Friday, September 24, 2010

Cabaret (1972)

USA, 124 minutes
Director/choreography: Bob Fosse
Writers: Jay Presson Allen, Christopher Isherwood, Joe Masteroff, John Van Druten
Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Music: John Kander
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem

I think many might argue for All That Jazz as Bob Fosse's best but this is the one that I plump for. Certainly it's Liza Minnelli's finest ever film role. Taking a great film tradition all but exhausted at that point, the venerable musical, it breathed ecstatic new life into it with brass and aplomb, opening the door for whole new ways to approach the form. Perhaps its most shrewd innovation of many was using a background that is grimly serious. It's Berlin in 1931, with the economy in shambles and Nazis on a rise to power that had come to seem inevitable at that point, along with its ultra-patriotism, its virulent anti-Semitism, and perhaps most of all its ugly, violent tactics (there's a reason for our sense of the word "fascism"). Sally Bowles (played by Liza Minnelli) is a transplanted American attempting to cobble together a career as an actress, spending her nights as a cabaret performer. She meets Brian Roberts (played by Michael York), a graduate student of language, when he shows up at her rooming-house looking for a place to live and work. Soon enough they are plunged into a love story, but with one exception that story is nothing remarkable. Liza Minnelli's real co-star here is Joel Grey, the master of ceremonies in the cabaret show, who welcomes us at the beginning in one of the movie's best set pieces, and appears throughout in the many song and dance numbers at the cabaret. All of the musical numbers are practically documentaries of the cabaret performances (albeit glitzed up and gorgeously glamorous); outside of the cabaret, characters never break into extended song, though there is one chilling scene of an extempore patriotic performance at a fair and scenes are often intercut with the performances. A theme of "divine decadence" recurs throughout, and if it tends toward a decidedly '70s flavor it still fits well with the Berlin moment. The one perhaps most radical departure from typical musical romance conventions occurs when Brian and Sally meet a wealthy Austrian baron, Maximilian von Heune (played by Helmut Griem), who lavishes them with expensive presents and vacations and promises of more. I suppose I'm not allowed to spoil a certain plot development, even in a movie nearly 40 years old, but I will say that the ramifications of the relationship between the three of them is one of the elements of this that still seems to me to be unfolding, offering up new wrinkles of interpretation every time I see it—no small feat for a movie more prone toward generalized clobbering than nuance. Because, of course, the real heart of Cabaret is as a musical, in the song and dance numbers. They are a source of undying wonder and pleasure, bristling with a Fosse's now familiar saucy energy, seen here for the first time in a movie. They are infectious, inventive, and timeless. They are glorious. Grey is an endless marvel and Minnelli really struts her stuff, stealing the show every time she opens her mouth to sing and displaying that raw, breathtaking talent we have seen all too little of in her career, at least in the movies.

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