Titanic Performer

Call me George, but with a cherry tree lying at my feet, I cannot tell a lie: Liza’s Back! That’s the name of her comeback show at the Beacon, a reconverted old movie house on the Upper West Side, and that’s the talisman she lives by in her reconverted life. Onstage and off, she is knocking even the most jaded New Yorkers right out of their space shoes.

She opened last Friday night. Everybody dreaded it, but everyone was there. Eyebrows were raised; anxiety was high. The limos stretched for three blocks. Broadway was a parking lot. “I can’t even get into the fucking Fairway,” moaned a Grandma Moses look-alike whose cane was knocked to the pavement by a sea of Liza fans. They came in the thunder and rain, they schlepped in wearing Chanel and jogging shorts-the celebrities in the reserved first 10 rows at a thousand bucks a head, the claque in the back. “This is work,” said Susan Lucci. “I’m a nervous wreck,” moaned Sammy Davis Jr.’s widow, Altovise. Even George Hamilton had flop sweat. Would she fall on her face? Could she make the notes? Would she show up at all? After recent disasters with Larry King and Letterman, a sold-out house prayed for the best and expected the worst-Army Archerd, Maria Cooper Janis, Barbara Walters, Joel Grey, Clive Davis, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade, Ben Vereen, Jane Powell, Adolph Green, Lynn Wyatt (who flew in from Houston), Ann Rutherford and Anne Jeffreys (who flew in from Hollywood; they’ve never missed a David Gest opening), Arlene Dahl, Susan and John Hess (from the gas-station Hesses), the usual suspects from the wedding. It was like the opening night of Jumbo at the Hippodrome. Everybody wolfed down hot dogs, Coca-Colas and popcorn. Nobody was prepared for what they were about to see.

The curtain went up at 8:15 and came down at 11 p.m. Except for quick changes and an intermission that lasted 42 minutes, Liza delivered nearly two and a half hours of unedited, unexpurgated Liza! , warts and all. Twelve dancers, 16 backup singers and a 12-piece band that sounded at times like the New York Philharmonic helped her out, but this was a one-woman triumph all the way. “I’m healthy and happy and steady,” she announced to the screaming mob-”and ready to rock!” Standing ovation: the first of many. So many, in fact, that I stopped counting after 12. She earned them, she deserved them, and she got them.

It was a rocky start. There were cracks and crevices and a few stretches of bad asphalt on the first three numbers. Everything seemed selected to bust her chops. Those famous pipes, so strong and sure in the middle and lower registers, showed road wear on the high notes. But by the time she crooned her way into “Something Wonderful” from The King and I , she was hitting terra firma, and by the time she blasted her way through “Some People” without a snag, she was home free. Sucking energy from the howling audience, she got loose and cool. She joked about the weather. She talked about A.A. “I get through 13 minutes at a time. Sometimes it’s only 13 seconds. But before I know it, another miraculous day has passed and I’m O.K. Well, you know what I mean.” The two balconies went wild. They knew.

Despite only nine hours of rehearsal with the band and the worst sound system I’ve ever heard, she electrified the old Beacon with her four trademark songs from Cabaret and never hit a clam. She lit up a cigarette and galvanized the audience with a new blues ballad by Fred Ebb and John Kander, “Don’t Smoke in Bed”-even the Surgeon General would dig it. She re-created Bob Fosse dance steps with unexpected precision. With two new hips, a fake knee and God only knows how much back surgery, she bent, dipped and trotted. The chorus boys threw her over their heads. She taught rapper Little Leroy how to sing a new hip-hop version of “Liza with a Z.” She hit her stride with a throbbing “I Believe You,” accompanied by a swinging black gospel choir. Stage hands kept running out onstage to deliver stronger mikes and bottled water, but the fire and vinegar coming out of her body, heart and tonsils were fueled by some higher power. Her timing, her phrasing, her acting ability, the way she held the audience in the palm of her hand-what can I tell you? It was awesome. It’s something in the genes. Like her or not, you wouldn’t dare deny, even at gunpoint, that she’s a titanic performer. She’s also mama’s little girl. You could see Judy’s mannerisms and movements, and when she ended one chart with the last chorus of “Over the Rainbow,” you could even hear the ghost of the voice that altered the history of show business.

