NEW YORK — Abundance was what Liza Minnelli wanted to talk about: about her father's "abundance of generosity . . . with color, with music, with scenery, with ideas."
But something else was in abundance here Monday at a memorial tribute to director Vincente Minnelli, who died July 25 at 83. That was a firm and palpable sense of love and caring for the man whose films ranged from "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Band Wagon" and "American in Paris" to "Gigi" and "Lust for Life."
"Hi cutie," Liza Minnelli said as she traded a warm hug with her friend Candice Bergen. "How're you?"
Yoko Ono trudged down the aisle of the little theater at the Museum of Modern Art to offer greetings to the director's actress daughter and to his widow, Lee. So did Robert De Niro, Polly Bergen, Joseph Mankiewicz and Joel Grey. Newsman Ed Bradley was full of smiles, ready with a gentle embrace. For this decidedly non-somber event, Andy Warhol wore his loudest bright blue glasses.
"I want to thank Vincente for being so nice to my mother," Betty Comden said. "Once when she was visiting us in California, she said she'd like to watch something being shot. I said, 'You have no idea how boring it is, it's just wait, wait, wait. You stand around and wait for two hours and then someone moves a chair a quarter of an inch.'
"So then we opened the door, and it was Vincente's set for 'Madame Bovary.' In two seconds, there was shouting, throwing chairs, a drunken husband. And I said, 'You see, nothing ever happens.' "
Across the crowded auditorium, Liza Minnelli spotted an old friend and pantomimed approval of a new coiffure. First the friend shot her tongue at the actress in the brown mini dress, then she blew her a kiss across the crowd. It was that kind of gathering.
"You know, when you meet someone who has a combination of qualities you most admire, you're a little in awe," Claire Trevor remembered. Indeed, she said, the "taste, talent, sophistication and enormous musical talent" of Vincente Minnelli rendered her more than a little bit terrified--until she actually worked with him on the 1962 film "Two Weeks in Another Town." "Unfortunately, I only made one picture with him," Trevor said, "but it was a revelation for me."
What Trevor remembered most of all was "the way his face lit up when his daughter came on the stage: It was a sight to behold." That, said Trevor, and "his great desire to bring beauty to people. And, God knows, he did.
"I wish there were more Vincente Minnellis today," Trevor said. "Or even one."
Friends interspersed recollections of the director between clips of 11 of his 35 films. There was thunderous applause as each segment ended, but as Steven Harvey of the museum's department of film conceded, "All of everyone's favorite moments from Vincente Minnelli films will not be seen today. His work was too rich." Next fall, the museum has scheduled a major retrospective of the director's films.
"My personal acquaintance with Mr. Minnelli was slight," said Martin Scorsese, although readily acknowledging his debt to Minnelli as a film maker. "It was wonderful, having him visit on the set when Liza and I were making 'New York, New York.' "
With her voice cracking slightly, Liza Minnelli told the crowd that "I wrote down all of these things that I wanted to get in. But so many things go flying through your mind!"
Moments before she took the podium, the audience had seen a clip from "Lust for Life." So Minnelli zeroed in on a story she remembered Anthony Quinn telling her about that film.
The scene was in Arles, Minnelli said, where Quinn showed up three weeks after co-star Kirk Douglas. "Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn," Minnelli said. "They were very large egos to deal with."
So much so, said Minnelli, that as Tony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, took his position in a golden wheat field, with Douglas, a.k.a. Van Gogh, directly behind him, "he suddenly got the willies. I mean, he was having a major anxiety attack. He was sitting in the exact field where Gauguin had sat, and he turned around, and there was Kirk Douglas looking exactly like Vincent van Gogh."
The false starts ensued, and soon director Minnelli began to worry about losing the fabled light that had inspired his leading character. Carefully, he approached Quinn and asked if there was something he could do to help.
"And Tony said, 'Vince, you're not going to believe this, but I just saw the ghost of Vincent van Gogh!'
"Daddy said, 'Where?' "
Minnelli and her audience laughed: For many, the story captured a familiar quality of the director they had known and loved.
When she thinks of her father--"constantly"--Minnelli said, "The first thing that comes to my mind is the word trust. He trusted me as a person, and he entrusted me with a lot--some of which I was probably too young to get."
For example, "there were other kids reading about Heidi and her goats, and my father and I were reading about Colette and her men."
Her father taught her to dream and to reach, Liza Minnelli said. "He told me that no dream is too outrageous, nothing is impossible, no goal is ever unattainable if you just go about it in the right way--that's what he always said."
And so now, Minnelli said, "whenever I see any of these films, whoever I am sitting beside, I can't help but poke and say, 'Hey, my father thought of that.' "