LIZA AND ME by Alan Cumming
The first thing Liza Minnelli ever said to me was “Alan, I want to be your friend forever”. I never thought it would actually come true. She had just come backstage to see me after ‘Cabaret’, and I was so overwhelmed by her. Meeting Liza is like watching a hot spring bubbling out of the earth, her huge eyes open impossibly wide to take in all the wonder she sees in the world around her. She is all the things you might expect, yes - a star, a whirlwind, a legend, a flirt, a great storyteller - but the thing that I always think about Liza is this: there isn’t a bad bone in her body. She has no malice, even for those who have wronged her. Of course this is also what makes you worry for her. Sometimes I look at her and marvel at how she has managed to survive in the big bad old world of showbiz, especially with a heritage as rocky as hers. But she has, and she does, and as recent events have proved once again, Liza Minnelli is the comeback queen.
On the day we recorded “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the CD “Home for the Holidays”, I woke up to watch Liza singing “New York, New York” on Rosie O’Donnell’s show. I met her at the recording studio an hour or so later. She arrived still in full make-up, looking fabulous. I looked a little hungover and as though I’d just got out of my bed. (I had). There was some press there to record this historic event, and as we shared a cigarette in the fire escape before our first interview Liza said to me “Darling, what is all this for? And do we get paid?” I told her no, there was no cash, but it was in aid of Broadway cares/Equity fights Aids and also the World Trade Center relief fund. Minutes later, Liza was holding forth in front of the cameras talking of the work the charities had done (including statistics) and her anger over the recent events of September 11th. She even burst into “New York, New York” to finish. I said not very much except “hmm, hmm” and when someone saw the piece on Entertainment Tonight they said I looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on her knee.
But that is Liza, unsure of what is going on one minute, giving a press conference to several major TV shows with great élan the next; saying she never wants the pressure of performing again one month, the next stealing the show at Michael Jackson’s concert at Madison Square Garden.
But the biggest contradiction of all is this: last spring I went to a subdued birthday party in Liza’s hospital room. She was about to go into surgery for a second hip replacement, having recently recovered from her ‘death thing’ as she referred to a particularly nasty bout of encephalitis. It was a strange night - Liza joking and laughing and saying it was the best birthday she’d ever had, and me saying how she must have planned to get ill just to have the view from the hospital room as the venue for her party. When we were alone, we joked about how we could procure her hip bone after the operation, sell it on e bay and go shopping. Then I asked her how she was really feeling. “Scared, Alan. I’m really, really scared”.
Cut to six months later. Liza is dancing every day, she has lost more weight than she probably once weighed. She is singing at the Garden, on Rosie, on a record with me, and oh yes, now she is getting married in St Patrick’s cathedral, walking down the aisle while Whitney Houston, ah yes, Whitney Houston, sings ‘the Greatest Love of All’.
How this happened doesn’t seem surprising to me. I have come to accept and expect it of her. After all, at the party after her first night of “Minnelli on Minnelli” at the Palace theatre in New York two years ago, Liza said she’d been thinking of me a lot during the show.
“Really, Liza?” I said, thinking she probably had enough to think about in the opening show of yet another comeback without her mind wandering to me.
“Oh yes”, she went on. “Well, we knew each other in a previous life, my darling, didn’t we?”