Thursday, May 18, 2006

Liza Minnelli—An Appreciation

In Tenterfield Saddler—his autobiographical tribute to his Australian grandfather—Peter Allen sang: "The grandson of George has traveled all around the world and lives no special place / he changed his last name and he married a girl with an interesting face…."

That girl with an interesting face was none other than Liza Minnelli, who was introduced to Peter through her mother, Judy Garland, when Peter was Garland's opening act. Liza and Peter eventually parted ways, of course, when Liza found Peter in bed with another man.

Allegedly, the only existing print of Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon—which had originally been scheduled with The Sterile Cuckoo as part of the Castro's mini-Minnelli retrospective—was discovered to be unscreenable and was replaced at the last minute by a repeat screening of Cabaret. I don't know which is more sad: that Liza's early films are already falling into disrepair or her recent "outbursts" on Larry King.

I've never seen Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, but was long intrigued by a comment Liza made about having to do the role after seeing Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Now lord knows when I'll ever get to see it. It's not on dvd.

At least I finally got a chance to see The Sterile Cuckoo. I was in my mid-teens when this movie came out and—I'll admit it—heavily into Rod McKuen at the time. Even then I knew I wanted to live in San Francisco, just so I could experience Stanyan Street and other sorrows. So what I remember very clearly about The Sterile Cuckoo was not only the Sandpipers singing "Come Saturday Morning" but the trailer to the film. If I remember correctly it went something like this: "First love is beautiful. First love is hurt. First love is beautiful hurt." Steeped a little too long in McKuen, I just couldn't help being impressed with that, even if I wasn't impressed enough to see the movie when it was first released. I sure did want to go away with my Saturday friend, though, and Saturday spend til the end of the day.

So here it is nearly 40 years later and I finally got around to seeing The Sterile Cuckoo, with maybe about five other people in the audience. And you know what? I actually enjoyed it. Partly because of that interesting face, which like Streisand's nose and Ali McGraw's crooked tooth, signified the idiosyncracies of individuality that were all the rage in the late 60s and early 70s, reconfiguring our cultural notions of beauty into heightened appreciations of visible nonconformity. But mainly I liked The Sterile Cuckoo out of a nostalgic appreciation of a time period when this young actress was first testing her chops and I was first thinking about going out into the world.

Liza had a powerful vulnerability that looped back to but through her mother's career. Her "absolutely wacky" portrayal of Pookie Adams (a role first offered to but refused by Patty Duke) established a template for Liza of characters whose bravado barely guised their insecurity and their deeprooted fears of inferiority. Cabaret's Sally Bowles was actually not that different than Pookie, likewise estranged from her father, and likewise overcompensating, with divinely decadent green fingernails no less. Both waved goodbye as a gesture over the shoulder. Both operated off of ancient instincts lacking worldly wisdom.

I had just graduated from high school a year before when Cabaret came out. I was living in Twin Falls, Idaho, all my former high school friends were taking off to college, and I had no money to go to college, and didn't know what I wanted to do even if I could go. I remember watching Cabaret seven times in a row at the Idaho Theater on Main Street. I couldn't get enough of it. Because it told me that even if I didn't know what to do, even if I didn't know who I was, or what I specifically wanted out of life, I did want life, I wanted experience, I wanted lovers and cities and Cabaret confirmed for me that a little theatrical energy—especially in Twin Falls, Idaho—could go a long ways. Afterall, what good was sitting alone in your room?

And though it took a little while, another year or two, I finally did make it here to where the music plays. I have found myself and lost myself all in the searching and the longing and am curiously back to where I started, unsure, not knowing quite what I want to do with my life, but knowing that I want life, and I never tire of experience, even if experiences have tired me out. I'm not so keen on lovers anymore and am even a little weary of cities but, what can I tell you? A little theatrical energy still goes a long ways.


Anonymous said...

I am surprised that there is no viewable print of Junie Moon. I did see it when it came out. I remember Pete Seeger singing about "That Ol' Devil Time". Also, every time I see Liza Minnelli, I think about her deformed face in Junie Moon. It's unfortunate that the film is unavailable to be seen as it is worth reconsidering with its topic of an "alternate family". I got to briefly say hello to Preminger at a screening for what may be his last good film, also MIA, Such Good Friends.

Michael Guillen said...

I was surprised there was no viewable print as well, Peter, and that's why I qualified that statement by prefacing "allegedly" because I found it difficult to believe. Or more, I didn't want to believe it. But there's no reason why I should disbelieve The Castro Theater. I'm still hoping they were misinformed.

It's astute and sensitive of you to realize that "Junie Moon" is, in fact, an early study of the "alternate family" that help so many outcasts find bearing. I actually had the novel in my library back when I was young. I seem to recall there was a parapalegic gay man? I don't really remember much about the story.

