Monday, June 5, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Cabaret" (1972)

"Cabaret" is many things, not the least of which is the answer to a question sure to stump friends on trivia night: "What film won the most Oscars while losing the Best Picture race?"

I posed this to myself on the most recent night of the Academy Awards, as the expected sweep of "La La Land" became less secure and it wound up losing the Big One to "Moonlight" ... though I suspect in the decades to come people are more likely to remember the colossal screw-up rather than the movies themselves.

"LLL" wound up with six Oscars, not enough to beat "Cabaret," which is still the record holder with eight statuettes but no Best Pic. Having seen it now, I only have one question:

How the hell did it get eight??

You will, of course, remember another little picture from 1972: "The Godfather." Although it did win Best Picture, as well as Best Actor for Marlon Brando and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jay Allen), "Cabaret" took home the lion's share of Oscars. "Godfather" was the heavy favorite going into the awards, so it must have been a tough night for Francis Ford Coppola and company, at least until the very end.

Bob Fosse beat out Coppola for director, and Joel Grey bested Robert Duvall, James Caan and Al Pacino for supporting actor -- though Pacino was obviously nominated in the wrong category.

(I didn't know it previously, but Pacino actually boycotted the Oscar ceremony because Brando, who clearly was a supporting role, was nominated for lead actor while Pacino was shunted, ridiculously, to the supporting group. And he was right to do so. Brando, of course, then refused the award. Having learned this tidbit, I now wonder if Brando's stunt of sending a Native American activist to make a political statement was actually a smokescreen to spare the feelings of his co-star.)

"Cabaret" won Liza Minnelli a Best Actress Academy Award in her very first singing role on film. It also took a number of technical prizes, including cinematography -- which would somehow seem an even more egregious a wrong than Joel Grey, except that Gordon Willis didn't even get nominated for "The Godfather."

I don't have a beef with Grey, a talented song-and-dance man, but there's simply no character there. He plays the Master of Ceremonies, aka emcee, at the fictional Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Germany, who is only seen onstage performing songs. He literally delivers no dialogue, only lyrics. We don't learn anything about him aside from the paleface makeup and vamping poses. That's performing, not acting.

Giving him the award is like giving the Oscar to the Greek Chorus, or the narrator.

The songs don't even advance the story, but act as pauses that comment upon it, as well as the rise of the Nazi regime, which starts out in the background and slowly grows in prominence. John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote several new songs for the film version, dumping several numbers from the 1966 stage debut. They wanted all the songs to happen at the Kit Kat, except for one near the end, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a creepily beautiful piece that starts out as a generic German pastoral and morphs into a Hitler Youth anthem.

There are a few changes in the story from the stage version, including have the British Sally Bowles and American Brian Roberts (Michael York) swap nationalities. The scenes with supporting characters Natalie (Marisa Berenson), a rich Jewess, and Fritz (Fritz Wepper), a penniless huckster who adores here, were cut except for those that directly involve Sally and Brian. Max, the owner of the Kit Kat, is relegated to a walk-on.

Interestingly, in the stage version Sally is not supposed to be an especially talented singer, whereas the movie version has Liza Minnelli belting out songs with all her considerable vocal power.

I found I couldn't get past Minnelli's odd look in the film, one she has generally carried for the rest of her career: savagely plugged eyebrows above a thick coat of bright blue eye shadow, and a short bowl haircut with bangs that follow the contours of her face, with an artificial widow's peak on the bridge of her nose. It's just unattractive and distracting. 

The stage version has been revived a number of times, so the story is well-known: sheepish academic Brian Roberts comes to Berlin to teach English to the Germans, and shares a boarding house with Sally, whose outsized personality and mercurial ways are immediately apparent. They form a close friendship that would probably develop into one of Sally's many romantic flings, except Brian reveals that he is sexually indifferent to women. However, they eventually consummate the affair.

Brian grows jealous, however, when Sally is wooed by a very wealthy German gigolo named Maximilian (Helmut Griem). She sees it as their gravy train to good times, and brings along Brian to share in the fun. There's a bit where Max gives Brian an expensive gold cigarette case, which he haughtily refuses at first. When he eventually takes it out of his pocket in Max's presence, it's an acknowledgement of his acquiescing to circumstance.

It's later revealed by Brian that he has been sleeping with Max at the same time as Sally has, and there's one drunken scene where they come close to having a threesome. The sexual overtones of the film, along with a plethora of bare skin among the Kit Kat dancers -- not to mention the subplot of Sally's pregnancy that she ends with an abortion -- make the film's PG rating seem rather ridiculous today.

Still, the film is notable for treating LGBT characters with a level of respect that is pretty amazing for 1972. There's even a trans character whom Brian encounters in the men's lavatory, lifting up her dress to use the urinal. This elicits a slightly shocked reaction and shrug from Brian.

In the end, I'm not really sure what "Cabaret" is all about. The musical numbers have a certain amount of energy, though I wouldn't call any of them songs to remember. The rise of the Nazis doesn't really have much power, occurring around the fringes of the story. Brian and Sally aren't particularly compelling or sympathetic characters; we feel like we're observing them rather than getting emotionally caught up in their tale.

Perhaps it's a good thing "Cabaret" didn't win the Best Picture Oscar, because it certainly would have vied with "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Greatest Show on Earth" for the title of Worst Best Pic.

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