Just say yes: Bruce Hainley on Liza With a "Z".
It becomes an admonition to anyone who's listening to "say yes": Yes to the world of "brilliance, bisexuality, and betrayal" she was born into--yes to Hollywood; yes to recoiling, three-and-a-half years old, "at the stench of paraldehyde" that perfumed Mama; yes to watching Papa direct Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon, mimicking their moves; yes to Mama's invitation to join her onstage at the Palace to "dance her little heart out" while Judy sang "Swanee"; yes to blooming into a self-proclaimed "real El Chubbo" by age thirteen; yes to self-emancipation, auditions, and being the youngest person ever to win a Tony, age nineteen, for Flora the Red Menace, penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who will remain her most stalwart collaborators; yes to prescribed Valium to make it through Mama's funeral; yes to Cabaret and "Liza-mania" and gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously; yes to being the only child of two Oscar winners to win an Oscar herself; yes to Desi Arnaz Jr. (Lucy welcomed her as a "stabilizing influence"), Peter Sellers, Billy Stritch, Sean Penn, and Scott Baio; yes to Halston, Studio 54, The Act, and The Rink; yes to a twist in her sobriety; yes to food, booze, and pills; yes to Betty Ford, Hazelden, and Smithers.
Yes, Andy Warhol noted in his diary, "her life is very complicated."
Presented by Singer (as in sewing machines), directed by Bob Fosse, with clothes by Halston, hair styled by Simon Scudera, and makeup designed by Christina, Liza With a "Z" was filmed--"live" as the press release puts it--after five weeks of grueling (and, hot on the heels of the premiere of the Fosse-directed Cabaret, coke-fueled?) rehearsals, with eight 16-mm cameras, at the Lyceum Theater in New York City on May 31, 1972. According to Liza the "first film concert for television ever done," this tour de force aired on NBC on September 10, 1972, and, except for two repeat broadcasts in 1973, never aired again--until April 1, when it will be broadcast on Showtime and rereleased on DVD as a way to celebrate her sixty years in the life.
"Can I tell you something?" she asks the audience early on. "I have a problem." Liza's "problem"--along with drugs, drink, and overeating, and the "problem" of (her husbands') homosexuality--is wondering whether she's "live" or just living proof: living proof of Judy Garland's gifts and travails; living proof that Mama and Papa loved each other; living proof that the children of the studio system survive, even when the system does not. Living proof is not only vital evidence, but also a strength of spirit addictive and inebriating, dependent on public knowledge and on recognizable, repeated, and repeatable gestures, tics and tones; living proof involves impersonation. Whether taken as the Lacanian real in drama-queen mode or the inexplicable radioactivity of the experienced, "live" irradiates everything the audience and the performer search for and rarely find. Many performers and most audiences have long been happy with living proof (the half-life of Elvis impersonators; the poetry of the has-been), but it's "live" that lies at the heart of Liza, the "mark"--exceeding life--she wants to hit every time.
According to Scott Schechter's invaluable Liza Minnelli Scrapbook, Liza reported in one contemporaneous interview that "there was a hair caught in the lens of the main camera, and that the whole special was refilmed with paid extras in the audience." No word of this in the current press release, but maybe it explains the scare quotes around "live." In any case, certain songs with complex Fosse dance routines were prerecorded for Liza to lip-synch to, in addition to dialogue and singing that was done, well, live. None of which impugns the performer, who's giving her all, but it does suggest, partly, how and why Liza can throw the notion of "live," of what's being performed (Judyness, Lizaness, or Vincente's inner girl? then or now?), into disarray. Liza queers things by revealing a Doppler effect between live and living proof as well as a double vision blurring her life and her art. Liza With a "Z" was shot barely three years after her mother's death and Stonewall--which occurred, as James McCourt suggests, "not late in the month of June 1969, but at the end of the month of Judy in the year of The Man That Got Away"--and like Liza, homosexuality was going "live": Pre-AIDS, 1970s homosexuality could be figured as possibility and permission, the promise of a future when relationality, from autoeroticism to backroom gang bang, could be radicalized for an identity or practice based on pride and/or the liberatory self-shattering of the anonymous fuck.
