Liza Minnelli: A Fervent Dream, Part One
Tennessee on Liza Minnelli
In New Orleans
Talent is beauty; talent is joy. Beauty is its own reward, and this is true of talent. When you see it--when you are affected by it--you know it; you are in its possession; you are changed. There may be extenuating circumstances, mitigating factors, but you will know when you have had a sighting, when you have held a diamond or some gem of greater value pulled from waste and refuse and bad intentions. Talent is not only beauty and joy, but talent is strong and often infallible.
I can remember sightings of talent. I can remember a hot night in New Orleans, with curtains billowing, a lover's legs caressing mine, cats mewling below on Royal Street, a chunk of ice melting in the kitchen sink, and Bach playing on the old record player, days before it was hocked for typing paper, a ribbon, and postage that would allow me to mail a play that became Streetcar to Lillian Gish, who lived in a house on Cielo Drive overlooking Benedict Canyon. I heard Bach that night and knew what talent and genius were, and I knew what I was up against, and it was thrilling. The world is a better place when you can know what is being done, what has been done, and what you're up against. Try harder! Try to rise to the same heights.
Miss Gish did not care for my play, and it was returned--kindly--to me. From the nights with Bach, from the nights in local cinemas looking at great films, from the days with purloined library books--the great classics--I knew how to tackle the play, and it became the best that I could do.
I can tell you every single thing about all of those days leading up to my realization of what I could do, and the memory markers are the talents of others.
I still go and try to get the engines going, the fog rising. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in New York City and watching Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo three times in one day. There are large swaths of that film that I can't recall, but I remember the way she used her body; I remember how unafraid she was to be so boldly, nakedly vulnerable; I remember the way she personified a particular type of utter loneliness that Carson McCullers spoke of and tried to write about and shared with me on many lovely nights in Nantucket--those nights with lovers and newborn kittens and food cooking and plays and novels coming to light. Carson believed in and loved what she called the 'surging of talent; the inevitably of connection,' and there were only a few in whom she recognized this phenomenon.
One of those who had it, and who shared it, was Judy Garland.
I do not subscribe to the legend of Judy Garland because I lived the reality of Judy Garland. Those who wish to mythologize her and cast her as an icon of sadness are entitled to their odd form of worship, and everything they claim about her is true. Garland was an unbridled genius, and I saw it, and I heard it, and I lived and breathed the same air in the world at the same time she did. Let's not forget her gifts and the giving of them. Let's not sacrifice yet another thing in her name in order to assuage some victimization via art. We have the work: Watch it, study it, love it, use it, be changed by it.
I came to Liza Minnelli because she was the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, another genius, in another form, and I first saw talent, but I have since seen genius, and I don't want any stories about any of those people: I want the work, and I want it to be shared.
I do not know Liza Minnelli. I am not her friend. I am not her fan. I am her student. I could say the same thing, I suppose, about Judy Garland, with whom I spent several wonderful evenings, but with whom I served as a student, an observer, a perpetual questioner about her work and how it was done.
I had a particular obsession about singers and how they connected to their audiences, and how they shared stories so purely and in such a concentrated act of intercourse with the listener. I now have the obsession with all artists who can do this, singing or otherwise, but I did not always know this. I think I drove Judy crazy with my questions.
Liza does this with her acting as well as her singing. I'm back to the discussion of the membrane that certain artists possess, which is very clear and very thin and through which we can see the utter humanity of a person as they engage in the act of creating a fictional person. This is not an act of labor we witness, but the act of living. Look for it in Sterile Cuckoo. Look for it in portions of Cabaret--the desperate act of living against the emotions that make living virtually untenable. The living at a tilt against reality, because reality is simply too much to handle. Minnelli creates a particularly shattering physical construction that fends off blows both physical and psychic; the voice alters; the eyes see all and then magically deny the existence of what is so unarguably real.
I'm incapable of being clear about the discussion of talent and of genius because it defies anything but a witness. Just go look at it and then we'll talk. We can talk about moments, but there are so many that I can't collect them now.
And I need her [Minnelli] in my own work. I would require no discussions to explain to her the crushing reality that is killing Alma Winemiller and forcing her into a dream that will prove destructive. I spent an evening with [Franco] Zeffirelli talking predominantly about her : He saw her taking on Camille; I saw her pulling strings and stories to get Tom and Laura to help her survive. I told Zeffirelli that I wanted her to get older so that she could grow into some of my parts. 'She will,' he said. 'She's with us for a long time, and there will be surprises.' I pray to God I'm one of the surprises.
I think she would bring great power and pathos to the froth of Coward's plays. Her Judith Bliss will be something worth living well and living longer to see. Those with great talent and great vision and great experience bring a gravity and a grandeur to everything they do, so I want to see her do almost anything.
Imagine her Maxine in Iguana, her Princess in Sweet Bird, her Flora in Milk Train. Imagine her as Serafina in Tattoo. Imagine her singing Lazy Afternoon, which is always, for some reason, my first request of her, even if I haven't made it to her directly.
Talent needs to be husbanded, and it needs to be desired. It needs a connective device. I can only dream of a connection and write the words and dream a certain dream to make this happen. This is what I'm doing for you now. This is how I spend most of my days now.
This is a fervent dream of mine now.
I'm working on it.
TO BE CONTINUED