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Liza: Life in the limelight

Her comeback was short-lived and so was her marriage. So what happened to Liza Minnelli? She and her sister talk about their family, the shared struggle with alcohol and where Liza is today.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Just two years ago, she had a new husband, a slimmer body, and new hope that she would once again rise as the star she's always been. But the comeback was short-lived and so was her marriage. So what happened to Liza Minnelli? She and her sister talk about their family, the shared struggle with alcohol and where Liza is today.

Her role as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" is what she's most famous for, but Liza has been around a long time. Born in Hollywood in 1946 to two stars, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Liza grew up in the shadows of the studio life. The biggest shadow was cast by her mother, a singer and actress who touched audiences with her powerful yet touching voice, and who was already a Hollywood legend.

Early on, Liza was peeking in on her mother's career from backstage, and as she grew older, it was easy to hear the echoes of Judy Garland reverberating in Liza's voice.

Once she found her voice, Liza ran with it and quickly became a star. First she won a Tony at just 19 years old, then an Oscar for "Cabaret," and rave reviews for "New York, New York."

Liza could belt out lyrics like her mother. She inherited her mother's talent -- but also her struggles.

Scott Schecter is writing a book on Liza to be published in November.

Scott Schecter: “She has no walls. She never holds back as a performer.”

She checked into rehabilitation for alcohol for the first time when she was 30. And from that point on, there were the highs of spectacular performances, and the lows of treating addiction. And then there were marriages to Peter, then Jack, and then Mark, all ending in divorce.

But Liza was always the comeback kid, always putting on a game face. In another high moment, she was awarded a Grammy for her body of work in 1990, the Grammy Living Legend Award.

But here was also a real low. She had checked into a Florida Hospital in 2000. She told Dateline's Jane Pauley two years ago that she was close to death. She survived a rare case of viral encephalitis, but the prognosis was not good.

Liza Minnelli: “I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t talk, and they told me I wouldn’t… ever again. After I was told that, everybody left the room and I turned my face to the wall and started to go 'A - B - C.' You know, that’s what it felt like because I had Carnegie Hall to rehearse. I want to live. I have always wanted to live.”

And the queen of comebacks would have another encore performance, but she didn’t do it alone. Her soon-to-be husband was spurring her on, setting up her concerts, getting her record deals, and trying to keep her thin.

And she was in love. Soon there was the wedding and that kiss. She had trimmed down and picked herself back up, survived so much and finally seemed happy.

But the marriage didn't just end. It exploded into lawsuits. She said he took her money. He said she physically abused him.

David Gest [in 'Dateline' interview]: “She just kept hitting me in the head with her fists, over, and over and over. The pain was so enormous that I get now 80 shots around the head to deaden the nerves.”

Minnelli: “People will say what they're going to say. Now it can upset you or you can [fight] against it, or they can say what they are going to say anyway and you can go get a hamburger. We go get a hamburger.”

When Liza Minnelli sat down with her sister, Lorna Luft, for this interview, it was the first time they had seen each other in almost two years.

Minnelli: “We're sisters. We fight. We're passionate people! We were raised that way. But don't ever let anyone say anything against us.”

That fierce loyalty to family is what made Liza join her sister even though she had a bad cold.

International interviewer Daphne Barak spoke to them for a documentary about the two sisters, and Lorna's next concert. The interview was peppered with odd moments. Liza got up repeatedly, and took off her microphone to speak privately with her sister. But she always sat back down.

Hoda Kotb: “Did she appear to you to be drunk or on any kind of medication or drugs?”

Daphne Barak: “She was sober. She drank cola. She was coughing.”

At first Liza was defensive and unwilling to speak about the family's problems with addiction.

Barak: “Do you remember when was the first time you and Lorna really talked about it. 'What are we going to do about it?'”

Minnelli: “I understand what you're talking about and I appreciate the question and I know there's curiosity. But I don't want to talk about it.”

But later in the interview, they were both willing to talk about their mother's substance abuse and their own.

Barak: “You both coped with it.”

Lorna Luft: “Ok let me just say--“

Minnelli: “Millions of people do, ours was in the light, that’s all. It also isn’t shameful.”

Luft: “Exactly.”

Minnelli: “It’s about a disease and it’s about getting help to deal with the actual disease. It’s a brain disease.”

Luft: “It’s not just you, it’s the whole family.”

Minnelli: “I know for sure one thing. I know for sure that in this disease you do not have a choice, you do not have a choice because you have a disease. Would you choose not to have polio? No. You have a disease so you need someone in your family that understands or sees what’s happening who says 'sober up and see -- you have a choice.’”

Over the years, Liza has been in and out of rehabilitation repeatedly.

Minnelli: “I mean, get away from the influence for a minute and you know you have a choice. And here are the good things about it. This is a huge thing, this disease, but you can fight it with information and with clarity… Lorna saw that I didn’t have a choice, she did something, she helped.”

Barak: “She is the one who took you to [the Betty Ford Clinic].”

Minnelli: “She did.”

Luft: “But the point is, Betty Ford was there. I didn’t go out and build it. It was there.”

Minnelli: “And she didn’t haul me off.”

Luft: “Exactly.”

Minnelli: “She said, ‘I think you are in trouble.’”

Luft: “She made the choice to go.”

Minnelli: “She brought it up. She said, ‘I think you are in trouble,’ and I said ‘What do you think I should do?’ and she said ‘I think you should go to Betty Ford.’ And I said 'OK.'”

Luft: “When you see someone you love a lot, you care about, you want to help them. You do want to help them, but you can only help them when you think they need and will listen.”

The two sisters seemed cordial enough, but why hadn't they spoken in two years? Lorna says it was because of David Gest.

Two months ago, Gest was interviewed by Stone Phillips on "Dateline," talking about the divorce and his former wife, whom he is suing.

Daphne did not ask Liza about Gest.

Kotb: “Clearly David Gest went on TV for an hour and basically bashed Liza, said that she beat him, etc. How come you didn't ask her about that?”

Barak: “I was sitting in a room with a woman who was coughing, who didn't feel well, who was doing an extra effort to do this interview. It wouldn't make the special more valuable if you would push her over the edge.”

But Barak did ask Lorna, Liza's sister, about Gest's accusations of abuse.

Lorna says it was Gest who kept her away from Liza for almost two years. But now that they had been reunited, there was a surprisingly touching moment when they expressed their affection for each other.

Luft: “I love you.”

Minnelli: “I love you more than I could possibly tell you. And if you make me cry, I will kill you because I am supposed to be the older sister… That's my kid sister, you say one bad thing about her and I'll kill ya… On the outside, I have come across as a marshmallow but when she has needed me, we are there for each other, that's what counts.”

Kotb: “There was a hug in there, Daphne, where you saw Lorna get very emotional. What was really going on there?”

Barak: “I think we were very surprised that Lorna was crying because she's supposed to be the tough one and Liza is supposed to be the marshmallow. I thought it was very real on both sides. It was very spontaneous.”

She hasn't been all that visible lately, just an occasional awards show and appearances on cable. And there's talk of a concert in Hungary. For someone whose real home has been in the spotlight her whole life, it's hard to imagine that Liza will stay out of it for long.