Strutting her stuff in a white-hot suit (Halston's nod to Marlene Dietrich's cool tux in Blonde Venus), armed in drop-dead Elsa Peretti silver "bone" cuffs, Peretti "bean" necklaces shimmering at her decolletage, her nails cherry lacquered, Liza is ready for action. Princess of permission and of the promise contained in promiscuity: "Yes, I can / Yes, I will / Yes, I'll take a sip / Yes, I'll touch," she recitativos in the opening Kander and Ebb number--and leaves her audience dizzy. In the four songs of the opening sequence, she sketches her tactical attributes. Moving from the license of "Say Yes," she mellows things out (caressing Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child"), before reminding the audience who she is ("Liza with a 'Z'"): Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli's daughter but also a "child who's got her own"--her own name (mis)-recognition, talent, and career, as well as her own stash and her own take on homosexuality. Kander and Ebb's eponymous tongue twister ("It's Liza with a 'Z' not Lisa with an 'S'") signifies wildly: Although she's Liza through and through, A to Z, she has to confirm and repeat this fact, for herself as much as anyone else, so as not to slip into Muttersprache reiteration; but she's also Liza with an A-Zed guidebook to everything you got--eventually, AA to Ground Zero ("If I can make it there, / I'll make it anywhere"), amphetamine to Xanax. She bops the opening bars of "It Was a Good Time," the last of the four songs, but then, under Fosse's direction and in no small part due to the close-up television now permits within theater, Liza does a reveal, breaking and Brechting apart "live" and "living proof": She syncopates Method and (who knows?) actual anger and sadness, freaked with abandonment issues, against the high-spirited good-time orchestration.
Liza With a "Z" finishes with a medley from Cabaret--hits from Fosse's film, which, unusually, doesn't end with a married couple or the girl getting the guy and living happily ever after, but with a financially precipitated gay menage, abortion, and everyone going their separate ways. Fosse's choreography jazzed on the fact that the body can become a bestial machine of marionette-like parts swiveling on loose hips, and one of his key contributions was a paradoxical theatrical transparency, a kind of reveal: He showed "everything" behind the scenes--Liza's concert special starts with the star in the dressing room, the dancers warming up, the orchestra tuning; a camera watches Liza leave the stage for the wings; raw scaffolding, cords, clamps, and changing lights provide the "sets." Fosse shows the performer perspiring and it only makes her more glamorous. In a similar manner, he structured Cabaret so that all its events become "behind the scenes" of the nightclub act and suggest that such reveals, now that everything is behind the scenes, are soon to be over. The closest Hollywood and America ever got to Fassbinder, he's our Fossebinder. A Broadway take on the state and place of art during German warmongering, Cabaret can just as easily be read as an allegory for American contemporaneity (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade), claiming a political stake in an erotics beyond the regimes of heteronormativity and coupledom.
Liza married showman Peter Allen, her first husband, after her mother--wed at the time to actor Mark Herron, who was sleeping with Allen--introduced them. When she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, for Cabaret, Rock Hudson handed Liza the Oscar. At the bachelor party for David Gest--her soon-to-be-ex-husband--three drag Liza look-alikes belted out her songs, including "Cabaret" and "New York, New York." God bless the child that got her own. With delicious exceptions in recent history (her Pet Shop Boys collab; her recurring "Lucille 2" on Arrested Development), the high of Liza lasted almost two decades, from Flora to the surprise box office hit of Arthur, Liza's yes ends with Nancy Reagan and our acting president's demand to just say no--a "no" in favor of fear and ignorance, against cultural miscegenations--and the mystery of GRID becomes AIDS. Here's another way to look at it: Her peak mirrors the diegetic time period of "Bareback Mounthim," with Cabaret smack in the middle of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar's affair. I won't get into the overdeterminations of the cowpoking, point out how their names might as well be Jack-off and Anus, how the one who certainly bottoms in the film dies by its (his) end, as if scripted by the ideological forces Vito Russo wrote The Celluloid Closet against decades ago, or how the film depends on a stoic inarticulateness in keeping with the unsullied wilderness where it takes place--figures for a proper "natural" masculinity, privileging a forlorn, duplicitous, sacrificial monogamy over the possibility of a point-blank, variegated relationality. Which doesn't mean it doesn't deserve Academy glory, but that, like the "debate" over gay marriage, any "agenda" structuring it is deeply conservative. Not interested in Liza-like blurs, Brokeback Mountain's stars offer neither living proof of nor live homosexuality, only their own insistent heteronormativity. Rather than a movie about the possibilities of gay luvin', Brokeback Mountain is a 1940s melodrama in Marlboro Man drag portraying a haunting, mute landscape of shame, a fact queerly, distressingly resonant with what the pictures from Abu Ghraib proved: that male homosexuality and/or its staging--trumping gender or race--retains a hotline to shame's power base.
Liza performs antithetically to all of that, a representation of polymorphous sexuality, cosmopolitan pleasures, and their interrelated political ramifications. Christmasing at Vincente Minnelli's in 1969, Peter Allen let Liza know he didn't groove on the Old Hollywood social round--Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Gregory Peck, et al. "They've given up any mental stimulation and their brains have turned to butter," he told her. "I cannot bear one more night of this butter talk they go on with." He preferred what might be called the Crisco Disco of it all--where there was possibility of fluid explorations of the unknown--and led Liza that way. Rather than endure silent prison in order to be "quit," as Jack Twist bellows, homosexuality was her parole. While unable ever to choose definitively between Old Hollywood or the thing that came to replace it in which she plays her part, Liza, between being live and being living proof, struggles to find life, which she knows (and as she sings in the closing moments of her concert for television) should be a cabaret, musical and shameless, intoxicating.
BRUCE HAINLEY IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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