That is so fantastic that you had the opportunity to meet Otto Preminger!! He has become indelibly associated with the rise and fall of Dorothy Dandridge in my mind.

The Siren said...

I so HATE to hear of films falling into disrepair, and that one is so recent, too! It is why I keep writing checks to film preservation. I saw Sterile Cuckoo only a couple of years ago (on TCM, of course) and I was also impressed with Liza. It was a really naked, honest performance. She wasn't afraid to be off-putting when the character demanded it.

She was (is still? I hope) an astonishing talent and it is such a shame that she hasn't been put to better use over the years. She also has a reputation in NY (at least until recently) for being a very nice person, well-mannered warm to her fans.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Campaspe. I think one of the things that the mini-Minnelli Castro retrospective underscored for me was that, by comparison to the prolific output of her mother, Liza really only has a handful of films to her credit that are of any note. I think you either really like Liza or are driven nuts by her. I'm pretty much a fan and feel very lucky to have seen her several times in concert. I always thought she was a consummate powerhouse performer who could really get an audience going. Though I clearly remember years back going into Virgin and asking about Liza's just-out Carnegie Hall concert album. The young clerk at the till moaned, "Oh, you mean the screaming lady?" She could belt them, that's for sure. In recent years, however, I think she's pretty much lost her voice. I don't know. I haven't seen her perform in years and haven't seen her in any films of late except that one that came out several years ago where she was the feisty dance instructor shepherding a bunch of misfits to recital.

The 'Stache said...

i really like her AND am driven nuts by her. In a recent re-viewing of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, I found her so oddly compelling. She was sexy/weird. I think she's only alive on screen. By the way, I love the heartfelt tone of this post. I always dug Rod McKuen, too, back in the day. The idea of just living on beaches, walking among seagulls. And LIFE'S BEEN GOOD TO ME is still a great song. I sort of miss some of the pop detritus of the '70s — moon rocks, posters with the Desiderata written on them, and Rod McKuen poems. Lord, I'm gettin' old.

Edmund Yeo said...

Heya dude, been a while. Was busy filming my stuff. Anyway, this article by Yasmin Ahmad, director of Sepet, may interest you. The future of Malaysian filmmaking is rather bleak.

Michael Guillen said...

Hey Little Round-Headed Boy, thanks for stopping by to comment!! Your post made me chuckle. Reminded me of that line from Chicago (cut from the movie unfortunately): "I'm older than I ever intended to be."

And Swifty, thanks for the link. I've been meaning to write a post about recent events in Malaysia. You've motivated me to do so.

Jace said...

An online search for "Rod McKuen poems" led someone to my website and so I decided to do my own Google search for the same and came across this Blog.

I enjoyed the comments about Liza and her movies and I can sure relate to life "back then" in the late 60's / early 70's. I had my walls and part of my ceiling covered with posters! I also remember so well how popular poetry was "back then", especially Rod's.

I saw him in concert once, have a photograph taken with him as we're shaking hands, have his autograph in several books, own nearly all of his books, albums and CD's, and STILL enjoy reading his books and listening to his albums/CD's.

Before my first exposure to Rod's music and poetry I had written a lot of my own. All I knew was the standard R&R (rhyme and rhythm) that I had been exposed to since childhood. I was SO excited when I discovered a new and much better way for me to write - what I call a "free verse" like Rod's.

I have to give credit to my Mom for introducing me to Rod, even thought the introduction was unintentional. She had bought an album that she thought would be very soothing, easy listening music with the sound of waves crashing in the background. She listened to it a few times but didn't like it as much as she thought she might because, "Someone's talking. I wasn't expecting that. It kind of ruins the mood I was looking for." So I asked her if I could take a listen and she said, "Sure." So off I went to my bedroom, closed my door, and I was introduced to Rod McKuen and "The Sea." I LOVED IT!!!

After listening just once I immediately headed out to the mall and found a copy of "Stanyan Street and other Sorrows" and "Listen To The Warm". I went home and devoured every page of both books over and over before finally falling asleep late that night. I had found a mentor for my writing!

I started to write in that "free verse" style and it just felt so right! I was finally able to express myself exactly the way I wanted. It felt just like some virtual prison walls had been blown down.

The last time I saw Rod was about 30 years ago when he was autographing copies of his latest book, "Finding My Father" in the book department of Liberty House in downtown Oakland, Rod's home town. I told him I was writing a book of my own poetry and he said, "Great! I'd love to read it when it's done!" WOW! That sure meant a LOT to me! I finished the book, got it published, and mailed off a copy to him. Not too long after that I received a letter from him thanking me for sharing my poems with him and wishing me well with my future writing.

I miss that time "back then", but I'm still writing today and for that I'm very grateful. What special memories have come flooding back because of having found this blog. Thank you for starting it and for allowing me to add my own comments.