Liza Minnelli’s 20 best films – ranked!

Her turn presenting best picture at the Oscars with Lady Gaga was a bit overshadowed, so ahead of the 50th anniversary of Cabaret, we give you the all-singing, all-dancing Minnelli Top 20

20. In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Liza Minnelli’s first screen appearance was in this musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, a vanishingly brief cameo as a three-year-old toddler. It’s full of poignant family significance and also uneasily prophetic, given that the adult Minnelli was all too often booked for nothing more than a celeb walk-on. The doe-eyed moppet appears in the film’s closing shot between Van Johnson and her real-life mother, Judy Garland; the pair, after their comedy-of-errors romance, are now assumed to be radiantly married parents. Little Liza is in an adorable white outfit: a mini-me getup matching her mother.

19. Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988)

Here is a role and a movie that most Minnelli fans (and, come to think of it, most Dudley Moore fans) prefer to pass over in silence. Lovable alcoholic Arthur is now married to Minnelli’s Linda, the shoplifter he fell for in the first film; he loses all his money but is offered the chance to get his wealth back if he divorces his true love (Minnelli) and marry someone else. Rather nobly, he refuses. It’s rather low energy and low on laughs, but Minnelli does at least carry a plausible supporting role.

18. The King of Comedy (1982)

Another of Minnelli’s meta-cameos, this deleted scene surfaced many years afterwards, revealing that Scorsese had reunited his stars from New York, New York. Minnelli plays herself in the delusional Rupert Pupkin’s dream of being on the top-rated TV chatshow, hosted by the glowering star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). With some poise, she plays a deadpan straight-woman role, as blowhard Rupert continually interrupts her anecdotes.

With Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
With Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

17. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

Minnelli would be a brilliant proper Muppet guest star: a Muppet Cabaret is the obvious choice. But in reality, all we got was this very brief cameo playing herself as Kermit enters the restaurant Sardi’s in New York. Kermit is pretending to be a bigshot producer, hoping to spread whispered rumours among the moneyed crowd that his show is the one to invest in. He sneakily takes Minnelli’s photo off the wall and replaces it with his own, just she sweeps in; she is deeply annoyed at being erased by the Muppet upstart.

16. Silent Movie (1976)

Mel Brooks’s all-star stunt-casting extravaganza was a silent movie featuring himself as a washed-up director who needs stars to appear in his planned silent movie. One star that he and his two buddies (Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise) approach is Minnelli, who is one day eating lunch at that legendary place that had in 1976 not quite vanished from Hollywood mythology: the studio commissary. The three guys dressed as knights in armour clank up to her table, kicking off some uproarious physical comedy. Minnelli very gamely joins in.

15. Halston (2019)

Fashion documentarist Frédéric Tcheng gave us this study of designer Roy Halston – creator of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat – which had some interesting commentary from his great friend and ally Minnelli. She is being featured here in the role of an intelligent expert observer, rather than an opaque star commodity. The movie shows Minnelli’s own role in the history of fashion and her grasp of how costume works with choreography. “His clothes danced with you,” she says of Halston’s work.

With Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles.
With Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles. Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar

14. Charlie Bubbles (1968)

Albert Finney’s sole directorial outing was this very 1960s romp about a fashionable northern writer, Charlie (Finney), who becomes gigantically rich and famous and winds up in a mood of directionless despondency in his wealthy London habitat. Minnelli plays the American photographer who hangs out in his palatial modernist home, being glimpsed on the CCTV screens on which Charlie rather creepily keeps an eye on things, and cruises around with him in his Rolls, taking pictures of his depressed home town. Minnelli has to act opposite Finney and Colin Blakely, with whom she has no chemistry.

13. Journey Back to Oz (1972)

Here is a cult oddity for Minnelli fans, but, in its way, an important link between her and her mother: an animated family musical inspired by L Frank Baum’s follow-up Oz novel from 1904, The Marvelous Land of Oz, with Minnelli voicing Dorothy and live-action sequences with Bill Cosby as the wizard. Very bizarrely, the opening credit sequence uses the dramatic library stock music The Awakening, by the British composer Johnny Pearson, which at the same time in the UK was being used as the ITN News at Ten theme tune.

