Liza Minnelli opens up about addiction, Judy Garland in new film: 'Not a lot of laughs'

NEW YORK − Liza Minnelli is partial to wearing sequins on stage, as a glamorous means of hiding how much she can perspire.

But underneath the wispy lashes and ruby pantsuits is, of course, a much more complicated woman. In "Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story," which premiered June 12 at Tribeca Festival, director Bruce David Klein attempts to find the person behind the megawatt icon. Minnelli, 78, was not in attendance at the screening.

For anyone who has closely followed Minnelli’s career − from her Oscar-winning turn in "Cabaret" to her more recent work in "Sex and the City 2" − the documentary is relatively light on revelations. Yes, it touches on her friendships with Halston and Fred Ebb; her mentorship from Kay Thompson; and her four marriages and three miscarriages. But the majority of insight comes from interviews with her close pals and collaborators, including John Kander, Joel Grey, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera and Mia Farrow (a sardonic scene-stealer).

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Liza Minnelli, as photographed for USA TODAY on June 11, 2008.
Liza Minnelli, as photographed for USA TODAY on June 11, 2008.

Liza Minnelli gets frank about addiction, 'devastating' death of mom Judy Garland

Minnelli is also interviewed by Klein for the film, always armed with a quip and a throaty cackle. Asked about her relationships, she jokes, "Give me a gay break, will ya?" And when Klein inquires about her late-night revelries at Studio 54, she playfully insists, "It wasn't that wacko!" As her friends explain, Minnelli has never been one to divulge her personal life.

But she does open up on rare occasions. The movie begins with the 1969 death of her mother, Judy Garland, from an accidental overdose at age 47. Minnelli was only 23 at the time. "It was devastating to me," she tells Klein. "I didn't stop crying for eight days, and I had to take on so much."

Later in the film, the singer gets candid about her longtime battle with substance abuse. "I didn't feel like I had a drug problem," Minnelli tells Klein. "I'd drink silly drinks like rum and coke." But whenever she drank, "it turned on me, like it always does."

Thinking back to the 1970s, Minnelli recalls trying to hide her alcoholism by telling reporters that she couldn't drink, citing stomach problems. "I didn't want people to know I was under stress. I always wanted to be the hero."

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She remembers how Ebb once told her to deflect reporters' questions about Garland, who occasionally grew jealous when her daughter got more attention than her. "He would stop me from talking about my mother too much because then they're thinking about her and not me," Minnelli says.

Seeing how her mom wrestled with addiction, she told herself that she’d never go down the same path. But, naturally, she’s only human: "Being Judy Garland's daughter is not a lot of laughs," Minnelli tells Klein. She tearfully adds that she's grateful for "all the bad stuff" she went through because "it prepared me for the rest of my life."

Liza Minnelli calls out 'trashy' tabloids for saying she's 'too fragile' at 78

The EGOT winner is animated and sharp as ever in her conversations with Klein, frequently bursting into some of her most beloved songs such as "Natural Man" and "Liza With a Z." The documentary ends with a tear-jerking recent scene, as Minnelli sits next to the piano with her friend, musician Michael Feinstein, and sings "But the World Goes 'Round," her voice still clear and robust and replete with emotion.

During a post-screening Q&A, Klein recalled how even the burliest of crew members broke down in tears as she sang. "We were all crying in the room," he says. "She just has that power. As soon as she did that, I just knew that was the end of the film."

Liza Minnelli, right, presented best picture with Lady Gaga at the 2022 Oscars.
Liza Minnelli, right, presented best picture with Lady Gaga at the 2022 Oscars.

Although Minnelli was a no-show at Tribeca, she explained her absence in a lengthy message posted on Instagram Wednesday night. "My beloved sister, Lorna Luft, who makes an all too brief appearance (in the film), and I decided we couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't sit in the audience to watch a tribute to me," Minnelli wrote. "Shades of 'Sunset Boulevard'? Yikes!"

The Broadway legend went on to say that it’s "only the beginning" of finding "new ways to create" at her age. She also called out "trashy" tabloids for insisting that she's "too fragile" to travel.

"How dumb is that?" Minnelli wrote. "Babies, I still travel. Still loving life on my terms with a tight circle of people I adore. I'm finally free to have fun."

"Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story" is seeking distribution. Tribeca Festival runs through June 16.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Liza Minnelli says she's not 'too fragile' as new movie premieres