True Liza

Not for the first time, Minnelli makes a comeback.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 22, 2006

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Vested interest: Long before Arrested Development, Liza sparkled on TV.

Liza With a Z
Includes: CD, commentary track, several featurettes.
You'll Like It If You Like: Liza Minnelli, Bob Fosse, the 1970s, TV history, Judy Garland.

Gazing tenderly into space, bizarrely dressed like a boy in a velvet suit, Liza Minnelli turns the old vaudeville song "My Mammy" into a mini-psychodrama, conjuring up the spirit of her own dead mammy (famous singer Judy Garland) with lines like, "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles, my Mammy!"

Of course everything Minnelli does becomes psychodrama anyway. Nakedly needy, she looks startled when an audience applauds, yet compulsively stokes them with gushers like, "You're really terrific!" Singing things like, "God bless the child who can stand up and say he's got his own!" or the title song "Liza With a Z," about people getting her name wrong, she doesn't exactly shy away from broadcasting her family history and rampant

On this legendary TV concert-locked in a vault unseen since 1973-she mostly presents herself as a festive life-embracer. Opening with "Yes," she closes with a "Cabaret" medley, in which she makes lines like, "Start by admitting from cradle to tomb/ Isn't that long a stay" sound vibrantly life-affirming.

The early 1970s were Minnelli's moment. In 1973 she won both a Best Actress Oscar for Cabaret and an Emmy for this special. Her "love me, need me" style perfectly captured a cultural way station between a dying tradition of vaudeville Vegas showboating and the narcissism of the Me Decade disco era.

Sporting outrageous false eyelashes, in Halston outfits like a red sleeveless sequined minidress with red tights and red shoes (like her mom's ruby slippers?), Minnelli gives good camp. But beyond time-capsule value, her effusive, over-the-top style makes her an acquired taste, and the show could prove disappointing-or at least anticlimactic-if you've only read about it. It's basically a filmed concert, running less than an hour and shot on eight cameras, an innovative technique at the time that feels pretty stage-bound today.

Director Bob Fosse, who also made Cabaret, was having quite a year himself, winning the Oscar, Emmy and Tony in 1973 for three different shows. He contributes a lot of his characteristic kinetic energy, including some now-cheesy jazz hands. But it's still Liza's night, Liza's show, Liza's year, certainly Liza's decade-and now, not for the first time, Liza's comeback.

Lovingly restored by ace reconstructor Michael Arick, with a soundtrack updated from mono to Dolby Digital, Liza With a Z airs free on Showtime on April 1 and will be released on DVD on April 4.


An alcoholic and maybe schizophrenic, William Keane stumbles around New York City, traumatized by the loss of a daughter who may or may not exist. He crosses paths with a woman and her actual daughter, bonds with them, and then narrowly averts a new tragedy. We never learn exactly what's up with him or his daughter. We just watch him.

Writer/director Lodge H. Kerrigan records Keane's behavior like a scientist observing a bug: detached and clinical, almost anthropological. It's a relentlessly antipsychological approach that he used in his two earlier movies Clean, Shaven and Claire Dolan, which also tracked the minute behaviors of a single protagonist in crisis.

British actor Damian Lewis plays Keane with high intensity but little insight. He's nervous and alert, animated by a paranoid's ever-present sense that someone's just about to grab him. He drinks frequently but without pleasure, as if alcohol were medicine he needs to gulp down as fast as possible. He feels as outside his character as Kerrigan does.

The movie makes a strong impression, yet you may long for something deeper than a behavioral surface, something closer to the emotional range of the more poignant Claire Dolan (also recently out on DVD, in a fancy New Yorker Video edition with a booklet of commentary).

The movie is so meandering that producer Steven Soderbergh tacks onto the DVD the ultimate in passive-aggressive undermining: a recut version, in which he reorders the film into a more linear cause-and-effect story. That's one remedy for impatience. C+

Includes: Alternate cut by Steven Soderbergh.

You'll Like It If You Like: Intense character studies, mental illness dramas, ambiguous or plotless stories.

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