The women in the audience who came wondering where the lost 90 pounds ended up got their answer when Liza pounced out in the only Bob Mackie fashion fiasco of the night: black stockings with a big hole accidentally ripped in the thigh and a skintight bordello corset cut so high and low that it revealed fleshy flaws even Liza didn’t know she had. “It looked awful even when Mae West wore it,” said Ann Rutherford. If I know Liza, it was 86′d by the next show along with the leftover Poland Spring. Returning in red ostrich plumes for a staggering “Rose’s Turn” (clearly she wants to do Gypsy before she’s ready for Forest Lawn), she took the love pouring across the footlights and threw it right back. Sharing a wedding message from Barbra Streisand (“From one Sadie to another, good luck!”) was a perfect segue into the most beautifully modulated version I’ve ever heard of “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” from papa Vincente Minnelli’s movie version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever . “I love you!” yelled one overheated fan. “I love you more!” screamed another. “I love you back!” she said, clutching an ample bosom already heaving with emotion. Clearly it was time for the gut-buster, the one that sometimes splinters her voice, the one she doesn’t always survive, but the one they waited all night to hear. She didn’t miss a note: “Come on, come through, New York, New York!” They probably felt the volcanic eruption in Islamabad.

Over 2,000 people refused to sit down. Like Judy at Carnegie Hall, they demanded that she “stay all night and sing ‘em all.” The band ran out of charts. Soaking wet, she wrapped a towel around her neck and improvised a tender a cappella “I’ll Be Seeing You.” They stampeded the stage; they stood in the aisles. Liza was back-with a vengeance-but nobody expected the level of performance quality she delivered. Doris Roberts was crying so hard she couldn’t find the exit doors. Outside, people couldn’t find their cars in the pandemonium. Folks who paid $25,000 a table walked all the way to the party at Tavern on the Green, which David Gest turned into a gambling casino for the night. You got $500 in fake $50 bills with Liza’s picture on them instead of Ulysses S. Grant, and if you won at roulette or blackjack, you got a kewpie doll or a commemorative painting of the World Trade Center. But everyone was talking about only one thing. “She rose from the ashes tonight,” said Phyllis Newman. “She’s come so far back from the dead that she’s brand-new,” gushed Chita Rivera. “Just call her St. Liza-rus,” joked Bill LaVorgna, the friend and drummer she’s called “Pappy” for 25 years, and who played for Judy before that. “We just witnessed a miracle,” said Cy Coleman. “She nailed every note right in the center. But if you print that, they won’t believe it. They want Liza in Trouble, not Liza in Triumph.” Warren Cowan, David and Liza’s press agent, beamed: “I just called my office in L.A. and said, ‘You know all those column items we’ve been planting about how the girl is back and better than ever? Well, sit down, because they’re all true! ‘”

Judy Collins, looking like Terence Stamp in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , started screeching her way through “Amazing Grace.” Deaf and hoarse, I was in the middle of a 10-yard dash through the Tiffany lights and funhouse mirrors of the Tavern on the Green to find a taxi and some earplugs. Suddenly I was pinned in a hammerlock hold by Liza herself. “Pinch me. Is this real? Was I O.K.? I think I did it, didn’t I?” She did it. Can she do it again? “Promise me you’ll come every night and tell me,” she said, but I know when I’m licked.

Louisiana Flavor

More fair ladies arrive to cool a balmy summer in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood . Based on two popular novels by Rebecca Wells and directed by the esteemed Callie ( Thelma & Louise ) Khouri, the movie, about the unbreakable cords of friendship among women and the tenuous threads of tension between mothers and daughters, is thin as Reynolds Wrap. But a fine cast of powerhouse pros turns a powder-puff script into a series of personal triumphs that are just next-door to unforgettable. They hit the ground running and leave the audience breathless.

