Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Tribeca Film Festival Was Full of Divas: Liza Minnelli, Diane von Furstenberg, Liz Taylor

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Opening the Tribeca Film Festival, “Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge,” features the famed fashion designer who was/is to the late 20th century what Coco Chanel was to the early century: a game changer on how women dress.

Her signature wrap frock, effortless and affordable, was in every closet, and made DVF’s name. Asked, how she became a princess? She deadpans in the movie, I married a prince.” A celebrity life ensued including liaisons with many men (and one girl), respite in Bali, and marriage to Barry Diller. She attributes her success to the lessons in fearlessness taught by her mother, a survivor of Auschwitz.

As she tells it, upon liberation, her emaciated mother was fed by her parents using a medicine dropper. To those of us who share second generation Holocaust legacy, some essential details are missing in this otherwise informative, vivid documentary of a fascinating life. Belgian Jews, how did her grandparents elude Nazi round ups?

Focusing instead on her life in America, two-time Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy takes us through DVF’s insecurities and pleasures as a mother, the glitz and glamor of Studio 54, the devastation of AIDS, feminist activism. It’s a lot. And nothing says icon more than the portrait of her by Andy Warhol.

Of course, Elizabeth Taylor was famously a Warhol subject too. In the new documentary, “Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes,” we are reminded of Liz as child actor, the many beloved films such as “National Velvet,” “Father of the Bride” among them, and Liz in the tabloids, the many marriages including Nicky Hilton (enough said), Mike Todd (probably the love of her life), Eddie Fisher (not so much), Richard Burton (twice). Her friendships with Debbie Reynolds (America’s sweetheart) and Cybil Burton, women whose marriages she broke up is not much mentioned. Then again, much of the story comes from Liz Taylor herself, from an interview for a book by journalist Richard Meryman.

Given these “lost tapes,” documentarian Nanette Burstein had access to Taylor’s personal archives. In a zoomed conversation Burstein said she was most surprised by Elizabeth Taylor’s insecurities. Yes of course Taylor was uniquely beautiful, but she wanted to be known for her art. Awarded her first Oscar for “Butterfield 8,” Taylor had a mixed response: she plays a prostitute during a period in her life when her love life was intensely scrutinized. Burstein strategically shows a scene where her character confronts her mother. In real life, her father had called Liz a whore.

“Cleopatra” was a turning point in that Taylor took the reins of her contracts, shrewdly negotiating with the studios. But again, her personal life was so explosive she expected the Italian crowds where they were shooting to turn on her. Instead, they cheered. Her performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginaa Woolf” showed her extraordinary chemistry with Richard Burton in the volatile Edward Albee classic. When asked why she kept marrying, she replied, she likes weddings. In her later life, she turned all energy and resources to battling AIDS.

In Liza Minelli’s apartment, the Warhol portraits of her hang alongside the one of her mom, Judy Garland. Said director Bruce David Klein of “Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story” at the Tribeca world premiere, “We had to solve the mother problem,” which the film does showing her funeral right away. His film limns the growth and development of Liza’s talent and style through mentorship: with Kate Thompson, performer and author of the Eloise books, Fred Ebb and John Kander from “Flora, the Red Menace” to “Cabaret,” Bob Fosse, and Halston. Clips and interviews with Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, Michael Feinstein, make this compelling argument. A reminder of her work with Joel Grey as Cabaret emcee in the movie is great, and the story that she filled in for Gwen Verdon in “Chicago” rather than let the show close down –well, when does a superstar understudy? Devoted to Kander, & especially Fred Ebb—this is what” friends do.

Running into Joel Grey as the theater emptied, I asked what he thought. He replied, “I’m surprised I was even in the movie.” Really? How do you tell Liza’s story without him?

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