Will future generations of gay men understand the brilliance of Liza Minnelli at her peak?
Last night I watched Liza with a Z on PBS (OK, it was actually the second time I watched it this week) and I had to ask myself, Why was this such a formative part of my gay experience?
I’d seen the original broadcast in 1972 and I had the album. I used to sing along to the album in front of my living room mirror. I knew all the words to every song. (I still do.) Why did this show have such a great impact on me?
Of course, it’s a cliché to say that gay men like Liza Minnelli (or Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler—pick a diva). Why is that?
There’s actually a scholarly, academic book written on the subject. It’s called How to Be Gay. (I kid you not.) If I understand the book’s premise correctly, there’s something about the expressiveness of female singers and musical theater that appeals to gay men in particular. Maybe it’s because it gives them permission to be sensitive in a way that’s not normally allowed for heterosexual men.
Maybe it’s also the glamour of musicals. The costumes! The sets! Why is that a gay thing?
The book also talked about the idea of camp.
What is camp? Again, if I understand the book correctly, camp is when something that is intended to be taken seriously has the opposite effect. A perfect example of this would be the movie Mommie Dearest.
Mommie Dearest is the ur camp film of my generation. (For the previous generation, it was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) I’m sure Mommie Dearest was meant to be taken seriously. And that’s what makes it so fucking hysterical, at least to gay men. (I’ve never seen a straight man’s reaction to Mommie Dearest. Has a straight man even seen Mommie Dearest?)
There’s not a gay man of my generation, including myself, who can’t recite any number of lines from Mommie Dearest verbatim. (“No wire hangers ever!” “I am not one of your fans!” “Christina! Bring me the axe!” I could go on.) I can distinctly remember sitting inside Splash, a New York City gay bar that was popular in the ‘90s, watching clips from Mommie Dearest on their video monitors and hearing a chorus of gay men reciting these lines in unison. Why is that?
There’s another phenomenon about gay men I’ve noticed that’s touched upon in this book. Why is it that gay men identify with female characters and female-driven shows like Golden Girls? Why is it that gay men are attracted to drag queens?
As a performer who has tried (and sometimes succeeded) to get booked in gay venues, I have often asked myself this question. Why will an audience of gay men sit and watch a drag queen lip synch to a song? What is the attraction or entertainment value? Why is it that Hedda Lettuce, who I happen to think is a great writer, can reap thunderous applause in drag, but wouldn’t be given the time of day by a gay audience out of drag?
I think there’s a power dynamic at play here. I think by donning drag, gay men simultaneously make themselves more vulnerable and give themselves permission to say things they’d never be allowed to say out of drag. I think the dynamic can be summed as: “You (drag queen) may be making fun of me (gay male audience member), but at least I’m not a drag queen (i.e., undesirable to other gay men).”
Which brings me back to Liza Minnelli.
Liza Minnelli is, in some ways, a drag queen. (And, God knows, millions of drag queens have impersonated Liza Minnelli, as well as other divas.) Her exaggerated features and makeup practically scream “drag queen.” (I think she was wearing two sets of fake eyelashes in Liza with a Z.)
But one thing that Liza Minnelli and other great performers (especially female performers) have in common is that they “leave everything on the stage.” There’s a sense that they cannot even exist without performing.
And, yes, there were other things about Liza with a Z
And that is (part of) what has made me the gay man I am today.