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Suddenly Liza

On Minnelli’s 60th birthday, an unearthed film reminds us what made her a star.

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You may think you know what bootylicious means, but after you see a young woman shimmying and shaking across a stage this month (if you cop a ticket to the benefit premiere on March 13 at the Ziegfeld) or next month (if you catch her on Showtime starting April 1), you will want to revise your definition. A rubber-limbed 26-year-old hottie in a flame-red micro-mini halter-necked dress bumps and struts, keeping time with two mustached, sideburned men in sunglasses, black shiny boots, ruffled shirts, and black cowboy hats. She punctuates her molten progress with little pelvic jounces as she sings and sometimes howls, “Come on, give it to me—waaah!” The song is Joe Tex’s seventies hit “I Gotcha,” and the woman is . . . Liza Minnelli, as pulsingly aglow as a neon sign, preserved and digitally remastered at her apotheosis—before three more husbands (at the time, she was separated from her first, Peter Allen, who died of AIDS in 1992), three decades, three knee surgeries, two hip replacements, various addictions, and a case of viral encephalitis had the chance to dim her current.

The spectacular, humorously raunchy number is one of a dozen songs in the one-night production Liza With a “Z,” which was, according to Minnelli, the first filmed concert ever broadcast on network television. “It’s hipper than anything today,” she says. “Fosse made things so funny-sexy.”

Performed in May 1972, the show was directed by Bob Fosse, costumed by Halston (who’d just broken through), and packed with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Liza with a “Z” won four Emmys and a Peabody—and deserved them. It has not been rebroadcast since 1973, and it amounts to a missing Fosse–Minnelli–Kander-Ebb (also the team behind Cabaret) classic. Minnelli owns the rights to it. In 2000, she recalls, she got a call from film restorer Michael Arick. “He said, ‘Do you know your copyright’s up?’ ” and asked if she wanted to renew it. She did.

Arick cleaned it up well. Last year, Minnelli showed the restored version to her friends the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (who are helping to throw her a 60th-birthday party on March 12). “I’m sitting there holding Neil’s and Craig’s hands. I turned to Neil and said, ‘I was sexy!’ And both of them said, ‘Yeah!’ ” She cackles in delight. “ ‘No shit!’ ” And then they called Showtime.

In a suite at the Regency Hotel, as she smokes, breaks into song, and occasionally leaps up to illustrate lunges “down in one” (i.e., up front, on the edge of the stage), Minnelli—wearing the same tousled Sally Bowles bob she’s worn since 1972—recalls the creation of the show. It was Ebb’s idea, she says, and “Fosse said, ‘I’ll do it, but there’s only one thing I demand: Nobody sees it till that night.’ ” He was—rightly, it turned out—worried about the censors.

And so, during eight weeks of rehearsal, they tried to keep spies for Singer, the show’s corporate sponsor, from glimpsing the half-clothed ba-dunk-a-dunk high jinks Fosse and Halston had created. “When the sponsors would come around, and they’d have to let them in, Fosse would call a break. As soon as they left, we’d get back to work.” It wasn’t until a dress rehearsal that a mole from standards and practices got an eyeful of what would air on national TV. “This lady comes down the aisle and says, ‘Hold it!’ ” Minnelli remembers. “She says, ‘You’re naked, you can’t wear that.’ You’ve gotta understand, these are costumes. There’s not a bra within 35 miles. Fosse said, ‘Come with me, ma’am,’ and led her away. I’m out there thinking, What am I gonna do? But then the lady comes out, and she looks different. She looked lit. I said, ‘Is it going to be all right? May I wear the costumes?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Yes. It’s fashion.’ ” Minnelli laughs raucously.

This has been a surprising year for Liza Minnelli thus far: You could almost call it a comeback, except that it’s really a continuation of her first act, which has been—ever since Frank Sinatra showed up to meet her in the hospital room where she was born—the highly dramatic role of Being Liza Minnelli. As she told James Lipton, “My mother and father [Judy Garland and the Italian director Vincente Minnelli] always told me they’d been trying to think of a name if it was a girl, and my mother sat up bolt upright one night and said, ‘Vincent, wake up! Liza Minnelli! It’ll look great on a marquee.’ And went right back to sleep.”

In January, Minnelli sang “New York, New York” at Mayor Bloomberg’s second inauguration—a song Kander and Ebb wrote for her in 1977 (Sinatra made it his too, three years later). And on February 10, just as the uproarious series Arrested Development (in which she played an amorous, vertigo-stricken widow named Lucille Austero) shuttered on Fox, she flew to Paris to perform at the Opéra Garnier. Whether guests would be going to hear the voice (which, though still distinctive, is not what it was) or to see Liza Minnelli the marquee was up for grabs. But that was not a subject to raise with a diva—although the actress cites a sense of humor as one of her various gifts: “Nobody knows that I’m out-and-out funny.”


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