12. Rent-a-Cop (1987)

Minnelli’s career initially soared in tandem with that of Burt Reynolds and here she was reunited with the moustachioed hunk as co-star in this sparky if dated comedy thriller. Reynolds is the ex-cop busted out of the police when a case went horribly wrong for no real fault of his. Minnelli plays a sex worker (in the era when Hollywood loved the idea of sex workers being picturesque comedy types) who is the witness to a violent crime and hires Reynolds (now working humiliatingly as a shopping mall security guard) to protect her. Not too bad.

With Burt Reynolds in Rent-a-Cop.
With Burt Reynolds in Rent-a-Cop. Photograph: 16/Kings Road Entertainment/Allstar

11. The Oh in Ohio (2006)

Minnelli’s authentic late-performing masterpiece was on TV, as Lucille Austero in Arrested Development, which showed us her gift for eccentric comedy and allowed her to act, play dialogue scenes and get laughs with her away-with-the-fairies innocence. But this odd indie film comedy comes close. She plays Alyssa Donahue, a sex therapist who is consulted by the female lead, Parker Posey, who is not having orgasms. Minnelli leads a therapy group exploring the healing power of masturbation.

10. Sex and the City 2 (2010)

All the world knows that the Sex and the City movies were an awful travesty and the second movie was appreciably worse than the first. And yet this much-hated sequel gave us Minnelli’s gem of a cameo, at the wedding of Stanford (played by the late Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone). Minnelli not only officiates – inspired casting – but performs an uproarious version of Single Ladies, showing that, in terms of dance moves, she still had it.

9. Stepping Out (1991)

This was the film that was going to restore Minnelli’s prestige as the pre-eminent song’n’dance star of the movies, and if it didn’t exactly do that, it reminded everyone of her sweetness of soul and never-say-die attitude as well as bringing back the key Minnelli trope: the vulnerable yet courageous trooper who never loses faith that one day she’s gonna make it. She plays Mavis, a former Broadway dancer who is paying the bills by running a dance class in a New York church basement for a motley group of hopefuls including Julie Walters and Jane Krakowski. Cranky old Shelley Winters plays piano accompaniment. Money worries threaten the class until Minnelli hears about that time-honoured life-saver: a talent contest.

Stepping Out.
Minnelli steps out in Stepping Out. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Alamy

8. A Matter of Time (1976)

Directed by Minnelli’s father, Vincente, in his final project, this musical fantasy was received coldly at the time, but is now appreciated for its visual richness and almost experimental favouring of image and mood over plot, an effect that may admittedly be down to the film being recut without Vincente’s permission. Minnelli plays the innocent chambermaid at a hotel in Rome where an ageing contessa capriciously decides to take the young woman under her wing and make a star of her, as a way of recapturing her own youth. This older woman is played by Ingrid Bergman. Two more different performers could hardly be imagined and there is perhaps no obvious chemistry between them, yet it’s a bold outing for Minnelli.

7. Lucky Lady (1975)

Minnelli got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in this comedy, made in that very 70s jazz-age nostalgia style. She plays a feisty widow whose husband ran a dodgy bar in Mexico during Prohibition. Chaotic events conspire to plant in her mind a desire to get into rum-running, which she does, in the company of the rogue with whom she was having an extramarital affair, Burt Reynolds, and also another scoundrel, played by Gene Hackman. Minnelli has a big song – Get While the Getting Is Good – which gives rein to the brassy cynicism and survivor psyche that she can convey with such gusto.

