Liza Minnelli was born to play Sally Bowles in the 1972 hit film Cabaret. Her triumphant performance as the wannabe actress who entertains at the Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin, earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress and catapulted her on to the covers of Time and Newsweek. With her career placed firmly centre-stage, an ecstatic Minnelli quipped, "Where can you go after that? Only down." It was a throwaway remark that would come back to haunt the 26-year-old star.
Though she would never repeat her Cabaret movie success, her ballsy determination and breathtaking work schedule have kept her constantly employed, acting on the big and small screens, releasing records, and performing her high-octane song-and-dance shows in theatres and nightclubs around the world. She has won three Tony awards for Broadway musicals, an Emmy for her TV special, Liza With a Z, and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the mother of a dying son in the made-for-TV tear-jerker A Time To Live.
But while Minnelli's career has soared to giddy heights, her personal life has suffered some spectacular crashes. She's survived double pneumonia and a life-threatening viral infection, suffered three miscarriages, lived through two gruelling hip-replacement operations and seen four marriages fail. But the biggest, and most well-documented, of Minnelli's traumas has been her descent into drink and drugs.
As the daughter of Hollywood mega star Judy Garland, she grew up watching her mother battle alcoholism and addiction. In her adult life, Minnelli has fought similar demons. Unlike Garland, however, who died of an overdose at the age of 47, her gutsy eldest daughter is a survivor. And it's that backbone, as much as her talent, that seems to be the secret of Minnelli's success and one of the reasons why she is so adored. As her friend and Cabaret co-star Marisa Berenson said, "With her mother's genes and everything she did to herself, most people thought she'd be dead by now. I think we all look up to her because she is still alive."
Born on March 12, 1946, in Los Angeles, Liza was the only child of Garland and director Vincente Minnelli. Frank Sinatra was the first well-wisher to visit her as a baby, Mia Farrow and Candice Bergen were her playmates, even Marilyn Monroe once popped into her bedroom for a chat. With her parents' pedigree and such illustrious house guests, no-one could ever have doubted that Liza would follow her family into show business. At age two and a half, she made her acting debut in the film In The Good Old Summertime, at seven, she danced onstage with her mother, and at 13, she sang on television.
It could have been an idyllic childhood, but her mother was beginning to self-destruct. After frequent rows with her husband, Garland walked out on him and four-year-old Liza, leaving the youngster to shuttle between her father in Los Angeles and her mother's new home in New York. Over the next five years, Liza's once-stable home life was undermined further when both her parents remarried and started new families (she has three half-siblings - Lorna and Joey, from her mother's marriage to Sid Luft, and Christiana Nina, from her father's union with Georgette Magnani).
Added to Liza's misery was her mother's spiralling mental state. With Garland either drunk or drugged up, melancholic or hysterical, it was left to Liza to organise the household and take care of Lorna and Joey. Ever watchful for one of Garland's frequent suicide attempts, she armed herself with a stomach pump and refilled her mother's sleeping pills with sugar. As she later admitted, "I had tremendously interesting childhood years - except that they had nothing to do with being a child." Small wonder then that, at 16, Liza was ready to leave home and strike out on her own. Just before her 17th birthday, she landed a role in Best Foot Forward, a Broadway musical comedy.
Shaking with fear - a problem that would turn Minnelli into a habitual nail-biter - she nevertheless delivered a performance that won her an award for most promising young actress. Almost overnight, she became a sensation. By the age of 19, she had appeared on British and American TV shows, toured clubs, casinos and concert halls, released her first album (Liza! Liza!) and won her first Tony award. At 22, she received an Oscar nomination for her role as Pookie in The Sterile Cuckoo. In between, just short of her 21st birthday, Minnelli married Australian singer Peter Allen. Whether she knew he was gay beforehand is in dispute but, either way, after the couple split up in 1972, she caustically remarked, "When we got divorced, he got my wardrobe."
But it was the end of another relationship that was to have a bigger, and tragically more far-reaching, impact on Minnelli. On June 22, 1969, after many suicide attempts, Judy Garland died of an accidental overdose. Distraught, Minnelli threw herself into arranging the funeral, a ceremony she endured with dignified composure. It was only afterwards, when the enormity of burying her mother hit home, that Minnelli took valium to calm her shattered nerves.
It's this, she believes, that kick-started her own drug addiction. Two years later, when Minnelli was making Cabaret, rumours of her cocaine habit started to circulate. She regularly partied until dawn at New York's Studio 54, the disco club infamous in the early '70s for its decadence. As she acquired a taste for cocaine, Minnelli's appetite for men grew to be equally insatiable. While she was engaged to Desi Arnaz Jr, the son of Lucille Ball, she had an affair with Peter Sellers - which ended when Minnelli pulled off his toupee as a joke. And during her marriage to film-maker Jack Haley Jr, Minnelli juggled flings with director Martin Scorsese and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. If Andy Warhol is to be believed, these extramarital romances were far from clandestine. "Liza and Baryshnikov were taking so much cocaine, just shovelling it in," he wrote in his Andy Warhol Diaries, adding that it was "exciting to watch two really famous people right there in front of you taking drugs, about to go make it with each other".