Sandra Bullock rarely gets the chance to prove she can act, but as the plucky, intelligent centerpiece at the fore of this distaff comedy-drama, she gives skeptics plenty of tough jerky to chew on. She plays Sidda Walker, a transplanted Southern playwright living in New York, as far away as she can get from her Louisiana hometown and her exasperating mother, an eccentric steel magnolia named Vivi (a dazzling turn by the beautiful and ageless Ellen Burstyn). When Sidda’s new play opens to socko reviews on Broadway, a Time magazine profile quotes her as basing everything she knows about wicked Southern nutburgers on her mother. Already neurotic, childish, self-centered, slightly mad and completely hysterical, Vivi tears up her house seats, cancels her trip to New York, and declares war on her ungrateful daughter. Nobody knows Vivi better than her three lifelong best friends, who declared themselves the “Ya-Yas” in an adolescent blood pact and never betrayed the sisterhood. So the Ya-Yas fly to New York on a mission, make an intervention, and bring Sidda home to the land of gumbo and gris-gris to face her demons. Breaking all the Ya-Ya rules, they sit the kidnapped playwright down and share the “divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood” so Sidda will finally understand the dark events that shaped her mother into the infuriating woman she is today. The truth about Vivi makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Sweet Adeline.

In flashbacks, with Ashley Judd playing the young Vivi, we cut to the 1930′s, when she was a larky, headstrong beauty full of paprika and ambition. By the 1940′s, Vivi’s problems escalated with the spiraling tantrums of her own crazy mother (Cherry Jones). Rifling through the secret Ya-Ya diary and listening to the reminiscences of the three friends, Sidda learns of the fatal blow to Vivi’s sanity from the death of her only true love in World War II; how she sacrificed her dreams to marry a cotton farmer she didn’t love (James Garner) and raise four children she didn’t want, and why she abused and then deserted her family (she was secretly locked up in the loony bin). Sidda also comes to understand why she’s so afraid to have a husband and family of her own. In time, with the help of her Dad, her long-suffering Irish boyfriend from New York (Angus MacFadyen), and the determined, indefatigable Ya-Yas, old wounds heal, old doors close and new ones open. The point is it’s never too late to learn forgiveness, to put humility above pride, and to bask in the warming glow of close-knit family and enduring friends-and they all live happily ever after. By the time estranged mother and daughter embrace at the big birthday-party finale under the live oak trees, I’m embarrassed to admit, I found myself brushing away a tear or two myself.

This movie is sentimental, old-fashioned and unabashedly manipulative-three things modern cynics deplore. It’s also wise, funny and graceful. The fundamental values are universal, and the ensemble work by the distinguished cast of female misfits is nothing less than laudable. In addition to Ms. Burstyn, who seems to have swallowed the key to the fountain of youth, the other Ya-Yas are owlish Maggie Smith, querulous Fionnula Flanagan and gentle Shirley Knight. The Southern accents bounce off the walls like doodle bugs. Imagine the eye-rolling, chain-smoking Maggie Smith, drawling “Y’all” while dragging her oxygen tank around behind her chiffon dresses and guzzling mint juleps, and you’ll know what a snapping turtle underwater sounds like with a mouth full of Cheetos. Remarkably for a film so overpopulated with cuckoos, the women manage to give each character purpose and definition. Callie Khouri is a woman’s director who knows how to take mundane subject matter and give it a unique feel, a look all its own. (Which should make her quite valuable if she plans to continue working in Hollywood.) She also knows how actresses work and gives them ample space to move around in. From the Cajun barn dances to the crawfish boils, Louisiana flavor permeates the honeysuckle, and John Bailey’s cinematography perfectly captures the pastel changes of light and texture in bayou country with sorbet colors that seem almost edible. This may not be a film that will lure the masses away from the summer’s surfeit of junk-metal clones and junk-food comic-book spider-men, but let the cynics scoff. Despite the heart it wears on its sleeve, this movie brings back real women, and beneath the taffeta and the taffy, there’s the actual stuff of real human conflict.