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everybodys best:

why still sparkles

by Roger Fristoe


A landmark movie musical that changed the form

forever. An iconic, heart-stopping star performance. A director/ choreographer crystallizing a style that became synonymous with his name. A pair of haunting love stories made all the more urgent by the growing Nazi threat in pre-World War II Berlin. An originality and freshness of approach that keep the movie modern and spellbinding 40 years after its initial appearance. And a collaborative effort by an exceptional group of artists performing at full throttle. In a word: Cabaret. Its hard to think of a single other film in which every major contributor hit the peak of his or her creative powers. First released in 1972, this film marked an explosion of talent in which all the participants were challenged to extend themselves in remarkable ways, to be at their absolute best. The list includes star Liza Minnelli, director/choreographer Bob Fosse, supporting actor Joel Grey, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, film editor David Bretherton and music arranger Ralph Burns, all of whom won 1973 Academy Awards for their efforts. Cabaret also won Oscars in the categories of sound and art direction/ set decoration, with further nominations as Best Picture and for Jay Presson Allens adapted screenplay. The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret was the first big success of the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and contains what is arguably their best (and best-known) song score. The two later demonstrated their gift for showstopping razzle-dazzle in such musicals as Chicago, Woman of the Year and Kiss of the Spider Woman. But no other score or songthe title number trumpeted by Minnelli to such exhilarating effect in the filmdemonstrates their brassy do-or-die bravado as vividly as Cabaret.

Its hard to think of a single other film in which every major contributor hit the peak of his or her creative powers.


LEFT: Liza Minnelli and Michael York in Cabaret (1972). BELOW: Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret (1972). RIGHT: Minnelli and Grey, both Academy Award winners for their performances.

Drawing on the materials famously convoluted history, from an episode in Christopher Isherwoods Berlin Stories through the John Van Druten stage comedy I Am a Camera and Cabaret the Broadway musical, Allen incorporated the best elements of the various versions into her screenplay, along with her own original ideas. (Later, revisionist revivals of the stage show would borrow generously from the film.) Concentrating on the contrast between the divine decadence of the heroines promiscuous lifestyle and the brutal backdrop of incipient Nazism, Allen hit the high point of a writing career that also included stage and/or film versions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Tru and Travels with My Aunt. She gave the characters in Cabaret a depth and complexity they had not had before, setting them adrift in a world of relaxed social and moral boundaries that seemed to reflect the American counterculture movement of the 70s. The concept of Cabaret was revolutionary in that it was the first screen adaptation of a book musical to confine the numbers to a performing arenain this case the Kit Kat Klub, a sleazy cabaret in 1931 Berlin. Minnelli, as the talented but tawdry wouldbe star Sally Bowles, and Grey as the salacious, grotesquely made-up master of ceremonies, perform all their song-and-dance routines there. The only exception to the rule is the chilling Tomorrow Belongs to Me, an anthem of German patriotism led by a Hitler youth in a crowded openair beer garden. The Broadway original, directed by Hal Prince with a book by Joe Masteroff, had set some numbers in the club but also followed the conventional pattern of having characters burst into song in their day-today lives. For better or worse, Cabaret sounded a death knell for the standard, I feel a song coming on type of movie musical. Missing from the film, along with a sentimental older couple who take up considerable time in the original musical, are several patter songs and ballads. Kander and Ebb added even more vitality to the movies score with the substitution of the high-energy, cabaret-bound numbers Mein Herr, Money, Money and Maybe This Time. The approach used by Fosse and Allen offered a new and bracing realism to movie audiences who were shying away from the artifice of old-style musicals. Fosse reinforces the air of reality with naturalistic performances, even from Minnelli as the

inherently over-the-top Sally, that allow for genuine feeling while placing the dynamic production numbers in high relief. More than any previous version, the film of Cabaret never lets the audience forget that just beyond the frivolous confines of the cabaret, genuine horror is waiting in the wings. Nineteen seventy-three was definitely Fosses year, bringing him not only an Oscar for Cabaret but an Emmy for the Minnelli TV special Liza with a Z and a Tony for Pippin. He became the only person to have won all three Best Director awards in a single year. Although he would create other galvanizing works onstage (Chicago) and film (All That Jazz) before his death in 1987, Cabaret remains the most vibrant expression of the unique Fosse talent. Minnelli had made a name for herself in movies and cabaret with a small c before being cast in the film of Cabaret. (Legend has it that she had auditioned for the original stage musical 14 times before losing the role of Sally to Jill Haworth.) But it was this movie that turned her into an international sensation, putting her on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week and making her, for a time, the hottest name in films. Ironically, Cabaret interrupted Minnellis burgeoning career as a gritty young dramatic actress in movies such as 1969s The Sterile Cuckoo (for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination) and 1970s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. After her intense identification with Sallys overstated, false-eyelashed style and her successes as a concert performer of electrifying powers, it became difficult for the film industry to envision Minnelli in non-theatrical roles. The movie career that reached breathtaking heights


