back to the magic of her origins. There’s time. She’s only in her mid 70s at this writing. The world awaits!

For more on show business history see, No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.