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Why Those Moments of Care for Liza Minnelli and Joni Mitchell Felt Different Print-ready version

Awards shows are a natural setting for honoring aging legends. It’s reassuring when they don’t try to hide the frailty that aging can bring.

by Jeremy Gordon
New York Times Magazine
April 22, 2022

Photo illustration by Celina Pereira

The first 53 minutes of music's biggest night rolled along smoothly. This year's Grammys had centerpiece performances from Olivia Rodrigo and BTS, plus a big reception for the newly minted Oscar winner Questlove; Trevor Noah, the host, told jokes that offended nobody's spouse. It was only after Rodrigo accepted the award for Best New Artist that something unexpected happened.

Noah introduced the celebrated singers Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, to a surge of applause. When the camera cut away from him, the two artists were already standing at a nearby lectern, having skipped the ceremonial walk from backstage. Both are in their 70s, and both were honored this year: Raitt earned a lifetime-achievement award, while Mitchell won a Grammy for Best Historical Album (awarded before the main broadcast) and was named Person of the Year by the Grammy-affiliated nonprofit MusiCares. Raitt still tours and is set to release a new album this month, but Mitchell's appearance was more exceptional. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she receded from public life during her recovery. Now her every appearance is treated as a seismic event by legions of grateful fans.

The Grammy crowd greeted them with a standing ovation. Some camera angles revealed a cane gripped firmly in Mitchell's right hand. "Overwhelming," she whispered to Raitt, before the applause died down. Then she stood by as Raitt did much of the talking, reacting to a lavish compliment about her work with exaggerated deflection. Raitt set Mitchell up to introduce the next performer, about whom she was meant to say: "Please welcome an extraordinary artist and beautiful human being - a stunning, brave and truthful voice, my brilliant friend and ambassador, Brandi Carlile." But when it came to the word "truthful," Mitchell stopped. Without missing a beat, Raitt leaned over and smoothly filled in the missing word, gently cuing Mitchell to find the rest of the line.

The moment recalled another interaction, just a week earlier, at the Academy Awards. That entire evening has been overshadowed by a single event, but even when that gossip was fresh, some attention still lingered on a surprise appearance by Liza Minnelli, who presented the award for Best Picture alongside Lady Gaga. They, too, simply materialized at the side of the stage. Minnelli was using a wheelchair, and as their own standing ovation ebbed, Gaga said: "You see that? The public, they love you."

"Oh, yes, but what am I - I don't understand," Minnelli responded brightly, her hands trembling as she shuffled through the cards she was meant to read. "I got it," Gaga said. She took Minnelli's hand, lauding her as "a true show business legend" and recognizing the 50th anniversary of "Cabaret," for which Minnelli won Best Actress. When it was time for Minnelli to speak again, she seemed to falter at the task of introducing nominees. Again, Gaga leaned over: "I got you," she whispered, her voice audible over the telecast even as the camera cut away. "I know," Minnelli responded.

I wasn't the only one to feel moved by these small acts of care, aimed at quietly helping an older person through a potentially overwhelming experience. Each moment was widely praised on social media. A columnist for The Colorado Sun wrote that Gaga's behavior "turned me to a puddle," while a writer for The Cut called it "profoundly moving." The sheer vigor of people's approval might say something about how rare it is to see ordinary gestures of support in contexts like awards shows, which tend to be stiff, scripted and spotlit, always highlighting the confidently glamorous and the glamorously confident. These casual gestures of assistance would be unremarkable if you saw them in daily life. And yet they took on, in these otherwise plasticine habitats, a special dramatic weight.

To watch Minnelli is to marvel at the genuine artistry that still might bloom from an impossibly screwed-up entertainment industry. Awards shows are a natural setting for honoring aging legends; this is why lifetime-achievement awards exist. Still, America retains a broad uneasiness with the blunt realities of getting older. Our most sprightly legends - the Jane Fondas, Warren Beattys and, until recently, Betty Whites - are invited onstage and praised for how great they look, but the actual frailty that accompanies aging tends to be hidden. Ailing celebrities often disappear from public life; only after they die do we learn about their health challenges.

In this sense, Mitchell's and Minnelli's appearances carried slightly different emotional valences. Mitchell's felt like a public reassurance that she was doing well. While accepting her preshow Grammy, she thanked her physical therapist, who accompanied her to the stage; days earlier, she sang her 1970 hit "Big Yellow Taxi" onstage with Carlile and others at a MusiCares ceremony. The reaction to Minnelli was more explicitly reverential, as if viewers were suddenly realizing that she would not be with us forever. The Oscars worship the amorphous concept of "the movies," and Minnelli - daughter of Judy Garland, a fixture of culture across seven decades - is bona fide movie royalty. And unlike the (relatively) youthful Grammys, the Oscars ceremony loves to bow at the altar of old Hollywood. In 1996, Kirk Douglas received an honorary award, shortly after a stroke that affected his speech; in 2011, he showed up at age 94 to announce the Best Supporting Actress award. Nobody seemed to mind that he hit on one of the hosts (Anne Hathaway) and the winner (Melissa Leo); they were happy to pay tribute while they could.

But seeing Minnelli, physically weakened yet immortally bright-eyed, stirred something in me that I am not used to feeling while watching these idolatrous shows. To say that Minnelli is Hollywood royalty is not mere book-jacket copy; to learn about her life, and to watch her in movies like "Cabaret" or shows like "Liza With a Z," is to marvel at the genuine artistry that still might bloom from an impossibly screwed-up entertainment industry. We are so used to seeing her move with unbelievable energy that it was difficult to see that energy restrained. But I was grateful to see her on her own terms, rather than reading conspiratorial guesses about her health, and happy that the academy invited her to present. And, like so many others, I was endeared by the reassuring presence of Lady Gaga; much as she has in her work with the 95-year-old Tony Bennett, she seemed intuitively prepared to act as companion to a legend.

Perhaps it's not just the televisual rarity of moments like these that affects people. Over the past few years, I've noticed a particular phrase being used often on social media: "give them their flowers." The idea is that we should honor the figures important to us while they're still around to cherish it - a notion I've seen repeated more and more during the pandemic, as hundreds of thousands have died, public figures included. Seeing Mitchell and Minnelli receive their flowers was heartwarming, sure; the magnitude of their work cannot be overstated. But many of us very literally have not been able to see older loved ones in years. The most vulnerable still remain at a distance, unsure if it will ever feel entirely safe to go out in public again. Maybe that's why so many reacted so strongly to seeing elderly figures offered a little support as they participated in these grand events. What we see here is a communal tenderness we might all better will into existence, so we can welcome one another back into a world where fragility is increasingly hard to ignore.

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Added to Library on April 20, 2022. (634)

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