In spite of - or perhaps because of - the drugs, Minnelli maintained a relentless pace in her professional life. As well as Liza With a Z and A Time To Live, she made three films, including Arthur with Dudley Moore, released a critically acclaimed live album, and toured the world with her sell-out show The Act. With her punishing stage work, she was in front of the audience for all but four minutes of the two and a half hour musical - and she was often so exhausted that she had to be carried offstage. But Minnelli thrived on the gruelling pace. "I need to perform," she said. "I don't have a life if I'm not in front of an audience."
She had less energy for her private life. Not long after her 1979 wedding to her third husband, sculptor and stage manager Mark Gero, Minnelli suffered three miscarriages. But it was her work schedule and increasing fame that eventually drove a wedge between them. After several separations, they divorced in 1992.
With Minnelli, audiences could always depend on a show-stopping performance - but offstage, by her late 30s, she was struggling with a dependency of her own. In 1984, she checked into rehab at the Betty Ford Center in California, issuing a statement: "I have a problem, and I have decided to deal with it." Though she didn't mention cocaine, she admitted that every day since her mother's death, she had taken valium and sleeping pills. In later years, it would also transpire that Minnelli was an alcoholic, who still struggles with her addiction. "I started with beer but it wasn't enough, so I switched to vodka and gin, and I'd find myself the next morning having drunk a whole bottle," she revealed. As she confessed in a recent interview, "My whole life, this disease has been rampant. It's horrendous ... but it has never, ever affected a performance or stood in the way of work."
Within weeks of checking out of rehab, Minnelli threw herself into life with her customary zeal. The next decade saw her leaving her 30s behind and working solidly - making Arthur 2: On The Rocks, releasing a hit record, Losing My Mind, with the Pet Shop Boys, and performing all around the world. She also settled into a long-term relationship with musician Billy Stritch.
Even a hip-replacement operation in 1994 didn't slow her down, and Minnelli was back onstage just three months after surgery. But in 1996, aged 50, the star hit a run of bad luck. First, she was forced to pull out of a Broadway musical when she suffered a bleeding vocal cord. Able to communicate only by writing, and fearing she would never perform again, Minnelli was in despair. "If I can't sing anymore, I want to die," she said during her recovery. Despite grim warnings that throat surgery could silence her singing career forever, she went ahead with an operation, but it would be two years before Minnelli could perform professionally again. Depressed and unable to work, she turned to food.
Minnelli had always had a problem with her weight - in her early career, the designer Halston made her outfits in three different sizes - and now she was unable to curb her appetite. Consignments of cookies, cakes and ice-cream were regularly delivered to her New York home, which Minnelli would wash down with vast quantities of Coca-Cola. Accepting a showbiz award in 1999, the bloated songstress joked, "This is a great honour for me, particularly this year when there's so much more of me to appreciate."
Inwardly, though, there was little for Minnelli to laugh about. Just as she was finally making her comeback, in the Broadway musical Minnelli On Minnelli, she was rushed to hospital with double pneumonia. In a further blow, six months later, while Minnelli was in Florida recuperating - and, on doctor's orders, trying to lose weight in preparation for a second hip replacement - she collapsed with life-threatening encephalitis. She survived, but had to learn to walk again and endured many months of arduous physical therapy.
With the sort of unflagging drive she had always applied to her career, two years later, on March 16, 2002, Minnelli walked down the aisle in front of guests including best man Michael Jackson and matron of honour Elizabeth Taylor to marry concert promoter David Gest. Almost 45 kilograms lighter and with a new hip, nothing could spoil her happiness - not even Elton John's quip that for a wedding gift he'd like to buy her "a heterosexual husband".
Sixteen months later, the marriage was in tatters. Gest sued Minnelli for $US10 million, insisting that while drunk, she had repeatedly hit him so hard on the head that he had to give up work and take prescription drugs to manage the "constant, unrelenting pain". Minnelli retaliated with a $2 million countersuit, saying he had used her to improve his wealth. The case was quintessentially Hollywood.For the ever-resilient Minnelli, though, it's business as usual. Still living in New York, she has bounced back into the spotlight, with more live shows, appearances on the Emmy-winning US sitcom Arrested Development and a movie role in the upcoming The OH in Ohio. Irrepressible and invincible no matter what life throws at her, for Minnelli the show will always go on. As she says, "Whatever is printed about you is unimportant. What's important is to stand out there with your legs planted and sing, dammit."