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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The story of ‘how Liza became Liza’

Liza Minnelli with Steve Rubell, left, an owner of Studio 54, Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol at the first anniversary of the Manhattan club in 1978. The director Bruce David Klein’s documentary, “Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story,” premiering at the Tribeca Festival, includes old footage found in Minnelli’s closet. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

By Farah Nayeri

A new documentary celebrates the life of the singer and actress Liza Minnelli. And it kicks off with the death of her mother, Judy Garland.

“Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story” (which premieres at the Tribeca Festival on June 12) opens with the vision of Garland’s rose-covered coffin being carried past thousands of mourning fans in New York in 1969.

With that somber start, the director Bruce David Klein is making a point. Rather than dwell on Minnelli’s childhood years in the orbit of her prodigiously gifted mother, he sets out to show that Minnelli, 78, shot to fame almost immediately after her mother’s passing — as if it were a catalyst of her success.

Klein includes interviews with Minnelli’s artistic mentors, stage partners and close friends, including actress Mia Farrow, who speaks of her with affection and insight.

There are also glimpses of the media nastiness she faced throughout her career, such as the male journalist who asked, “They write about you that you are ugly?” Her reply: “I don’t really care. When I’m onstage, I just do my job.”

In a recent video interview, Klein — whose previous documentaries focused on the billionaire Carl Icahn and the singer and actor Meat Loaf — spoke about telling the Minnelli story. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why did you decide to make a documentary about Liza Minnelli?

A: Liza deserves it, because she has a level of artistry that many people have forgotten and need to be reminded of, that is really mind-blowing. This is not a definitive chronological documentary about Liza, but one about how Liza became Liza.

I’ve always been fascinated by Liza. I was too young to see “Cabaret” in the theater, but I was totally obsessed by the naughty movie poster. It looked like something I wasn’t allowed to watch.

When her “Liza’s at the Palace…” concert came to Broadway in 2008, she had just got out of a wild marriage and had a hip operation. There were a lot of questions about her health, and did she still have it? Nobody knew what to expect. The whole audience was so quiet.

She came out and did one of her signature hand moves. And I’ve never seen anything like it. Grown men and grown women were not just applauding, they were standing on the Broadway seat with tears running down their face.

When we started talking to the Liza people, they had just found about 25 hours of old footage that had never been seen before — in Liza’s closet. And our jaws dropped. We realized that there was a story in here about this magical time in the ’70s when she transformed. Her mother died, and within three to five years she was winning a Tony, an Oscar and on and on: a mind-blowing accomplishment.

Q: Why did you choose Judy Garland’s death as the starting point?

A: I always fight that urge to be chronological, to be from beginning to end. It’s kind of boring when you just go, “Then she won this award, and did this song and did this movie.”

Also, this is the Liza Minnelli story, not the daughter of Judy Garland story. Yes, her journey is inextricably connected to her mother’s. But Judy dies, and Liza comes into her own.

Q: You speak to the people closest to her. One could say it’s an authorized documentary, like an authorized biography.

A: I don’t know if you would call it that, because Liza had no input into the film. This is me speaking.

I’ll share with you a moment. One day after shooting, Liza reached over, grabbed my hand, petted my hand and looked up at me with those saucer eyes. And she said: “Bruce, don’t put in anything phony in the movie. Don’t make me look like a phony.” In all my years doing documentaries, subjects usually want to manipulate and control the narrative.

I think she’s very comfortable with what she’s done and the mistakes she’s made. The idea of “don’t make me look like a phony” is really the ultimate insight into how she sees her legacy, which is: I am 100% fine in my skin.

Q: Can you talk about her upbringing as a child of Hollywood royalty and how she managed to have such a strong identity of her own?

A: The fact is that, when she was born, the third person to hold her was Frank Sinatra. She was taught to tap-dance by Gene Kelly. She came from one of the most talented women of the 20th century, Judy Garland, and one of the most talented men, Vincente Minnelli. So in a sense, she was born on third base, with all her connections. But her journey from third base to home was actually harder than your or my journey around the bases because of the expectations, of the legacy that she had to deal with.

Nobody was more privileged as a child in Hollywood than Liza. And yet for so many other stars’ children, nothing happened. It was a tough, tough road. You could sit back and say, “She was born with a silver spoon.” But hopefully we have shown how much she worked at it.

Q: Why is Liza Minnelli the colossus that she is?

A: One of my friends told me when we were working on a project together that the greats are great for a reason. That sounds so cliché, but as you start diving into a truly great person’s life’s work and everything, it’s just so apparent. It screams out at you.

Most importantly, I think there’s nobody else like her. She’s unique.

Q: Have you been seeing her since you finished shooting? Are you now part of her inner circle?

A: She’s in L.A., and I’m in New York, so I don’t see her much. But I love to hang out with her, to be in her apartment and to hear her just drop everything and go to the piano and say, “I have to sing this song.” If that’s what being in the inner circle is, I would say yes.

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1 Comment

Ann Green
Ann Green
Jun 11

That's right, her achievements show her efforts and efforts every day and what she has now is proof of this. Her story is a source of further inspiration. Happy Wheels

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