The moment recalled another interaction, just a week earlier, at the Academy Awards. That whole evening was overshadowed by a single event, but even when that gossip was fresh, some attention lingered on a surprise appearance by Liza Minnelli, who presented the prize for Best Picture together with Lady Gaga. They too just materialized on the side of the stage. Minnelli was using a wheelchair, and as their own standing ovation faded, Gaga said, “See that? The audience, they love you.”
“Oh, yes, but what am I—I don’t understand,” Minnelli replied cheerfully, her hands trembling as she shuffled through the cards she had to read. “I’ve got it,” Gaga said. She took Minnelli’s hand, hailing her as “a true legend in show business” and recognized the 50th anniversary of “Cabaret”, for which Minnelli won the Best Actress award. When it came time for Minnelli to speak again, she seemed hesitant at the task of introducing nominees. Gaga leaned forward again, “I’ve got you,” she whispered, her voice audible over the broadcast even as the camera cropped away. “I know,” Minnelli replied.
I was not alone in feeling moved by these small acts of care aimed at quietly helping an elderly person through a potentially overwhelming experience. Every moment was widely praised on social media. A columnist for The Colorado Sun wrote that Gaga’s behavior “turned me into a puddle,” while a writer for The Cut called it “deeply moving.” The sheer power of people’s approval might say something about how rare it is to see common gestures of support in contexts such as award shows, which are often stiff, scripted and spotlighted, always highlighting the confident glamorous and the glamorous confident. These casual gestures of help would be unobtrusive if you saw them in everyday life. And yet, in these otherwise plasticine habitats, they took on a special dramatic weight.
Watching Minnelli makes you marvel at the real artistry that could still blossom out of an impossibly screwed up entertainment industry.
Awards ceremonies are a natural setting for honoring aging legends; this is why lifetime performance awards exist. Yet America remains a broad unease with the blunt realities of aging. Our most vibrant legends – the Jane Fondas, Warren Beattys and, until recently, Betty Whites – are invited on stage and praised for how great they look, but the actual frailty that comes with aging is usually hidden. Sick celebrities often disappear from public life; only after they die do we learn about their health problems.