“One of the biggest misconceptions about my mama is that she didn’t provide me with a happy childhood,” says Liza Minnelli one sunny afternoon from New York. “There were highs and lows for sure, but I can say I was very happy. If people choose to believe that or not, it’s up to them, but I know I was happy.” Minnelli may be a Hollywood force in her own right, but she has always endured being “the daughter of Judy Garland.” Her mother was a childhood star. At 16, she became America’s sweetheart in her role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. While the twee character propelled her to stardom, it also signaled the beginning of her tumultuous affair with showbusiness.
The fantasy blockbuster, which turns 80 this year, remains one of the most beloved movies in cinematic history, but the reality behind its technicolor extravagance was not as bright and dazzling as it seemed. Garland was the second lowest- paid actor – only the dog Toto was paid less – and the cast were not pampered like the stars of today. The Tin Man was hospitalized after a makeup disaster and the Wicked Witch Of The West was accidentally set on fire. Both actors were told, in no uncertain terms, to return to set immediately after each incident. “It was a very different era,” says Minnelli, defending the behavior of the studio bosses and her mother’s experience. “Times have changed dramatically especially in terms of equal pay – there is no comparison.”
While Garland won the hearts of viewers, she struggled to charm industry kingpins. Standing at only 1.51m, she literally fell short of her counterpart movie sirens, including Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Charles Walters sniped, “They are real beauties. Judy was the big money-maker at the time, a big success, but she was the ugly duckling.” MGM studio chief Louis B Mayer referred to her as his “little hunchback.”
Unsurprisingly, Garland became insecure about her physical appearance and her inability to shake off her girl- next-door image. This was exacerbated when the studio began controlling her diet, serving her a bowl of soup with lettuce when she ordered a regular meal. MGM doctors prescribed her pills to control her weight and energy levels – a common practice within the industry at the time. “They’d give me and Mickey Rooney pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted,” Garland once told biographer Paul Donnelly. “Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills… Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling, but it was a way of life for us.” For Garland, it triggered a life-long addiction, which eventually led to her death in 1969 at the age of 47. Minnelli was just 23.
Today, the performer wishes people would focus on her mother’s formidable career. The Wizard of Oz musical runs this month at King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, while a new biopic, Judy, which stars Renée Zellweger as Garland, lands in cinemas in the UAE later this year. “Until I see it, I want to reserve my judgement,” says Minnelli when asked about the new film. The already critically acclaimed drama is set 30 years after the release of The Wizard of Oz, showing Garland in London to perform sold-out concerts. “Renée is a wonderful actress, and I’m sure she will do a great job,” continues Minnelli. “I just hope they don’t do the obvious.” Like only focusing on her mother’s hardships.
Dealing with fame and the pitfalls that come with it is something Minnelli has learned to take in her stride. Born in 1946 to Garland and director Vincente Minnelli (the couple met on the set of Meet Me In St. Louis), Minnelli never knew anything other than showbusiness. To her it isn’t the majestic wonderland where hopefuls seek fame and fortune. It’s just life. “Nearly everybody my parents knew were in showbusiness,” she explains matter-of-factly. “So, by default, when I was growing up, nearly everybody I met was in the industry. Looking back, of course you realize that wasn’t a regular childhood. But to me, at the time, it was.”
Vincente, who was 19 years older than his wife, cast the star in her first major lead as an adult in the drama The Clock. The role was an effort to help her drop her ingenue image, but fans complained because Garland
didn’t sing in the film. Her marriage was also dysfunctional, with Garland having an affair with businessman turned producer Sidney Luft, who eventually became husband number three (of five) in 1952. They had two children, Lorna and Joey.
Following her parent’s divorce when she was five, Minnelli accompanied her mother on tour and visited film sets, embedding herself in Garland’s rollercoaster lifestyle, which included living in grand hotels like The Plaza. Minnelli jokes that her first lesson was how to dial down for room service. However, despite the perception of living a glitz and glam life, Minnelli, along with her siblings and her mother, would often do a moonlight flit from hotels in order to avoid paying the bill. “There was never any middle ground when I was growing up,” Minnelli shares. “We either lived like we had millions in the bank, or we had no money at all. That’s just the way it was.”
The vivacious and sassy public persona was all part of the Garland/Minnelli “Give the people what they want,” mentality. They bleed showbiz and are always poised to perform. Despite the 24-year age gap, Minnelli and Garland were more like sisters, with Minnelli often taking on the role of the carer, hiding her mother’s pills, and running the household. It was an unconventional family dynamic, but Minnelli would never look at it negatively.
“My fondest memory of my mama was the conversations we had,” says Minnelli, who admits she struggled to maintain friendships due to constantly moving schools as a kid. “As I became a teenager, I became her best friend and confidante. We would laugh and talk for hours. Sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone, depending where we were. As I grew up, we became incredibly close.”
Largely due to her addiction, Garland suffered erratic mood swings yet tried hard to be an exemplary mother. When Minnelli won her first Tony at 19 for her Broadway debut in Flora the Red Menace, her mother said to costume designer Donald Brooks, “Can you believe that’s Liza up there? We did that! You got her up there looking the way she does. And I got her up there because I’m her mother and conceivably her inspiration – the heck with her motivation.”
While her mother may have inspired her, Minnelli’s success was very much of her own volition. “Mama wasn’t one for lessons and advice,” she says. “Even when I went out into the business, she didn’t set things up for me – I just got on with it. I am sure that producers and directors were intrigued as to who Judy Garland’s daughter was and I am sure that helped me, but I went and done it all by myself.” Minnelli ultimately achieved more success than her mother, becoming one of a handful of people in the world to have EGOT status – she’s received an Emmy, a Grammy Legend Award, an Oscar, and four Tony awards. That didn’t prevent her from being nervous whenever she performed onstage with her mother, though. “It was the strangest feeling,” says Minnelli. “One minute I was on stage with my mother, the next moment I was on stage with Judy Garland. One minute she smiled at me, and the next minute she was like the lioness that owned the stage and suddenly found somebody invading her territory.”
Garland passed on her headstrong and feisty personality to her daughter, and both women can quickly turn a critical quip into a comedic ditty. “I got my drive from my mama and my dreams from my father,” explains Minnelli. “She had drive and she had guts. She had huge ambition, a great sense of resilience, and a simply wonderful sense of humor. I like to think she passed those three traits on to me.” She’s proud that her mother’s legacy and The Wizard of Oz are still so beloved. “It wasn’t and isn’t easy to live a so-called normal life,” Minnelli shares. Would she have it any other way? “I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. You don’t ask a princess what it feels like to be a princess, because she doesn’t know anything but being a princess. I didn’t know anything but being Judy Garland’s daughter.”
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia