Thursday, October 07, 2004

Classics I Somehow Missed: Cabaret (1972)

Maybe I should come up with a new name for this feature. This is the second time I caught up with a legendary movie I felt I should have seen, only to come away disappointed.

CABARET may have the most complicated provenance in film history. We begin with short stories by Christopher Isherwood. John van Druten turned them into the play I AM A CAMERA, which itself was filmed in 1955. That play became the basis for the stage musical CABARET, featuring songs by Kander and Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff. Bob Fosse, along with Kander, Ebb and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, radically revised the play before filming it, and that interpretation influenced the recent revival spearheaded by director Sam Mendes.

Whew! Are we all clear on that? For an excellent look at the many iterations of CABARET on stage, I recommend this post by the redoubtable Jaime Weinman.

I can only imagine how audiences received the film in 1972, and I can only be honest about how I saw it some thirty years on. What was once shocking now plays as staid and predictable. The songs are strong, but using them as a counterpoint to the escalating political crisis in ‘30s Berlin doesn’t hold up. Fosse’s editing makes the point with hammer blows. The most effective number is the simplest: the Nazi youth anthem ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ taken up by a crowd at a beer garden, in a chilling reversal of the ‘La Marseillaise’ scene in CASABLANCA.

Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies still glitters darkly, but Michael York’s Brian is a cipher throughout. And then there’s Liza. Her entire career is based on her Oscar-winning work in this movie; not only does she still sing Sally Bowles’ songs in concert, she’s now doing numbers from the play that didn’t survive into the film. Her performance is at times amateurish, which is distracting in some scenes but in others enhances Sally’s penchant for self-dramatization. She commands the screen when she sings, though, especially during ‘Mein Herr.’

Liza’s awkwardness has had a long-term negative effect on the play. The thinking behind the Mendes revival has been that the actress playing Sally doesn’t need to be a trained singer or dancer, because the character is deluded. As a result, the role has become a way station for faded starlets and sitcom vets on hiatus, much like Rizzo in the revival of GREASE. This approach has never made sense to me. Sally is the headliner at the cabaret, no matter how run-down it is. And if there’s one thing Liza can do, it’s sing.

Miscellaneous: Link

David Thomson talks about the power of the two-shot as used in this year’s election debates. Personally, I prefer C-Span’s split screen. Which made Tuesday’s vice-presidential face-off look like the least sexy DePalma movie ever.