Liza With a Z.
Liza With a Z. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

6. Liza With a Z (1972)

This filmed New York concert, from the high point of Minnelli’s megacelebrity, was directed by Bob Fosse and shown about six months after Cabaret came out in cinemas, intended for TV only but shot on film not video. After its initial transmission, this film disappeared and was considered lost, until restoration began in 1999 with Minnelli’s permission as copyright holder. The show almost conflates Minnelli’s own personality with the ultra-chic big-city sophisticate Sally Bowles; Halston designed the costumes, and Kander & Ebb wrote the title song especially for this show, which in its jaunty what-the-hell bravura is very Sally Bowles, or very early-in-the-movie Sally at all events.

5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

Before her big breakthrough in the annus mirabilis of 1972, Minnelli had been making an impression in various serious roles in small-scale movies, and one of these was this challenging indie from Otto Preminger. She plays Junie, whose face has been scarred with acid, living in a kind of bohemian menage with a gay wheelchair-using man and another man with seizures. Aside from the way the film appears to elide homosexuality with disability for the purposes of an “issue” movie, it is very on-the-nose about the issues involved and Minnelli is made to do quirky, odd things such as a striptease in a cemetery. But she sells it hard, and it is the kind of demanding, uningratiating dramatic work that she was almost never asked to tackle again.

4. The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Minnelli got a best actress Oscar nomination for this film from director Alan J Pakula, an earnest kind of Hollywood view of the younger generation, the student generation and the generation that were having sex before marriage. Minnelli is Pookie, a quirky, brainy type who meets up with another undergrad played by Wendell Burton; before long they are having a relationship that is brought to a crisis by her fear that she is pregnant. An interesting feature, almost a B-side to The Graduate in its way, without the predatory older characters.

With John Gielgud (left) and Dudley Moore in Arthur.
With John Gielgud (left) and Dudley Moore in Arthur. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

3. Arthur (1981)

Here was another Golden Globe nomination for Minnelli (her career was made to be rewarded by the cheerfully vaudevillian Globes), playing Linda, the tough working-class woman who is a habitual shoplifter in Manhattan. Moore’s dissolute millionaire, Arthur, spots her trying to pinch something in a department store, gets her out of trouble with the management and strikes up a needy relationship, although she remains firmly unimpressed. Minnelli has to stand up to two scene-stealing Britons: Moore and no less a figure than Sir John Gielgud as the droll, Jeevesian manservant. Her honesty and American authenticity are the film’s emotional bedrock.

2. New York, New York (1977)

Minnelli gave a terrific performance opposite Robert De Niro in this exciting and audacious movie from Scorsese – an old-school musical drama that in spirit came from the golden age. In New York after the war, Francine (Minnelli) is a struggling singer who falls for the pugnacious sax player Jimmy (De Niro); as the years go past, he becomes more and more impossible. Kander & Ebb composed Minnelli’s keynote song, New York, New York, which instantly became so iconic it’s hard to believe it dates from 1977. And Minnelli’s original was so different from Frank Sinatra’s cover. She brought to it all the gutsy, passionate yearning for survival and hope for the future that the city represents but unlike Frank, her “if” in “if I can make it there” still has human vulnerability and internal drama.

1. Cabaret (1972)

Joel Grey’s raspingly sinister, demonic MC welcomes us to the cabaret at the Kit Kat Klub. With a crash of cymbals and a thump of piano keys, he brings on his star turn. The divinely decadent Sally Bowles saunters into view in her amazing outfit of bowler (a visual pun on “Bowles”?), black shorts and top like some sexified sense memory of lederhosen; black choker, stocking tops and boots – and lets us have it with Mein Herr, the gloriously dismissive, sensual opposite of a torch song, telling a pathetically infatuated boyfriend to get lost. Minnelli is electrifyingly good in the role: lethally sexy and yet lonely and self-destructive, a black hole of emotional damage that draws men into her vortex. Minnelli has one of her classic survivor songs later in Maybe This Time: the wounded soul, looking for love. She became an utterly unique figure in the movies with this magnificent performance, fusing her flair for theatrical display, ingenue vulnerability and pure sensuality.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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