in Cabaret was diminished by such disappointing follow-ups as Lucky Lady and A Matter of Time. Minnellis checkered film history has included one other innovative and darkly brilliant musical, Martin Scorseses 1977 New York, New York, and a charming performance in Lewis Gilberts lightweight 1991 Stepping Out. She continues to deliver sell-out concert performances and win awards (including a Tony for her 2009 Broadway show Lizas at the Palace). But if there is one image with which she will forever be identified, it is that of Sally Bowles prowling the cabaret stage with erotic abandon in black knickers, vest, garters and bowler hat. Grey had originated the part of the sinister emcee in the Broadway production of Cabaret, building it under the enthusiastic guidance of the shows creators into a larger and more dominant role that came to embody the jaded soul of pre-war Germany. He won a Tony Award for his efforts, and producer Cy Feuer wisely insisted upon retaining him and his character for the movie, allowing a brilliantly original performance to be preserved on film. Grey has been memorable in other movies (Kafka) and stage musicals (George M!, Chicago, the current revival of Anything Goes). In Cabaret, he is unforgettable. Michael York, playing Sallys bisexual boyfriend Brian, delivers a deliciously understated performance thats a perfect complement to Minnellis extravagance. He is the films calm center, the ballast that prevents the explosive talents of Minnelli and Grey from overpowering the narrative. With his confidence, sensitivity and sexy James Mason voice, York continues to extend his long and distinguished career in movies and on television and the stage. He has yet to receive an Oscar nomination, although it seems in retrospect that his extraordinarily appealing performance in Cabaret was worthy of one. Secondary players in Cabaret also found their brightest opportunities here, at least as far as American films are concerned. Marisa Berenson, an elegant model in her second film appearance, plays Natalia Landauer, the privileged German-Jewish heiress befriended by Sally and Brian. Berenson, suggesting the early and gorgeous Loretta Young, is treated by Fosse and Unsworth as an exquisite art object, underscoring her characters romantic allure and vulnerability. Although she continues to make appearances in international cinema and television, Berenson has never been captured on film to more stunning effect than in Cabaret. German actors Fritz Wepper and Helmut Griem, who enjoyed long careers in film and television productions in various countries, also made their most indelible impressions in the U.S. in Cabaret.

Ironically, Cabaret interrupted Minnellis burgeoning career as a gritty young dramatic actress.

Wepper plays Fritz Wendel, Natalias impoverished Jewish suitor; Griem (who died in 2004) is Maximilian von Heune, a dashing and hedonistic baron who enjoys sexual dalliances with both Sally and Brian. Unsworth won many awards during his 47-year career in cinematography, including another Oscar for 1979s Tess, the picture he was shooting at the time of his death. Even with such films as A Night to Remember, Becket and 2001: A Space Odyssey to his credit, however, Cabaret is arguably his masterpiece. Filming on location in Germany, Unsworth worked with production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and art director Hans Jrgen Kiebach to create a world of decadence and dazzle that carries echoes of German Expressionism. Inspiration was drawn from painters of that school including Max Beckman, Otto Dix and George Grosz. Unsworths deliberately murky colors lend a lurid appeal to the stylized sets, especially the mirrored smokiness of the cabaret itself. Cabaret not only won Bretherton (who died in 2000) his only Oscar but earned him his only nomination, despite a 40-year career of editing films that included George Stevens The Diary of Anne Frank. Brethertons innovative work on Cabaret, with its staccato rhythms and frequent cross-cutting, proved influential in more recent film musicals including 2001s Moulin Rouge and 2002s Chicago. After Cabaret, neither the talent who created it nor the movie musical itself would ever again be quite the same. Roger Fristoe, retired film critic for The CourierJournal in Louisville, KY, works as a freelance writer for Turner Classic Movies.