Liza With a "Z" reviewed.

What you're watching.
March 31 2006 5:33 PM

Divas Gone Wild

Liza Minnelli in Liza With a "Z," Tori Spelling in So noTORIous.

Liza Minnelli in white. Click image to expand.
Liza Minnelli

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."

Liza Minnelli in red. Click image to expand.
Liza Minnelli boop-boop-be-doops it up

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 writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.