Divas Gone Wild
Liza Minnelli in Liza With a "Z," Tori Spelling in So noTORIous.
It is standard for critics to remark that a desperate neediness underlies the performances of Liza Minnelli. Well, OK: A desperate neediness underlies the performances of Liza Minnelli, and that thirst for adulation turns Liza With a "Z" (Showtime, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET) into a concert film at once boring— Liza With a Zzz—and bizarre. It's a curiosity piece that isn't especially interesting unless you're manic for camp or dying for a portrait of the artist as a young woman, which probably amount to the same thing.
The film—written by Fred Ebb, directed by Bob Fosse, unaired for more than 30 years—was shot at New York's Lyceum Theater in 1972, but it's a time capsule of an earlier era yet. The 26-year-old star's smarm and shtick seem drawn from the vaudeville that her mother, Judy Garland, was weaned on. There are 10 songs, plus a show-closing Cabaret medley, that she not so much belts as chucks out into the crowd. There are four major costume changes. There is one set of the longest fake eyelashes ever seen on anyone other than a type-A drag queen. Minnelli is variously so foolish as to invite comparison with Billie Holiday by singing "God Bless the Child" and restrained enough not to desecrate Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man."
In the show's most famous image, she matches a halter-necked, red-sequined Halston micro-minidress with red stockings and red heels. In her first instant on camera in this get-up, La Liza is appealingly vampy. She then proceeds to cover Joe Tex's R&B hit "I Gotcha" (you might know it from Reservoir Dogs) while, choreographically, doing an awkward caricature of a tart. There's something frantic in her frug, a ducklike quality to her pelvic thrusts, an overeager boop-boop-be-doop in her wiggles. Further, her two male backup dancers are clad in outfits approximating crushed-velvet jackets, close-fitting tuxedo pants, patent-leather boots, wide-brimmed hats, big sunglasses, little cigarettes, and shaggy moustaches.
That's at least good for a chortle. What is weird and sad is the air of her many regal curtsies, the practiced way she responds to applause with an aw-shucks head-bob and hip-shake, the vehemence with which she dives out for her curtain call. She was born into this, and it doesn't look fun. The love of the audience will never be enough. If her life is a cabaret, then all she is is a lounge act.
A similar state of affairs provides the very premise of So noTORIous (VH1, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), which, as the promotional materials maintain, "is so not a reality show." Rather, it is a fiction starring Tori Spelling as a version of herself—a Hollywood brat dogged by the reputation of her producer father, an aspiring actor fated to be a perpetual starlet. Critics want to compare the show to Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Kirstie Alley's Fat Actress, but its narrative strategy really has more in common with Philip Roth's Operation Shylock. It is our heroine's frequent mission to confront the projected fantasies and demented schemes of others, such as the date who requests that she pretend to be the virginal Donna Martin she played on Beverly Hills, 90210. There are paparazzi, lapdogs, confidantes who speak only in snark, TV movies to make, crypto-Scientologists to tease, the cold quips of a hateful mother, and a Charlie's Angel. You won't have to wait long for the first Paris Hilton joke.
Tori Spelling is quite likable as Tori Spelling and often fairly convincing. The US Weekly colors—dreamy aqua, screaming pink, giddy yellow—dominate her wardrobe, and the show, at its best, plays as if Tom Stoppard had adapted it from a handful of Gawker items. Spelling, working with executive producers Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler, seems to be compiling a document reflecting the times. This is up-to-the-minute celebrity kitsch—zippy, knowing, and joyfully hollow.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photographs of Liza Minnelli courtesy Showtime Networks.